Working with commercial poultry: a varied and stimulating career
As clichéd as it sounds, my earliest memories of choosing to be a vet stem from the picture book ‘Moses the Kitten’ by James Herriot. It was the moment something clicked.
I’m not sure whether it was the animals requiring care, the heroic battles through poor weather or the overall good humour and joy with which it was written, but even at my young age, I got the distinct impression that being a vet was a worthwhile thing to do.
The many years of work experience, exams and further reading between the ages of five and 18 did nothing to swerve me off course – in fact they bolstered my enthusiasm that I was on the right track, despite a considerably rocky personal start to my university years.
I arrived at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) ready to get started with no predilection for any particular species, area of practice or specialty. My goal remained pure and simple – to become a vet. I figured I’d work out by the end of the five-year course what I wanted to do.
In some respects I was proven wrong on this point. During rotations I had a go at everything I could organise a placement in – zoo medicine, border inspection work, small animal practice, mixed practice, conventional farm practice (not pig and poultry), equine work, the list goes on. I enjoyed all of it. It was great from a learning experience perspective, yet it did nothing to help me narrow down my options.
One area I particularly enjoyed during my time at university, both in the research setting and out in practice, was commercial poultry. I wasn’t entirely sure why. Perhaps it was the mystery of the relative unknown compared to the reams of teaching involved for the more mainstream species and the lack of exposure most students get to the commercial poultry sector. However, I prefer to think it was the following simple core concept, which I realised the more I was exposed to the industry – the scale involved with being a commercial poultry vet allows vets to make a huge impact on the health and welfare of animals and people.
I graduated from the RVC in September 2018, with resits having provided a surprisingly excellent opportunity to undertake work within the postmortem examination room and the UKAS-accredited laboratory at Crowshall Veterinary Services. This was in a non-technical capacity alongside revision, and I immediately started work as an associate vet once I graduated.
I’ve now been qualified three-and-a-half years, during which time I have been given countless opportunities to develop professionally. My clinical caseload consists of chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and racing pigeons of all production types and scales of husbandry.
‘One of the most enjoyable aspects of my career so far has been the ability to get involved in training and education’
There is no set routine for any particular day or week, which may involve site visits, postmortem examinations, laboratory testing or reporting, export certification or a variety of other forms of consultancy from flock health planning to welfare training, to disease outbreak management.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of my career so far has been the ability to get actively involved in training and education, both within the poultry industry and the veterinary profession.
Just 13 months after graduation, I was on a flight to Kigali, Rwanda, to present a World Veterinary Poultry Association session at Poultry Africa 2019. I led a discussion on ‘What is disease?’, which was aimed at a range of stakeholders from government officials to new stockmen. A particular highlight of the conference was the engagement within the audience to better understand and help prevent zoonotic diseases.
Just 13 months after graduating, Henry found himself giving a presentation at Poultry Africa 2019.
Here in the UK, I have returned to the RVC as an external guest lecturer and it has been a privilege to be involved in educating the next generation of vet students.
Over the past few years, I have worked with colleagues (including much-liked former lecturers of my own) in developing the poultry curriculum across the clinical years, from third year through to electives and in-house extramural studies, with the possibility of introducing poultry care as examinable content in the near future. This will hopefully prepare new graduates for the ever-increasing number of backyard poultry kept as pets and meet the knowledge requirement expected of the profession by a public who are increasingly frustrated by the idea that they can’t be seen because their chicken is too ‘exotic’.
The most significant challenges of recent times include Brexit and avian influenza, with of course Covid-19 adding an extra layer of hardship to everyone’s lives.
The past two years have provided back-to-back record infections of avian influenza in the UK, with private vets and the APHA working well beyond normal hours or expected levels of resource to contain outbreaks and protect the health and welfare of the national flock.
Brexit has contributed to staffing issues, challenges in acquisition of supplies (such as the recent carbon dioxide shortages, for example) and haulier availability.
For those of us with official veterinarian (OV) responsibilities, 2021 was an exceptionally trying year, with guidance briefing notes changing multiple times per day during the early months, and the paperwork requirements increasing – especially in the case of product exports – exponentially.
After these numerous challenges, I was delighted to be a finalist of, and then to win, the Young Farm Vet of the Year Award at the National Egg and Poultry Awards, especially with the knowledge of how hardworking and deserving my colleagues are within the profession.
The team at Crowshall are forward-thinking across multiple aspects of practice life – for instance, in 2020/21 we became the first 100 per cent farm, and first commercial poultry practice to achieve sustainability accreditation via Investors in the Environment.
The practice also has a progressive approach to mental health. Myself and two other members of the team are mental health first aiders, as trained by Mental Health First Aid England, a course that I would recommend to everyone.
With the mental health training provided, and some difficult experiences with my own mental health during periods of significant personal challenge while at university to draw on, I have used the ‘Covid-19 years’ of enforced lockdowns and stricter working conditions to help build a better work-life balance into my routine.
I find hobbies with structure and progression, or those which require engagement of a different part of my brain from the one I use at work, best for helping me to switch off. So, whether it’s exercise (squash or hiking), doing something creative (making models), learning a language (I’m getting half-decent at German) or volunteering as a vaccinator with St John Ambulance, I keep myself ‘busy in a relaxed way’ to ensure I’m kept away from my emails more effectively than if I was sat in front of the television!
‘The most important Day 1 skills are the ability to work in a team, to be clear and honest in your communications and approach challenges with a sense of humour’
Being a poultry vet
I would urge any vets or vet students with an interest in population medicine, evidence-based and laboratory-supported consultancy, public health and education to consider a role as a poultry vet.
Working with commercial poultry offers an extremely varied and stimulating veterinary caseload, with the opportunity to engage in this both at home and internationally. It is not – as is often thought – limited to the postmortem examination room.
Postgraduate expertise or specialist training isn’t a prerequisite to get involved. As with any corner of the veterinary profession, the most useful Day 1 skills are the ability to work in a team, be clear and honest in your communications and approach challenges with a sense of humour.