What is a crofter, and why our staff and students should know…

Image credit: Dr Fraser Murdoch MRCVS

In this extra post, Patrick Pollock explores the practice of ‘crofting’, and its place in the current veterinary recruitment crisis. Patrick is Professor of Veterinary Surgery and Remote and Rural Medicine and Director of the Dick Vet Equine Hospital in Practice.

It is a privilege, and it is fun, to teach clinical veterinary medicine to final year Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery (BVM&S) students. Over an emergency surgery on a seven-day old foal with an infected umbilicus, we discussed the origin of that particular animal, and that it belonged to a “Crofter” from the west highlands. “What is a crofter?”, I asked. Of the 13 other people in the room – two staff and 11 students – only I knew the answer…

Crofting is a form of land use and tenure involving relatively small agricultural holdings, particular to the Highlands and the Islands of Scotland (Na Gàidhealtachd agus nan eilean). The current model of crofting came about as a result of the “Clearances” of the 18th and 19th century, when landowners evicted tenants to establish sheep farms. In 1886, the Westminster Parliament passed the Crofters Holdings Act, designed to protect indigenous people from exploitation. Crofting has a proven track record of maintaining population and economic activity in remote and rural areas, it supports local food production while protecting the cultural heritage and the natural environment in the north and west of Scotland. It has also proved instrumental in preserving our Gaelic culture and language.

It made me think that as veterinary educators in Scotland’s oldest veterinary School, despite our innovation, our world class teaching, our outstanding facilities and production of clinically excellent graduates, we had forgotten something, we had forgotten to include a little of ourselves and how we interact with our island nation. If we want to be successful in producing well rounded general practitioners who will be attracted to practice in remote and rural areas, we have to consider that there is more to a veterinary education than physiology, anatomy, surgery and clinical skills, there ought to be a wee bit of history and culture too.

There is a recruitment crisis in our profession. The change in the landscape of veterinary practice, including the emergence of corporate practice and species-specific vets, has led to improved working conditions, with more choice. Furthermore,  many graduates are opting to work flexible, part-time hours, and are choosing not to undertake out-of-hours or emergency work. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons 2019 survey of the UK veterinary profession uncovered the alarming fact that the average longevity of a UK veterinary graduate was just seven years. With graduation rates close to 100%, what is it that happens to our graduates in such a short period that leads to the decision to leave our profession behind?

The result of these changes is countless open positions, particularly in remote and rural practice. Consequently, this results in longer working hours and increased pressure on current practice staff. In the long term, reduced service, and even closure of remote practices, can have an enormously detrimental effect on rural communities and animal welfare.

The Highland and Islands Veterinary Services Scheme (HIVSS), funded by the Scottish Government, ensures the provision of an adequate veterinary service to prevent and eradicate animal diseases for all animals kept for agricultural purposes and belonging to crofters and others of like economic status. Without this support for veterinary practices, crofters and their animals would be completely without practical veterinary cover. In some sense rural veterinary practices underpin the very existence of their rural communities. In addition to routine work, these practices play a vital role in prevention and identification of animal disease as exemplified by the recent outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian flu (H5N1), first identified in Scotland by a veterinary surgeon from a HIVSS practice.

So, that is the background, but how do we ensure a supply of future veterinary surgeons with a desire to not only join the profession, but to stay within the profession and make their lives in rural locations?

It stands to reason that we must attempt to attract young people from the Highlands and Islands to our, soon to be three, Scottish Veterinary Schools. We can do this through raising awareness of our degree programs, showcasing life as a rural vet and forging relationships with career and guidance staff in high schools. We can adjust for university access for individuals attending rural schools which may not have provision of the prerequisite subjects and run clinical rotations in rural practices for undergraduate students. Through our telemedicine platform, and with excellent continuing education and clinical service provision, we can support remote and rural communities on an ongoing basis. But perhaps we should start by including a little Scottish Culture in our course, after all, everyone ought to know what a crofter is.

photograph of the authorPatrick Pollock

Patrick Pollock is Professor of Veterinary Surgery and Remote and Rural Medicine and Director of the Dick Vet Equine Hospital in Practice. Patricks interests include provision of veterinary services and continuing education to rural and resource limited settings. He has set up clinical training here in Scotland and in low and middle income countries for veterinary surgeons and animals owners. Patrick has worked with the emergency services to develop a toolkit for first responders called to incidents involving people and animals.

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