WOMEN in agriculture have long been champions of the farming world, but perhaps their efforts have largely gone unnoticed.

But this constant dedication to the industry deserves better, and so The Scottish Farmer is launching a series focusing on women in agriculture. First up is Scotland's chief veterinary officer, Sheila Voas.

Mrs Voas became a vet in 1988, and has remained in the industry ever since, and, over time, has worked her way up to the position of CVO, after spending some busy years in mixed practice.

Following a short stint as temporary CVO, this stout supporter of Scottish agriculture was put into the top vet role in 2012, and has championed many positive changes for the agricultural industry during that time. That includes being a driving force behind ridding the national flocks and herds of debilitating diseases - Zoë Wilson spoke to Mrs Voas in her office, in Edinburgh, to find out what makes her tick.

How did you become Scotland's CVO?

It's not a carefully planned career path. I thought I would spend my working life in mixed practice, and I was happy doing that, but I had young kids and the practice was being sold.

My husband and I thought about buying the practice, but with young kids, it just wasn't going to work, so I accepted a temporary ministry job, and then I was seconded into the Scottish Government as a veterinary advisor. I was promoted to deputy CVO, and then the CVO at that time left, so I was left as acting CVO, and in October 2012, I got the job permanently, after a wide recruitment exercise.

Has your career been affected because you are a woman?

As a woman, my career has been absolutely fine. Yes, some people have been surprised that I am a woman, and occasionally people have had raised eyebrows, and didn't want to see me, but I was never sure if that was because I was a woman, or because I was the junior member of the team, but overall, I've never really experienced much sexism, and I haven't found that being a woman was a problem.

Sometimes I feel that people look too much into things, and while I do accept that there are some women out there who get treated very badly, I know there are men out there who get treated badly, too. Neither is acceptable.

When it comes to employment, I only ever want to be promoted to a job based on the fact that I am the best person for the job. I have two sons, and I don't want them to miss out on opportunities because companies want more women in employment, rather than considering who is best for the job. It's not about replacing men in jobs, it's about encouraging women to apply for those jobs and explore the opportunities that are available, and it's all about playing to your strength. We need to make sure women have equal opportunities, and that selection processes are fair and transparent.

Is society becoming too PC?

In situations where accusations are made by women against men for inappropriate conduct in the workplace, there's always a bit of how was it intended?

Did the man mean to belittle the woman, or is it a man who's living in the past and did not mean anything wrong by it?

I think women also have a responsibility. If someone does something we do not like, we need to tell them that they should not do that. If they persist, then it's an issue.

How many children do you have?

I have two sons, Douglas and Donald. Douglas is 24, and works as a forester in West Linton. He has a degree in sports science and psychology, and has also trained as a ski instructor and dive master.

Donald is 22, and is currently studying sports science, and is a very big fan of rugby, both as a player and a coach.

My family is very important to me, and if I ever had to choose between them and my career, family always comes first.

Does having children change you?

Having children gives you a whole lot of skills that you never had before, and which can be useful more broadly. For example, resolving playground squabbles gives you experience of negotiation which can be useful in a workplace. As women, we sometimes fail to see the connections or to sell ourselves and the skills we gain by being parents, putting it down to just being a wife or mother, whereas a man would call being a father like a job, due to the time and finance management, leadership and education, dispute resolution, prioritisation required - you get my meaning.

Have you ever wanted to change your career?

I considered being a teacher as I got fed up of getting calls at 6am, and missing the children's breakfast then missing homework and bath time because of evening consulting, so I thought about teaching for a while, but then I decided I would prefer to work as a part-time vet. Turns out I’m not as fond of other people’s children as I had thought.

What was it like to be a vet during the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease?

Foot-and-mouth disease caused a general depression in rural areas, and it was devastating for any farmers whose livestock got it.

People were under immense pressure, those who had it, and those who didn't have it, but were terrified of getting it, and reacted in the only way they knew how, shutting themselves off from the outside world.

Some people's lives were never the same again, and some have never gotten over the impact of foot-and-mouth, including both vets and farmers.

Foot-and-mouth is an ongoing threat, and it will come back. The problem with these diseases is that they are out there, and no matter how good our combined bio-security measures are, there's always a risk there, and we have to look at ways of making that as small a risk as possible, and it would be far better if it occurs every 70 years, not every 20 years.

It's about working together, the government controlling movements, and imports, and farmers' own everyday biosecurity, keeping disease contained on a few farms, rather than it spreading to many.

