SIR, – your editorial opinion (May 19) stated that: ‘the pipeline of young talent coming into the profession is at a trickle, which is why there is such a reliance on imported labour for large animal work and that of the routine tasks in abattoirs’.

This triggered some thoughts on the presence/absence of ‘home-grown’ vets in these sectors.

There is no shortage of indigenous ‘young talent’ and, currently, more UK veterinary surgeons graduate than ever before. The ‘durable’ policy the editor desires should be directed at the recruitment and retention of these talented graduates in those sectors which are currently experiencing labour shortages.

Recent salary data for experienced vets (Veterinary Record, January 20, 2018), found that salaries across different veterinary practice sectors were comparable – £44, 250, £44,300 and £45,925 for vets in small animal (SA), mixed animal (MA) and large animal (LA) practices, respectively. When fringe benefits are added, these rankings might be reversed.

Salaries aside, a major differentiation between the sectors is the number of hours the vet is expected to be available ‘on call’ [OC] during anti-social hours to provide clients with a 24/7/365 service. In a four-vet mixed or large animal practice, this could be around 1100 hours per annum. By contrast, a SA vet may have zero OC hours per annum as many such practices out-source the OC obligation to ‘SA Emergency Clinics’.

Few veterinary graduates fully appreciate the social implication of spending many hours OC, until after they enter general practice. Given the comparability of salaries, it is easy to see why, when vets consider a job change, that many migrate away from the MA and LA sectors to the SA sector.

I cannot offer any advice on making LA practice more ‘sexy’ but recruitment and retention might be enhanced if salaries for experienced LA vets were significantly increased to recognise their obligations.

I agree with your final paragraph which basically says that the livestock owner who benefits must pay. Whether the uplift in salaries was recouped by a large increase in fees for work done during unsocial hours – perhaps affecting affordability – or a more general increase in veterinary fees in order to subsidise work done during unsocial hours, would be a business decision.

Historically, the Competition Commission has acted against the cross-subsidisation of veterinary services.

Market forces are unpredictable and were LA salaries to be increased, yet more non-UK graduates might be attracted to work there and would they be willing to work for less than their comparably qualified home-grown vet comparator?

Turning to what the editor describes as 'the reliance upon imported labour for the … routine tasks in abattoirs'. I assume this refers to tasks involved in Veterinary Meat Inspection (VMI), as it was called in my undergraduate days.

My experience is that ‘routine tasks in abattoirs’ have never been attractive to aspiring vets and, despite having taught several hundred vet students, I cannot recall a single one who set out with this as a career objective.

Undoubtedly, the James Heriot genre of books and TV programmes spawned many generations of potential vets attracted to the profession by the prospect of treating individual animals and seeking to improve their health and welfare. Notably absent from the genre, was any record of the life of a vet involved in the industrial scale killing and processing of livestock in a modern abattoir.

The final ‘float to fork’ journey of livestock lacks conceptual appeal, lacks engaging anecdotes and has a predictable outcome. Hence, it's not conducive to good TV ratings, nor motivating impressionable youngsters into a veterinary career.

A small number of veterinary undergraduates do dedicate themselves Veterinary Public Health (VPH) which embraces VMI. Postgraduate ‘conversion’ to VPH also occurs, sometimes as a positive career choice and sometimes as necessary expedient.

Converting FA and MA practitioners brings a wealth of practical ‘farm to fork’ experience into VPH.

Repeating processes which are already failing will not reduce domestic vet-power shortage and the most potent motivator – more money – and some ‘out of the box’ thinking, may be required

• It is unlikely that existing undergraduates or prospective vet school entrants to will re-orientate towards a career in VPH unless there are substantial rewards for doing so. An additional motivator to do so might be the option to undertake an intercalated VPH degree during the course of their standard veterinary school studies.

• More existing LA and MA vets might convert to a career in VPH if the rewards for doing so – increased salaries and minimal OC duties – were sufficiently attractive.

In fact, how do the salaries of experienced vets compare with the vets undertaking ‘routine tasks in abattoirs’?

As conscription-style deployment of vets cannot be implemented until Stalinists rule Holyrood, it is unlikely the above options will provide a quick fix to Scotland’s reliance on imported veterinary labour in abattoirs.

Rather, the existing inducements for migrant veterinary labour may have to be enhanced to ensure ongoing recruitment/retention and – Brexit-ingly improbable though it seems at present – it should be possible to devise a workable system where there are willing domestic buyers and willing, non-UK graduate, sellers of the required VPH skill set.

Ken Urquhart BVMS, MRCVS

Beacon Hill Cottage,