William Garton's interest in poultry began when he was a boy. Despite trying many aspects of veterinary medicine as a student, it was poultry-specific work that he enjoyed most. As a poultry intern with the Minster Veterinary Practice he wrote a monthly blog for Vet Record Careers, and he is now associate poultry director for the practice's north-west branches
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MY interest with poultry started long before my veterinary career. I kept fancy breeds of poultry as a youngster, selling eggs to people in the village I grew up in, and also rearing pullets to sell as backyard pet chickens. The obsession with all things feathered intensified into most species of domestic poultry as well as ornamental pheasants and aviary birds. Growing up on a lowland sheep farm my intention as I entered university was to become a farm animal vet, having no awareness that poultry vets even existed. Throughout my university career, I found that my knowledge was strong in poultry topics and my interest continued to grow. I was always intrigued and attentive during the poultry lectures, but during the early years struggled to see the long-term relevance and how I could apply the knowledge I was gaining in a veterinary career.
During my third year of university studies I discovered that some older students had completed poultry-specific work experience. I looked into this with the placements team and found that my current employer, which was affiliated to Nottingham university, offered work experience placements – so I applied. It was my first real taste of poultry medicine and I was hooked – I even did a second placement the following year and became known as the student interested in poultry at other placements.
Unfortunately, I still had some niggling concerns about a poultry-specific career; would I miss out on exciting surgery? What about the ‘James Herriot’ lifestyle? Would the vast majority of my veterinary education become redundant?
My solution was to try as many aspects of the veterinary profession as I could during my time at university. My clinical studies ranged from equine referral externships through to mixed practice; I even completed a dissertation in small animal orthopaedic surgery. Nevertheless, none of these quite fulfilled the yearning ‘what ifs’ of poultry medicine. As finals drew closer, I felt compelled to secure myself employment before graduation; now was decision time. I had narrowed it down to mixed practice as a taster for life as a country vet, or a poultry internship with a specified, albeit narrowed, career path. A few e-mails sent to the right contacts ended up in the right inboxes, and I was offered a year's poultry internship with Minster Veterinary Practice. I remember thinking that even if it wasn't right for me in the long term, at least it was a structured year's mentoring and learning in a field that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The internship absolutely flew by. I gained a wealth of knowledge in poultry medicine, enrolled in further qualifications and started assessments for Official Veterinarian status. By the end of the internship I was truly into poultry medicine and couldn't really see a way back to mixed practice – not that I was looking.
Having a taste for the career convinced me that I was on the right career path; a valuable element of any internship. I moved to a different branch within the practice to become an associate director, taking on a managerial role alongside clinical work and started working to expand the practice's presence in the northern regions.
A large proportion of my work is postmortem examination. While possibly sounding dull to others in the profession, it is my equivalent to their surgery or clinical diagnosis. The postmortem examinations are my chance to be hands-on with the blood and guts, and maintain a link to the ‘true’ veterinary identity, and you even get used to the smell. Further diagnostic approaches include serology, molecular testing and bacterial culture and sensitivity to name but a few, of all which require sample collection, allowing hands-on work.
My role requires a lot of interaction with farmers and producers and I take great pride in helping them and satisfaction from recognition and thanks.
I also have close links with the pharmaceutical and nutritional industries, creating opportunities for attending conferences, sitting on advisory panels and speaking at discussion groups. More recently, I have been working closely with Defra and the APHA on movement licensing and health inspection during periods of restriction due to notifiable disease. I have also been fortunate enough to offer my professional opinion and advice to a number of organisations including the British Egg Industry Council, the National Farmers' Union and the RSPCA.
The requirements of the job are rewarding and I enjoy the challenges of practice management, clinical expertise and maintaining client rapport. While at times this can be stretching, the benefits of a poultry- specific role, such as minimal out-of-hours work and reasonable working hours, help maintain a good work-life balance. On top of this, my job allows me time and provision to work towards further qualifications and to focus on enhancing my career as well as my experience.
Of course, every job has its downsides. As with any traditional farm vet I spend a lot of my time in the car; it is my office, my break room, and my canteen. My job is heavily ‘office’ based, with a fair proportion of each day spent interpreting and commenting on test results, writing reports or e-mailing clients and colleagues. Conversely, the job gets me out in the countryside to enjoy the British weather when visiting farms for flock inspections.
My current role is developing constantly. I am starting to pursue further interests and take lead roles in areas such as pullet rearing and game bird farming. Enhancing knowledge of specific areas allows room for referral and expansion of the practice to suit key clients. I am now more heavily involved in the growth of the practice, having taken on a marketing management role and assisting the practice through a rebrand as Minster Poultry & Game Bird Vets as part of the Origin Group.
The future of my career is in the hands of the poultry industry – an industry that has expanded exponentially year-on-year at least in the past decade, and that, due to the continuing global demand for affordable dietary protein, will continue to grow to support an expected global population of close to 10 billion by 2050. While I am committed to clinical practice, any veterinarian working with poultry also has at their disposal a range of career choices encompassing food safety, pharmaceuticals and breeding companies.
My intentions will be to achieve further qualification, experience and recognition within the poultry industry. This is a process that will take time, but one that is required by any vet wanting to make progress in a niche industry, in order to gain the confidence and reliance of the large integrated companies that contribute heavily to the production of the poultry industry.
Animal welfare and human health
As with any veterinary role in food production, animal health and welfare are our main priority. We work hard to bridge the gaps between producer, processor and consumer in understanding and appreciating what outlines acceptable welfare, and what the legal requirements are for different production systems. Our contributions towards poultry health and welfare are one step in the numerous links that create the food chain.⇓
Without poultry veterinarians, production would suffer and the food chain would be potentially unsafe. Not only are we maintaining high health status for birds, but we are also ensuring products from this industry are safe for human consumption – this in itself forms part of the promotional work we do for the industry. Promoting the industry helps to raise awareness for British produce and the sustainable, healthy protein sources that are in high demand with today's growing population and increasing wealth.
Advice for potential poultry vets
The hardest part of my university career was committing to a career decision. I questioned whether doing so would leave much of my education by the wayside. I was slightly envious of other students who were able to commit and remained focused on their end goal. However, that burden was lifted once I had committed to my poultry internship – it gave me the drive, focus and determination to graduate.⇓
There are two tips that I would give to an undergraduate – to find a discipline for which you have passion and to commit to that career path (complemented by internships and further qualification). I am a firm believer that the veterinary profession will be required to become more and more specialised; the sooner you commit, the quicker you become that specialist and the greater your kudos and success.
To graduated vets considering specialism or diversity, I would say that the principles of veterinary medicine are applicable to all roles within the profession, hence why I have found that I never truly left any of my education behind. Experience is invaluable, whether specific or general, but determination and focus are the drivers to enhancing that experience.
One feature of my career that I particularly like is the bemusement of the lay person when I say I am a poultry vet. The first thought that most people have is of me caring for a pet chicken or two. It is not until I explain the magnitude and diversity of the industry that they come to appreciate not only the role of the poultry vet but also the credentials of their fried egg or Sunday roast.