Iain Richards has a mixed role in a mixed practice in Cumbria – one day he might be on a farm, another in theatre and the next at the computer. He has just finished his term of office as president of the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons
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What made you become a vet?
I have had an abiding interest in natural history, which started with bird-watching aged about nine. Then, studying biology at school pushed me towards natural sciences. Being insatiably curious has added to the mixture. I rejected medicine in favour of an outdoor-based career and, yes, Herriot played his part, as my mother had read his books and suggested I became a vet. I'm not sure why it hadn't occurred to me. I was lucky to see practice in Liverpool, and to work on my uncle's farm in Shropshire. I spent two weeks with his vet, and after that there was never any question of me doing anything else. Even retaking A-levels (twice) did not deter me.
How did you get to where you are today?
Serendipity! I was happy in a practice in Glossop, but my wife (a medical oncologist) was looking for a consultant post. An area that combined a hospital offering radiotherapy and a mixed practice was not easy to find. Came the fateful day when she suggested Kirkby Lonsdale as a location to live, so she could work in Preston. That week's Veterinary Record featured a practice for sale in Kendal. Less than a year later I was sole owner of a five-vet practice, and three years later bought the neighbouring Kirkby practice. Becoming part of the XLVets group has been part of our gradual growth and commitment to excellence.
Politically, I volunteered to be the BVA Council rep for the Lakeland division in 1999. Since then I seem to have been slightly coerced into various roles (which I'm glad of, because I've enjoyed it).
What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?
Do it. There are times when one wonders why one has chosen this route, but it has given me so much, and it is interesting, fun, and fulfilling.
What do you like about your job?
The variety. I'm happy to admit that as a mixed practitioner I am a near-extinct breed, but I get a lot of pleasure from dealing with all the major species. At present, if pushed, I'd rather be on-farm, but as old rugby injuries kick in, it may change for a day in theatre.
If I had to chose one task as a favourite, it would probably be a colt castration in the field. It's a combination of surgery plus the challenge of anaesthetising a large and potentially unpredictable animal. On a warm day, in a field, sitting on the front end while my colleagues get messy; what's not to like?
I also enjoy the challenge of running a business and the staff within it. I have learned much from my involvement with the SPVS, and I still can see areas where we can make improvements.
What do you not like?
Oddly enough, almost the same answer. It is becoming increasingly hard to keep up to the clinical standards in all areas. I sometimes feel I am becoming a triage vet. I'm good at recognising when to let someone else take over.
Why is your job important?
Being a vet and running my own practice (in partnership, I should add) is almost as important to me as my family. It defines who I am, and how I view the world.
What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?
If a cow is down, give it calcium. And don't get angry with the slow driver in front of you when on call – it could be your client!
What was your proudest moment?
Three, if I am allowed. One was talking to an old chap who, after I'd put his dog down, told me that was his last as he was too old to get another. I asked him if he'd consider a rescue dog, and he came in two days later with his new dog on a lead. The second was being asked to be president of one of our local shows as a thank-you for the work I did during the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. And the third was getting my SPVS past-president's medal.
What was your most embarrassing moment?
Getting two black cats mixed up and putting the wrong one down was a major low. Being able to sort things out with the clients afterwards helped.
What do you do when not a vet?
Depending on the weather and the time of year – sailing, walking, skiing and cooking (whatever the occasion). Music or reading when it's just too wet to do anything else.
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