Farm vets are staring into the abyss, with nearly one fifth of practices set to quit the sector in the next 10 years, according to a survey conducted by Farmers Weekly.

The survey of large animal vet practices in the UK has revealed an exodus of worrying levels, with 18% of farm animal vet practices planning to cease practice in the next 10 years.

British Vet Association vice president David Catlow said the prospect of losing nearly a fifth of all farm vet practices in the next 10 years could present huge problems for farm animal health and welfare and, more importantly, for public health.

“One of the key roles farm vets play is in disease surveillance, both in spotting exotic disease outbreaks, such as foot-and-mouth, and in recognising the early signs of new and emerging diseases.

“Examples of this include BSE and digital dermatitis, both of which were recognised on-farm in their early stages by farm vets.

Without vets visiting farms, the risk is that incidences of existing diseases and emerging threats will be left unseen, presenting increasing animal health and welfare threats and, in some cases, threats to human health,” he explained.

It is this lack of surveillance and the potential threat to human health that are the biggest implications of a fall in farm vet numbers, believes Royal College of Vet Surgeons president Lynne Hill.

“We must look to find a way in which some support can be given to the farming or vet sectors to ensure vets are on-farm regularly enough to notice disease trends or threats.

“The government appears to have forgotten the role farm vets play in public health.

There are animal disease issues that can impact on human health, in particular the zoonotic conditions, such as salmonella and E. Coli 0157.

“An animal health issue can quickly become a public health issue.

Unless these conditions are picked up through regular vet visits problems will escalate quickly,” she added.

Vet Dick Sibley, based in Tiverton, Devon, said this active surveillance by vets cannot be replicated by any other means.

“No matter how much we train farmers they are often too close to notice any difference in their animals.

Sometimes they lose an animal without knowing why, but fail to investigate further.”

However, when Farmers Weekly contacted DEFRA, it seemed unconcerned with the situation, suggesting that disease surveillance will be unaffected by the dramatic reduction in farm vet practices.

“The survey findings do not mean our capacity to conduct effective surveillance will inevitably be compromised,” a spokesman said.

Furthermore, DEFRA believes animal welfare is unlikely to be affected, a view contested by many in the vet profession.

But Quentin McKellar, principal of the Royal Vet College, London, said there needs to be pragmatic decisions taken by farmers about the economics of treating animals and where it is uneconomic to involve a vet, an animal may have to culled rather than treated.

“We have to look at the economics of livestock farming in global terms and tailor our service to those clients who can afford it.

The vet profession, like the farming industry, has to be efficient and economically viable.”

Mr Sibley believes this will be more important in some sectors than others.

“There is, and always will be, a considerable demand to provide first-aid to high-value animals, such as dairy cows.

However, in sectors where animals are worth less, there is reduced demand for emergency cover.”

For many in the industry, including Professor McKellar, this reduction is a reflection in the falling number of farms, and hence a decline in demand.

It is, they say, the supply-and-demand economy bearing its teeth in the vet sector.

He believes having a more efficient and streamlined vet sector could benefit livestock farmers.

“If those left in the industry are the ones offering the level of service that farmers want and need, then they will be much better able to serve the dynamic livestock farming sector that will exist in future.”