Engaging students in farm animal forensics - do's & don'ts

Dead ewe
The Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF) is engaging with undergraduates to build awareness of its work, and a number of the trustees have visited the vet schools to talk to students about their areas of interest or expertise. As a trustee myself, I offered to share my experiences in veterinary forensics, emphasising how any one of the students could find themselves involved in an actual or potential court case.

As a VIO with the AHVLA, I managed the regional laboratory's animal welfare programme. This covered forensic involvement in actual or potential animal welfare prosecution cases in which either postmortem examination or routine laboratory testing and interpretation might be required. Some of these culminated in court cases where I was called upon to present my findings under cross examination.

It was during these court appearances that I saw first hand the problems that some young (and not so young) graduates faced under cross examination, with one veterinary practitioner finishing up in tears as her evidence was literally torn apart, mainly due to its overall inadequacy.

What is veterinary forensic evidence?

The word ‘forensic’ means ‘related to or used in a court of law’, and, as such, forensic evidence includes any evidence gathered and potentially used to take forward legal proceedings. We are all familiar with TV series such as CSI (crime scene investigation), in which forensic evidence is gathered from a murder scene. At the other end of the scale is the forensic evidence gathered in a fraud case, and this may be boxes full of documents and computer hard drives.

Veterinary forensic work can encompass both ends of this spectrum, but it was the boxes full of documents scenario that I used as my initial example to the Edinburgh undergraduates. I reminded them that, in their everyday work in practice, they will be gathering potential forensic evidence via their daily personal and on-farm record keeping such as diary entries, clinical records, locomotion scoring and invoicing. Equally, they will also create their own forensic ‘footprint’ as they develop and design herd health plans, such as treatment and preventative measure protocols, for each farm they are involved with.

The majority of litigation cases involving new graduates result from investigation into cases of animal cruelty/neglect, or where an owner or keeper has failed to meet the welfare needs of an animal under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and has been reported to Defra/AHVLA/RSPCA. Their involvement may be to provide veterinary input to an investigation on a farm that has no nominated vet; to animals with no known owner; or to a farm that is already a client of the practice. It is this last scenario that could potentially result in a young graduate being drawn into the case, whether they attend at that stage or not. A defence that may be adopted by the farm under investigation is that a vet had seen or advised on the animal/animals previously, and, if the case subsequently progresses, farm data including treatment/examination/preventative measure protocols could become part of the case. My advice to all new graduates is to develop and maintain a logical and methodical approach to their work – no-one enjoys recording for the sake of recording, but it is always important to ensure accuracy in any information committed to paper or electronic media – you never know when it might rear its head again in the future.

"My advice to all new graduates is to develop and maintain a logical and methodical approach to their work"

If a young graduate finds themself involved in a potential case (and the clue that a welfare infringement might be being investigated may depend on from whom the request originated – AHVLA, RSPCA or a local authority), here are a few do's and don'ts that may help.


  • Before you attend, find out exactly what the issue is, why are you being asked to attend, and what are you expected to do. If you have the option, discuss it with a more senior member of the practice before you go and, if they go in your place, tag along if you can to observe.
  • Have a good recording system with you (notebook and pen/pencil, or mobile phone recorder), take your camera (or camera phone), and ensure your car is stocked with anything you may need. Have a business card printed out with all your contact details and those of the practice, which is useful to hand to the others who are in attendance; also gather the names and contact details of those present. Record the date, time and weather conditions at the time – remember a case may not come to court until many months after your investigation.
  • Carry out a thorough clinical examination of any animals that are causing concern, ensuring that they can be readily identified by ear tag, indelible mark, description or photograph, and record your findings. Take photographs if you think they will help – but ensure the subject of the photo can be clearly identified.
  • Decide on any course of action needed, such as euthanasia, movement to more suitable accommodation/pasture, treatment, laboratory sampling or postmortem examination (PME) if carcases are involved.


  • It is inadvisable to undertake a forensic PME; if you only undertake occasional PMEs, it is better to arrange transport to a dedicated laboratory such as the AHVLA, Scottish Agricultural College or a vet school.
  • Ensure that you have a safe and reliable method of moving material off the farm for examination by a third party, thereby ensuring continuity of evidence. It is also important to maintain involvement with the case over the intervening period – I witnessed criticism being levelled at a practitioner who went on holiday immediately after attending a designated welfare investigation, and failed to leave instruction within the practice to forward laboratory test results on blood and faeces samples collected from sheep to the RSPCA.

Finally, if a case goes to court, ensure that you have the relevant case notes, photographs, lab test results and any other documents with you, such as your witness statement for the appearance itself. Prepare to be cross-examined by the prosecution and defence, remain calm and answer clearly, logically and truthfully. You are not there to win a case for the prosecution or defence even if called by one or the other – you are there to give your professional opinion as a veterinary surgeon (as distinct from a witness of fact or an expert witness), to aid the court in reaching its verdict.

The RCVS website gives some excellent guidance on this subject within its Code of Professional Conduct, section 22, ‘Giving evidence for court.’

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