Stephen Lister spent 10 years in the State Veterinary Service before setting up a poultry advisory and consultancy service in Norfolk. He is currently president of an EU poultry vet group
- British Veterinary Association
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What made you become a vet?
A veterinary career beckoned, my choice enhanced as a small boy by looking enviously at a black-and-white photo in an old Royal Veterinary College publication of a vet on a farm delving into the back of his Hillman Minx estate for some miracle medicine.
But why a poultry vet?
Good question! Mostly due to the enthusiasm and drive of an enterprising poultry veterinarian while ‘seeing practice’. It was 1978 (was it really over 30 years ago?) and the need for veterinarians wanting to work across the whole area of health, husbandry, management, nutrition and stockmanship was growing and appealing.
How did you get to where you are today?
After qualifying, I joined a practice with a specialist poultry arm and tried to juggle this with being a ‘proper vet’. I then spent nearly 10 years in the State Veterinary Service (SVS) in two Veterinary Investigation Centres and at the Central Veterinary Laboratory (now VLA–Weybridge). This was an excellent grounding in many aspects of veterinary medicine (and avoided me exposing my less than impressive surgical skills to an unsuspecting public). The SVS changed dramatically in those 10 years, but the grounding in diagnostic techniques and approaches to disease control I obtained ought to be compulsory learning for every new vet or undergraduate. Not all the changes in the SVS were for the good, so a move back into practice became inevitable, culminating in my setting up a specialist poultry practice in 1995.
How do you spend a typical day?
These days, too much behind a desk and in front of a PC. Part of this is a feature of age, but also an appreciation of the need to get involved with offering advice and comment direct to government, NGOs and other advisory bodies on veterinary aspects of animal production. The commitment needed on this is amazingly time-consuming – a feature that is frequently overlooked by those asking for the advice!
Farm assurance schemes and effective, practical and well-used veterinary health and welfare plans are here to stay and, in poultry at least, serve to improve standards and performance on-farm. They need a combination of audit and paperwork, but also practical on-farm advice and expertise on disease, diagnosis, treatment, prevention and proactive approaches to animal welfare. Most of the rest of my time is spent in the postmortem room or on-farm advising on health and welfare issues, as well as running a Defra and UKAS (United Kingdom Accreditation Service) accredited diagnostic laboratory, and all that entails.
What do you like about your job?
Making a difference. Demonstrating to poultry producers (and other interested parties) the importance of animal health, animal welfare and food safety to a successful fully integrated poultry industry, and the pivotal role of the veterinary profession in this.
What do you not like?
Very little, in fact. Perhaps the worst aspect is having to spend so much time righting the wrongs, inconsistencies and misinformation that certain individuals, organisations and other commentators try to push about what they think goes on in the poultry industry. While all companies must take their responsibilities seriously in the management and welfare of poultry flocks, it is frustrating that they have to spend so much time, effort and money unnecessarily defending what they do.
Why is your job important?
Poultry production is a big industry. It spans areas of animal welfare, sustainable production, environmental issues and food safety, all of which are important to consumers. I remain convinced that the veterinary profession, properly focused, has one of the most significant roles in satisfying the needs of producers, consumers and, most importantly, the birds under our care.
What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
‘If you want it, go for it!’ This was advice given to me by my Dad, and a small animal vet in Cambridge who first enthused me as a schoolboy about a career in veterinary medicine. I have never been a natural scholar, and getting over that hurdle from school to veterinary college remains a major hindrance to some excellent candidates entering the profession. I am still not sure how we overcome this in advising sixth formers to follow their dream.
What was your proudest moment?
Standing in a phone box in Brookmans Park (before the advent of mobile phones) telling my Mum and Dad that I had qualified. This was in the days of the ‘omnicompetent vet’ – realising that yesterday I could do nothing but today I was ‘qualified’ to do everything!
What was your most embarrassing moment?
Letting my veterinary arrogance run away with me and agreeing to give a talk on rabies to a learned medical audience and realising just before I stood up to speak that everyone in the room knew 100 times more about the subject than I did. Second most embarrassing is admitting it here.
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