Tom Bailey is the head of aviculture and health at International Wildlife Consultants. He previously worked overseas, mainly in the Middle East, on a variety of projects working with wildlife, before spending nine years caring for falcons and wildlife at the Dubai Falcon Hospital in the United Arab Emirates
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AS a teenager I practised falconry and enjoyed shooting and fishing on the family farm. Practical management of wildlife and a love of the countryside continue to be driving passions. I was lucky to intercalate in zoology at Bristol university and during that ‘non-vet’ year I got involved with the Expeditions Society. This fired my imagination and, together with a group of like-minded university friends, we organised the Savannah Wildlife Project. This was the first expedition organised by Bristol vet students and we raised about £50,000 of support in finance and donations to set up a small clinic and education centre at Chipangali Wildlife Trust in Zimbabwe in 1991.
Completing this project gave me the confidence and drive to pursue a veterinary career working with wildlife, where paid opportunities are notoriously thin on the ground.
Since qualifying in 1991, much of my working life has been spent abroad. This has ranged from being involved with establishing captive breeding programmes for bustards, monitoring the health of free-living Arabian wildlife and developing veterinary hospitals for falcons and wildlife. My career path has not been conventional, and has developed much more from my interests, and some remarkable people I have known. Over the years I did a part-time PhD on medical aspects of bustards; I then took a year off work to do a Masters in wild animal health at the Zoological Society of London, and completed a RCVS certificate in zoological medicine. I then took the European College of Zoological Medicine examinations and promised my long-suffering wife that was the last professional qualification I would take. I have also been fortunate to work with a number of veterinary colleagues who have stimulated my research interests. This encouraged me to publish papers and book contributions on aspects of bustards, raptors and Arabian wildlife.
The first year in my job with International Wildlife Consultants (IWC) has seen me involved in every aspect of the business, from chopping up dead rats to feed the birds, training and inseminating imprinted falcons, incubating eggs, rearing chicks and chartering planes to ship birds to our clients overseas. About 10 to 20 per cent of the work involves me wearing a veterinary hat and looking after the birds.
When not being a vet, the work ranges from organising our avicultural team to liaising with the outside agencies that we interact with, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA). I have even been known to wrestle sheep, which are kept on the farm to provide lawnmowing services in our larger aviaries.
I was also part of the organising team for the Festival of Falconry (www.falconryfestival.com), which took place in the UAE in December 2011 and promoted awareness and understanding between a diversity of falconry, conservation, heritage and political groups that are interested in the wise use of birds of prey. I helped to run the scientific conference, which included a veterinary session. In summary, I am part-vet, part-farmer, part-scientist and part-manager.
The variety and hands-on work are the bits of the job that I really enjoy, and while I can get bogged down behind a computer analysing data and records, I am never too far from some contact with the birds, and the fantastic view of the Carmarthenshire countryside from my office window. On the downside, I loathe meaningless paperwork and, quite apart from all the paperwork I have to swim through to breed and export falcons, being tied to animals that you cannot switch off and forget is a blessing and a curse at times. Chopping rats on New Year's Day morning was not one of the highlights of the past year! Working to tight commercial deadlines and budget restrictions can be trying too.
The mission of IWC is to support the wise and sustainable use of wildlife and habitats. It promotes falconry and falcon conservation through numerous practical initiatives (www.falcons.co.uk). We have biologists involved in successful conservation projects managing and increasing wild falcon populations across Central Asia (www.mefrg.org/manparticles.asp).
The commercial falcon-breeding project that I lead produces high-quality captive-bred falcons for the Middle East falconry market. Our production of captive-bred falcons indirectly offsets the illegal trapping of wild birds. In these economically straightened times, I feel that lessons can be learned from companies like IWC that balance commerce and conservation. Our success in ‘farming’ falcons in captivity and in the wild could be a model for other conservation projects. Well-managed countryside field sports are not incompatible with conservation, sustainability and biodiversity.
Advice for fledgling wildlife vets
There are no off-the-shelf jobs in the wildlife vet field. If you want to enter this field you must be determined; be focused and don't give up. Be persistent, be really annoyingly persistent, but make sure you remember all the people who helped you along the way and pay this back by helping the next generation.
My own career has involved long spells working abroad. I brought the family back to the UK last year; my children were approaching upper primary school age and, while living abroad in a cosmopolitan city like Dubai was stimulating, I grew up in the countryside on a farm in the UK and I wanted my children to experience a natural environment for the second stage of their childhood. We now live on a smallholding in Pembrokeshire where I also manage a small flock of sheep and some land.