What is your stance on bovine viral diarrhoea?

I'm not just saying "we are going to get rid of BVD", and telling other people to do as I say and to get on with it - I would like to show people what they can gain by eradicating BVD.

BVD started off at a herd level of 40% in 2010, and the herd level is now at about 8%.

There was an industry group which was keen to push it forward, and it wasn't just a ScotGov scheme, it was a Scotland scheme, a co-production.

In 2010, we started to find out what the level was, and encouraged people to test for it. It's been a staged approach – gradually making things more onerous. We could have gone in heavily, but instead we've taken it slowly, to try to take the majority of farmers with us.

But if your herd tests positive, I don't see a reason why you would keep infected cattle - get rid of them as soon as you know, because there are huge long term benefits for you by doing so.

Why do you think farmers are reluctant to eradicate it?

People are just unaware of the consequences, and many people who have eradicated it have said they wish they'd gotten rid of it sooner, because it's more financially beneficial, and farms which have eradicated it use less antibiotics, and that has to be a good thing, globally.

I think the problem is that it's always been there, for many people, and so they are not aware of the problems that come with the disease.

Which industry is most affected by it?

The beef industry has embraced eradication much more quickly than the dairy industry, possibly because dairy calf values are much lower, and the main income is from milk, so losses are not as noticeable.

Change is hard, and I accept that. It can be difficult and scary for people, but progressive farmers are now embracing things that were initially hated, like EID.

It all takes time, and a bit of imagination, to make it work for you.

Do you enjoy working with farmers?

I like working with farmers, but I would say that when I started this job, I was disappointed at the slow progress. In veterinary practice, you went out to a farm and achieved something, for example, calved a cow or diagnosed sheep scab, and prescribed treatment, whereas this job is more long-term, and it's at a population level.

Farmers are honest and say what they are thinking, and I like that. If somebody tells me I'm talking mince, then I'll accept that and reflect on it, and I'll accept that we won't always agree, and I'll look at how we can reach a compromise.

How would you say farming has changed over the years?

Farming 50 years ago was seen as something you did because you couldn't do anything else, but now farmers have to be well-educated, and I feel that's been missed out of public perception, like all of the business management that has to be done, and the technology that has to be embraced in order to be a successful farmer.

What is your stance on DNA testing of meat?

There are benefits of DNA testing, and I think it is important for people to be able to know, and choose, what they are purchasing.

At the end of the day, we are producing meat for the table, and that doesn't have to be from a pure breed, but it must be sold as what it is. There are very successful pedigree breeders, which is a good thing, but those buying need to be confident that they are getting what they are paying for. If not, then it's fraud.

It's similar to the horsemeat scandal, there are no health issues with eating that meat, but you must be able to choose to do that. Or similarly, it's like buying a diamond ring that's actually glass - it still does the same function, and looks the same, but it's emotionally disappointing, because it is not what you thought you were purchasing.

Overall, DNA testing is a good way to prove that what we are doing is working, and prove the product is legitimate.

Does Quality Meat Scotland do enough for Scottish farming?

QMS, whether they are doing enough is up to others, but I think people maybe are not aware that marketing is happening.

Why would QMS advertise Scotch Beef in The Scottish Farmer?

I have seen Scotch Beef and Scotch Lamb advertised on the London underground, and that's where it should be advertised. Readers of The Scottish Farmer are already invested in it, so why would QMS advertise it there?

They are also very good at showing people that a roast doesn't have to be on a Sunday, for example, which hopefully broadens the demand.

What are your concerns about Brexit?

With Brexit, my biggest concern is the amount of reliance Scotland has on non-UK vets. More than 95% of meat hygiene vets are non-UK nationals, and they ensure that the meat we buy is safe. They are in the slaughterhouses, looking after animal welfare, and public health.

There is a turnover of people who come for a period of time, and the concern is that when they return home, we will not be able to recruit replacement vets in the same way as before.

It's a big concern for the meat industry, and it's a shame because many people want to come here to work, and work hard.

The vet profession has presented a case to the Home Office to return vets to the shortage occupation list again, and if that happens, it makes it easier for non-UK vets to get a visa, post Brexit.

Currently, the mutual recognition of qualifications exists, and that means that if you qualify as a vet in Europe, you can work anywhere as a vet in Europe, but that might change after Brexit.

Do you have any other points you'd like to make?

Yes - I've recently been honoured by being made an associate member of the Royal Highland Agricultural Society, and I am wearing my badge with pride today, and will continue to do so.