Paula Grant works with beef and sheep in New Zealand, using the experience she gained as a vet on the Isle of Islay, and as a farmer in France
- British Veterinary Association
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I STARTED university thinking that I would become a horse vet. While horses are still a big part of my leisure time, and I am an entirely competent first-opinion equine vet, I rapidly decided to keep horses as my hobby. Cows, sheep and their owners seemed to me to be much more predictable creatures. I was determined to become a farm/mixed vet and as, back in the last century, there were still some issues with women in this role, I was delighted to be offered a job on the Isle of Islay in a two-woman practice, as a new graduate. This job was fantastic. I had a hugely supportive boss, Janet Berry, overwhelmingly welcoming clients, and a whisky glass that was never allowed to be empty when at the pub. It was a one-in-two rota from the start and after four months on the job my boss went off skiing, leaving me as sole charge vet for the islands of Islay and Jura. I learnt to stand on my own two feet very quickly, and loved the challenge every day brought in terms of my limited experience, the terrain, the weather and old fashioned communication systems.
A travel bug that I had developed at university took me from Islay to a spell of locuming alternating with travel for a few years. I think everyone should go locuming for a while as you see lots of different ways (good and bad) of doing things, meet lots of people with lots of opinions and get to see all sorts of different (good and bad) places.
A spell as an army wife and a couple of kids later, however, I felt like I had worked for every bad boss in Britain. I was on the verge of a career change when I realised it wasn't the job that was a problem, it was the bosses. I needed to be my own boss. This realisation coincided with the practice on Islay coming up for sale. I was young, had no money and was eight months pregnant, but I somehow convinced the bank that I knew what I was doing and, in 1997, it lent me the money to buy the clinic. Then the really steep learning curve began.
I was fortunate to take over the clinic with a fantastic assistant, good lay staff and a client base that welcomed me back to the community with gusto. As I wrestled with learning how to run a business, care for my kids and be a vet, my first marriage broke down. Interesting times followed as I continued to run the business and family as a single parent.
The support of the small island community was superb, and I met my current partner, Graham, who was also in the throws of a divorce. He then came to work for me at the clinic. His background is farming and we needed someone at the clinic who could work alongside the vets, and take up any other jobs that needed doing – what is now known as a vet tech. Graham was a huge asset to the business, doing everything from reception duties to BSE brainstem sampling. The business flourished, providing all the animal health services to the island from artificial insemination to dead cow pick up, and we had a super little shop selling everything from kids' waterproofs to drenching guns. Eventually though, we felt we had taken it as far as we could, and concerns around subsidy payment changes, secondary schooling and a desire to buy some land led us to sell the practice and move to France in 2004.
We bought a neglected beef farm in the Limousin region of France. This is ‘la France profonde’ – deepest, darkest, rural France –where the same systems have been in place for centuries. We set about renovating the farm, introducing some sheep, and kid number six turned up. I had O-level French from 25 years previously so my language skills were not up to veterinary work straight away.
To help with the farm income and to keep my hand in, I rekindled my relationship with Julie Frost from the Northern Locum Agency and returned to the UK regularly to do locum work. After being my own boss and running my own clinic I found going back to locuming and being away from my family quite hard. Then, after meeting a young French vet, not long out of college, who had taken up a position in the UK, I decided to get a job in France; at least I had the experience if not the linguistic skills. I found working as a vet in France very challenging.
The farmers in our area were strictly ‘old school’– suspicious of foreigners, women and new faces. As I fulfilled all three of these criteria I struggled to get farmers to take my advice, change their ideas or trust me. Limousin cows are everything we think of and more: 800 kg, highly strung and aggressive, generally being restrained with a choke rope. Being on-call was always busy, all year round, my record being five uterine prolapses in one night. High social charges mean that clinics have few lay staff, and competition between vets, even in the same clinic, is fierce. Although I found these new working conditions stressful, it does no harm for the bosses of the world to have to eat humble pie and start over at the bottom. You learn a lot about yourself and it is good to be reminded of what it's like to be the underdog.
Moving into tourism
As well as all this, we had diversified into tourism at the farm and set up a teepee and yurt campsite, specialising in ecofriendly, family holidays where farm produce was sold and used to prepare meals for our ‘table d'hôte’ dinners. We produced our own beef, lamb, pork and chicken, slaughtered locally and prepared in our small licensed cutting room. We had our own fruit, vegetables, eggs and preserves, all sold in our farm shop. Our team of kids welcomed the families, and worked on the campsite, learning a lot about people as a very diverse selection of clients passed through the farm. They never dared say they were bored and made some great friends along the way. The campsite was a lot of work for all the family but it saved the farm from bankruptcy in 2008 when we were hit with bluetongue disease, the collapse of our calf markets and massive hikes in diesel, fertiliser and feed prices. I am now much more able to understand the unpredictability of farming and the stresses and strains that accompany this.
When you are farming, and you have a young family, it is pretty easy to live cheaply; we had a ready supply of high-quality food, plenty of on-farm entertainment and not even any school uniforms to buy. However, suddenly we found ourselves in the position of having three and possibly four kids all at university at the same time. They actually needed money. We decided that we had battled on in France long enough and after a chance encounter, with Trevor Cooke of Totally Vets, we started to think about moving to New Zealand.
Travelling to New Zealand
Thanks to social media and Skype I managed to get in touch with a long lost colleague and went to visit NZ in February 2013. I was immediately struck by how welcoming people were, how interested they were in my background and how generous they were with their time. In contrast to France, farmers here are fascinated by your previous experience and interested in what they can learn from you.
I returned to France and we put the farm on the market. Unlike in the UK, French farms do not sell rapidly but, in under a year we had sold up, packed up, got the dogs and horse (yes, horse) into quarantine, and were on our way. I had managed to secure a job with Anexa Animal Health in Raglan, the surf capital of NZ.
Raglan is cool; my kids are seriously impressed that I now live somewhere that young people have heard of. My job is clinic manager and my role involves increasing the beef and sheep competency of a mainly dairy company. It is proper mixed practice with a good small animal component, some dairy work, lots of beef, dairy youngstock and sheep and quite a few horses. Like everywhere in the world, experienced mixed practice vets are thin on the ground, but I love mixed work; I enjoy not knowing what I will be doing each day and having to turn my hand to whatever comes along.
Graham has been employed by the company as a vet tech, and although we don't work together as often as we are used to we can still talk shop together of an evening. Our quality of life has improved enormously; I even ride my horse more now than I used to when we were farming. I do miss the freedom of being self employed and I am still a bit cynical about the ‘veterinary company’ thing. However, Anexa is a ‘ vet club’, a structure that doesn't exist in UK. These started out as farmer-owner cooperatives that employed vets for the general good of everyone involved. The ethos continues today, so profits get pumped back into the system, prices are realistic and our relationship with farmers is good. Making use of this structure I have instigated a total refit of the clinic, which is well under way. I am carving out a role for myself as a beef and sheep vet adviser with help from Zoetis, which runs an extremely good modular course structured to the NZ systems.⇓
Being a vet is a great career; not only can we always find a job, but we can work and travel as well. How many careers offer the opportunity to see something new nearly every day forever? I am a true believer in ‘you only live once’. I think it is possible to follow your dreams; it keeps your brain working and fights off old age. It requires determination, guts and lots and lots of logistics, but it is always worth it. I have had so many interesting experiences in my life and plan to have many more. This new chapter is proving very rewarding for all the family and, as for the future, well, New Zealand has so much to offer us we'll certainly be here for a while . . .