Anna Birch is a vet, farmer’s wife and mother of two children from north Dorset. Here is her story of falling in love with the British countryside, her journey into becoming a rural vet and a few of the adventures on the way, which also feature in her recently published book, Call The Vet.
I blame James Herriot. From the age of six I knew I wanted to be a vet. I was animal mad, devoured the books and then later loved the TV series.
It was, however, to be a roundabout journey. At 14 I had some lousy careers advice: it was at an all-girls school, one of the 10 that I attended as a military child.
“We’re not very good at science here. Because we’re all girls. I wouldn’t try for vet school if I were you.” That was in the early 1980s. Inconceivable now. In fact, some years ago Cambridge Veterinary School had a 100% female intake.
Boys, of course, do have the potential. It appears they often just realise it a little later. As did I. After a random selection of A-levels and a degree in philosophy and psychology, the draw of veterinary science was still strong.
I went back to school to get the A-level chemistry that vet schools demand. I also wrote hundreds of letters to charitable trusts and educational foundations to secure the funding necessary – there were no student loans back then. And to my great joy, Bristol offered me a place.
There are still graduate schemes and now also gateway courses for widening participation from unusual backgrounds at some of the seven UK universities offering veterinary training. It is never too late, and your background doesn’t matter. Back then, we were an eclectic bunch: an ex-policeman, a biochemist and a veterinary nurse. A few farmers’ children, too.
However, the majority still take the conventional route: vet schools generally require three high grades in three A-levels including chemistry and biology. There is also a stipulation of animal-focused work experience, which gives farming children an advantage.
I note that Nottingham, the newest, also requires applicants to have the rather modern list of “compassion, tolerance, patience and empathy”. I certainly needed these skills during the foot-and-mouth crisis and use them regularly in euthanasia consults.
It can be emotionally demanding, and you should know that veterinary surgeons have the highest level of suicide of all professions. Support from friends, family and colleagues is important, especially in the first year of practice, and rural practice can be particularly isolating and lonely.
Oh, and one more thing I think you might need: a strong stomach.
Would placenta in your hair make you blush? Does the idea of sticking a hand up a cow’s or horse’s bottom make you blanch? How about a finger up a dog’s rear end? Does the mention of mucopurulent discharge make you want to put down your tea and toast? If not, then you could cut it as a vet.
So you have the stomach, the heart, and the brain to be a vet. What about the physical fortitude?
Long days of standing, nights and weekends on call, and mid-winter calvings on exposed farmsteads are all part of the challenge. These days it is easier to avoid the 2am caesarean by becoming a small animal vet working in a sizeable town where there is an out-of-hours provider – a sort of A&E for animals. Or you can go into referral practice, industry, research or government vetting – the course is so broad, ranging from physiology to pharmacology, orthopaedics to animal ethics.
But despite the sleep-destroying nocturnal call-outs, I mostly enjoyed rural practice: the outdoor work in beautiful parts of the countryside, the license to go flying around country roads in a mud-spattered Land Rover, the physical challenge, and the decent rural folk trying to make a living were all part of it for me. I even married a farmer. I am glad that I finally realised my childhood ambition to become a vet.
Recently I realised another long-held ambition. I had always wanted to write a book that would make people laugh out loud, and not long after starting work as a vet it became clear to me that my actual job was pretty funny – if you don’t laugh at going on a date with placenta in your hair, you would cry!
A mere 16 years later, I have just had my first novel, Call the Vet, published. Billed (to my delight) as a “modern-day James Herriot”, it charts my first, slightly hapless, year in practice: from tricky calvings and phantom horse pregnancies to the pain of TB testing, and from greedy Labradors and cycling ferrets to resurrected cats. Plus, how I studied, qualified and got there.
Writing and promoting it has been a story of blood, sweat and tears – and not all mine but I am saving that tale for the later series. I am told it holds a balance of humour and heartache, as most veterinary lives do. There’s a dash of romance when I fall in love over a sick cow. Above all, as a country vet, wife and mother living in the farming community, it is my love letter to the countryside – its ways, its rhythms and its beauty.
✱ Call the Vet is published by Ebury as a Virgin Book, paperback, priced £7.99, available at Mole Valley Farmers and SCATS (and some other good bookshops) and also available as an ebook.
✱ For more information on entry requirements to the UK vet schools, go to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons website and search “entry requirements”