Improving animal health, welfare and sustainability are part of a cattle vet’s role

David Black 1

I grew up in the north east of Scotland. My grandparents were farmers and my dad was an agricultural adviser. One day when I was about 11, we went for lunch with a friend who was a vet and when we arrived he was putting the lamb bed back into a sheep.  

It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. He replaced the uterus and the ewe got up and jumped back into the Land Rover with her lambs. I decided there and then that was what I wanted to be. Incidentally, I also have had a lifelong fascination with old Land Rovers, but that is a story for another day!

I qualified as a vet in Edinburgh and got my first job in a small mixed practice in Brampton, Cumbria, which was a fantastic foundation for the rest of my career. My wife Sue and I then did voluntary service in Gambia where I was head of veterinary public health.  

On our return to the UK, I worked as a locum vet in Kent before a chance came up to move back to Cumbria to join a three-person practice in Dalston owned by Roy Sutherland. It became Caldew Veterinary Group and is now Paragon Veterinary Group.

We all began as general practitioners, but we realised that farmers were becoming much more knowledgeable and they wanted vets with specialist knowledge, so fairly soon we started to specialise and brought in a small animal vet to do the companion animal work.

'We realised that farmers were becoming much more knowledgeable and they wanted vets with specialist knowledge'

I started to become very interested in herd health and production, a large component of which is around cattle reproduction and fertility, and at that time ultrasound scanners were only just being introduced. This then developed into more involved techniques such as embryo transfer. I gained a diploma in bovine reproduction and on the back of that I became an RCVS specialist in cattle health and production.

To achieve specialist status you must meet various criteria, including publishing papers and presenting at conferences, as well as advancing your sector and you reapply for recognition every five years. I kept my specialist status for 20 years, until 2018 when the RCVS granted me the status permanently, making me an emeritus specialist (which makes me sound old!).

My work on advanced cattle breeding and embryo transfer led to my interest in developing in vitro fertilisation (IVF) for cattle in the UK. Two of my practice partners, Will Christie and Stuart Mullan, were doing a bit in the late 1990s but the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak stopped it. In 2004, we picked up where we had left off.

IVF in cattle was working well in other parts of the world, but was not being done in the UK. We needed to develop an IVF platform that worked under UK conditions, with UK cattle. 

I began to work on this with a small team at our centre in Newbiggin, near Penrith, Cumbria, where Paragon’s advanced breeding department is now based.

In the end (and it took many years) I gained a DVM degree from Nottingham university. I think it is the only PhD equivalent degree in cattle IVF in the country. Currently, we have some more cutting-edge research under way, looking at further improving every stage of the process.

At Paragon we have now commercialised our IVF service, providing IVF nationally.  

These advanced breeding techniques, along with genomics in particular, give farmers the opportunity to improve their herds very quickly. Because sustainability and efficient protein production are really important, these techniques are part of our toolkit to breed healthy, long-living, disease-resistant and efficient cattle for the future. 

In 2005, I was a founder member of XLVets, and was its managing director for 11 years. It was an exciting time. 

XL Vets is about sharing skills and knowledge and developing a network of independent practices working together. I am proud to see it continue to grow and adapt to suit the changing needs of independent vet-led businesses. 

The concept and brand have now spread to Ireland, New Zealand and Canada. My involvement is partly why I have been fortunate over the years in meeting lots of vets from other countries and also led me, 16 years ago, to join the committee of the World Association for Buiatrics, and now serve as its treasurer.

Wholesome food from healthy animals

I have been involved with a group of international vets in cofounding VetSalus, a global network of veterinary consultants working with food producers to improve animal health, welfare and sustainability; providing wholesome food from healthy animals.

Striving towards offering a more preventive type of veterinary service, we engage much more with the food chain. As such, we are involved in a global strategy for sustainable farming, developing our understanding of the role the industry plays in carbon emissions and climate change.

'We are in the midst of a climate emergency and we all have our part to play'

Role in sustainability

Most recently I have been delighted to support Laura Higham and others in developing Vet Sustain. This is a not-for-profit community interest company that is seeking to inspire, empower and enable the vet professions to have an impact on sustainability.  

There can be no doubt that we are in the midst of a climate emergency and we all have our part to play; vets are in a unique and responsible position sitting at the very interface between human, animal and environmental health. We can influence as citizens in the way we behave ourselves, as vet-led businesses in our communities and as trusted advocates working with our clients.

David Black 2

Reflection

The FMD outbreak in 2001 was career defining for me and, at the time, I assumed it would be the only epidemic that would have such an impact – how wrong was I?  More than 80 per cent of the livestock looked after by our team at Paragon was culled. We were the worst-hit practice in the UK – there was carnage all around us, yet prime minister Tony Blair was saying that everything was fine. Something had to be done. We had a practice meeting and decided we should start to speak out. By that evening I had been interviewed by the BBC and newspapers, such as The Times. I later contributed to one of the three main government inquiries into the crisis.

The experience has helped me to deal with the impact of Covid-19 on the practice. I want us to come out of this current situation positively, as a strong team and ready for the next challenge.

Healthy practice

Paragon now has 25 vets and 35 vet nurses, technicians and a support team. Without doubt, the highlight of my career has been developing the practice and seeing it grow to be a vibrant, healthy, independent practice.  

I first bought the business in 1994, bringing in other partners and shareholders along the way; we have been through a lot together. I’m really delighted to be part of an amazing team of people.

I’m proud that we have chosen to stay independent. We remain steadfast in our vision to be a vet-led, vibrant, independent mixed rural practice, that is sustainable in everything we do and to be a business that people really want to work for.

I have worked for and alongside many fantastic people and have seen the great leaders stay calm and objective under pressure; I have tried to learn from them. For me, leadership is about behaviours and not tasks.

My fellow director Bruce Richards talks often about the ‘shadow of the leader’, in that by setting a clear vision, with agreed values, there can be clarity of purpose and empowerment, so the leader does not necessarily have to be there all the time. I agree with him, and every day I try to be a better leader by learning from those around me.

Outside work, Sue and I are keen downhill skiers, cyclists and hill walkers, and we especially enjoy spending time with our daughters, Katie, Becca and Isla.

David's CV 

  • 1986: Graduated BVM&S from the University of Edinburgh 
  • 1998: Diploma in bovine reproduction,  University of Liverpool
  • 2018: Doctor of veterinary medicine, University of Nottingham
  • 2020: Fellowship RCVS
  • 1994–present: Managing director (MD) of Paragon Veterinary Group, Cumbria, which has small animal, equine, farm and advanced breeding departments and three centres
  • 2005–2017: MD, XLVets
  • 2012–present: Non-executive director and current chair of the Veterinary Defence Society
  • 2018–present: Director, VetSalus
  • 2020–present: Director and treasurer, Vet Sustain

 

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