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Ministers must act to save rural vets

JASON GROVES LONDON EDITOR

Ministers will today be urged to make special payments to rural vets to help reverse a decline in their number that could leave Britain heavily exposed in a future outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

In a worrying new report, the Commons rural affairs committee raises serious concerns about the declining number of vets specialising in the welfare of farmyard animals.

The report warns that the Government may need to "intervene directly in the market" to ensure country vets are properly paid if they are to reverse the trend. It also warns that it is "imperative" for the Government to invest in the education of veterinary students hoping to work in large animal practices.

A survey by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons found that the number of full-time vets working with farm animals had slumped by 29 per cent in the last five years. During that period the overall amount of veterinary time spent dealing with farm animals has halved.

The committee heard evidence that although a previous generation of vets were inspired to become country vets by the books and television dramas based on the life of James Herriot, the "Herriot effect" was now wearing off.

Instead, the younger generation of veterinary students were more likely to be influenced by television programmes like Rolf Harris's Animal Hospital, which glamorises the work of vets specialising in treating small pets. But other factors have also been at work to make the life of a country vet less attractive.

The continuing crisis in farming has seen vets' incomes fall in recent years. And recent proposals from the Competition Commission suggest that the cost of veterinary medicines should come down - eating further into the profitability of rural veterinary practices.

The committee warns that the Commission's proposals "could lead to a reduction in the number of practices providing large animal veterinary services which could, in turn, affect the Government's ability to achieve the objectives of its animal health and welfare strategy and its surveillance strategy". The report says ministers should "urgently assess the likely impact of the Commission's proposals".

Colin Breed, Lib-Dem MP for South East Cornwall, said the decline in the number of country vets was a serious concern in rural areas like the Westcountry. Mr Breed, a member of the rural affairs committee, said: "Vets are going to be asked by the Government to take a lot more responsibility under the animal health strategy and we have to make sure that the right incentives are in place to attract people into large animal work. They have to be properly remunerated.

"We probably have enough vets in total, but there is a concern about the number going into large animal practices.

"It sounds silly, but things like Animal Hospital have made the small animal side much more attractive and at the same time we have seen a question mark put over the earning potential of country vets because of the decline of farming. The Competition Commission report on veterinary medicines did not help in that regard.

"But as the foot and mouth crisis showed us, we do need large animal vets. We don't need to gear up for a vast emergency at all times but we don't want to be in a position of bringing in even more vets from abroad."

The handling of the 2001 foot and mouth crisis was severely hampered by the shortage of vets with experience of dealing with farm animals.

Hundreds of vets were drafted in from abroad to help deal with the crisis.