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Vets need islands, like islands need vets

20 Feb 2018 | Charlotte Clough | Student | Overseas | Sheep | Equine | Cattle

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Vets are to be found providing vital services across even the most remote and inaccessible of the smaller, inhabited British Isles and are an essential part of island life. They are one of the key pieces in the jigsaw of services that make these unique island communities remain viable.

Lambs on the standing stones at Machrie MoorHop into your metaphorical dream camper van and be prepared for a tour of some of the UKs most breath-taking and awe-inspiring landscapes.

Unst in the Shetland Islands, off the North Coast of Scotland, is the most northerly inhabited British Isle and is regularly visited by Colin Jamieson - the UK’s most northerly vet - by ferry, in all weathers.

The Shetland Island vets’ main surgeries are on Lerwick, Scalloway and Bixter. Continue on an 8-hour ferry ride further south to the vets on the numerous Orkney islands, and then, by heading further south and west along the spectacular West Coast of Scotland, you will find island vets on Lewis, Harris, Benbecular, North and South Uist, Skye, Mull, Islay, and even the tiny islands of Coll and Tiree – with a population of 800. You will finally reach the Firth of Clyde and vets in Rothesay, Isle of Bute and my own practice in Brodick, on the neighbouring Isle of Arran.

All of the island vets will make ferry trips to farms and islanders on even smaller outlying islands than their own from time to time, though arriving in time to save an animal’s life in an emergency can depend entirely on the elements.

Island vets by necessity treat all creatures great and small and are on call 24/7. To make a living in rural and sparsely populated areas requires seeing anything that comes through the door. There is no option of outsourcing to out of hours providers and only limited availability of specialist referral services.

Who will be the future island vets?

There are barriers to recruiting new and recent graduates – any vets for that matter - to the Highland and Islands as general, mixed practice vets become less common.

Today the perception seems to be that career progression and specialisation are the gold standards for a career as a vet. Yet a career as a general practitioner serving a small community is, in itself, a skill and immensely rewarding.

Equally, the increasing perception of work/life balance only meaning:

  • less hours working or
  • less or even no hours on call.

I have found that working on Arran, an area of outstanding natural beauty with a very supportive community, to be immensely rewarding.

On the islands, cases happen less often so the key is to enjoy family and island life in the quiet times and throw yourself fully into the job when a case arises. I’ve enjoyed the respect and support of the Arran community in doing so.

Admittedly, for recent grads, Year One Competences comprising 3 lists of competences in small animal, equine and large animal work might be hard to achieve in our smaller Island practices. A new grad in a busy inner city small animal practice might achieve all the small animal competences in a year, but a mixed vet in a quiet rural practice might see less or achieve less than a 1/3rd of all 3 lists.

For now, I am very much encouraged that we have two home grown vet students on Arran, and a third who recently graduated. I hope that one day one of them will return to Arran to serve the very special place where they were born.

In the meantime, I’d encourage vet students interested in rural practice from across the UK and elsewhere to venture and see practice in the Highlands and Islands. I appreciate this can be expensive, especially for students burdened by loans, however I can promise that it will be worth it.

Thanks to 2nd generation island vet Catriona MacIntyre, Bute and Cowall vets, for her help with background information for this blog.

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