Women rising to fill professional roles in the agricultural sector

Irish women may not feature large in farm work, but they have a major impact in veterinary practices

Ireland’s agricultural workforce is 27% female — women own 13% of farms, but few of these women are younger than 65, which suggests that they are probably widows.

And only 11% of farmers aged over 50 have identified a female heir.

However, women have particularly come to the fore as vets, working in both small and large animal practices.

For example, three out of four of MSD Animal Health’s vets are female. MSD employs more than 2,000 people in Ireland, and operates in more than 140 countries worldwide. It employs a number of practising vets, offering animal health professionals, farmers and pet owners a wide range of veterinary pharmaceuticals, vaccines and health management solutions and services.

Sharon Magnier is an MSD vet. Originally from Co Kerry, Sharon has been a practising vet for 12 years. She says she knew she wanted to be a vet from an early age.

“I was a townie, but we always had pets, and so did my grandparents. Cats and goldfish, and sometimes I used to rescue birds from the cats, try to save their lives, although that didn’t always work,” Sharon remembers.

“Then, when I got older, I started accompanying a local mixed practice vet on their rounds, sometimes visiting farms, doing dehorning, helping with calving. I found it all fascinating. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was this whole other world, just looking after farm animals.”

Not surprisingly, Sharon went on to train as a vet in Dublin on a five-year course, and though it was the realisation of her childhood dreams, she admits she found the course daunting at times.

“I’d had this idea that college would be lots of fun, parties. But I hadn’t realised just how demanding the course would be. It was a mixture of the academic and the practical, and in 2003, I finally qualified. I decided to go to the UK/ and I worked with a mixed practice in Norfolk.

“It was a great time. I can remember clearly my first solo operation. I had to spay a cat, and I was absolutely terrified. The responsibility was awful. But thankfully, everything went well, and gradually I gained confidence. The people there were great, so kind and friendly. In fact, one of my clients still writes to me.”

When Sharon made the decision to return to Ireland, she was surprised to discover that veterinary surgery had moved on, and it is now an accepted career for women.

“I worked at a practice in Midleton, Co Cork, that was a great mixture of male and female nurses and vets. I always remember one woman vet there who set up a charity with her husband, to get on top of the feral cat problem in Malta. I went out there to help them start a trap-and-release scheme, and it was a real eye-opener.”

After gaining considerable experience as a mixed practice vet, Sharon accepted a temporary MSD position as maternity cover for one of their vets.

“I really enjoyed the work, and found it fascinating to be more involved with research and the preventative medicine side of things. And I found the MSD team just great to work with. After that stint ended, I was asked to cover for another woman, and eventually, the company offered me a permanent position, as they were going to need more support on the ground with the end of milk quotas, and I accepted.”

Sharon soon found herself spending more time visiting farms and consulting about large animal health issues.

“I must say, at first, I wasn’t sure of what to expect, how they might feel about a woman turning up. But honestly, there was never a problem. I think by that time, there were many more female vets around in Ireland, and they were only too glad of the help and advice.

“But now, although I still do visits if there’s a problem such as, say, scour, I tend to work in a more advisory role, suggesting preventative approaches, testing and taking samples, so that the MSD team can continue to come up with ever more efficient solutions.

“Just recently, MSD sponsored a bull fertility meeting that I spoke at, presenting the latest developments. And I also have the opportunity to talk to new graduates at UCD. That is very rewarding. I can give them some idea of what to expect, whether they are in a mixed practice that cares for small animals or whether they are working out on farms. And I’m happy to say, women graduates are plentiful.”

“Today, I’m a part of a Ruminant Technical Team. We focus on the health of cattle, sheep and goats, and work primarily on the industry side of things, advising farmers and vets on diagnosis and treatment.

“I feel passionately that women in agriculture should be increasingly visible, in senior management roles.”


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