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Fifty years working with sheep
  1. Chris Lewis


Chris Lewis is a private sheep veterinary adviser whose involvement with sheep began as a boy living in Kent. He is a past-president and secretary of the Sheep Veterinary Society, and owns and runs a small flock of 35 breeding ewes producing quality lamb. Here, he reflects on his career

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BRITAIN has been described as ‘the sheep farm of Europe’. The industry contributes in real terms to the balance of payments as a net exporter. In 2011, 98,500 tonnes of lamb were exported, with France being the largest market, although exports to non-EU countries rose by 41 per cent to 5800 tonnes. The sheep industry contributes to the ecology and wellbeing of the countryside, particularly in the hills and uplands. Sheep also play an important part in the attractiveness of the countryside and thus contribute to tourism and directly to the rural economy.

As I reflect in my 50th year as a veter-inary surgeon, sheep have never been far away, both professionally and at home. I was brought up in a flat on a farm in Kent (‘bomb alley’). Moving to Hastings after the Second World War allowed me to make regular visits to Rye and Winchelsea marshes by bicycle, where I made contact with the shepherds of the marsh, and the Kent (Romney) breed of sheep.

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I entered the Royal Veterinary College in 1958, when teaching revolved around the horse, with farm animals rapidly increasing in importance as the course proceeded. The field station of today is unrecognisable; then, there was no hall of residence – students lived in Hawkshead House, at the farm or in digs close by. The few referred sheep invariably died. In retrospect, a diagnosis could have been made for many of these in the light of later knowledge. I was lucky to ‘see practice’ (now extramural studies) with a progressive practice in Maidenhead. In those days, students were allowed to do more than they are now. I was regularly sent out to treat cases of milk fever, with the proviso to tell the farmer that if there was no apparent recovery in two hours he was to contact the surgery. Put in context, life was simpler then; many conditions were unrecognised and the availability of drugs was limited, with only four antibiotics in veterinary use. The practice was only involved in sheep work in the spring at lambing time, and this was usually a job for the student. At college, I found bacteriology fascinating, in particular clostridial species – an interest that exists to this day.

On qualification, I worked at a large practice at March in the Fens. My working life began in January 1963 – in the middle of the coldest winter on record – and in the midst of the largest outbreak of swine fever recorded in Britain. The practice was predominantly a pig practice with only two sheep flocks.

From March I moved to the Lake District and set up my own practice. Here, I rapidly realised the wealth of knowledge that the shepherds possessed and were prepared to pass on. By the mid-1970s, we developed basic flock planning with more enlightened farmers, brought about by the increased availability of effective clostridial vaccines. The Lakeland fells can be harsh and fluke-ridden, and a high percentage of deaths were either as a direct result of fluke or of subsequent black disease. At that time, newer flukicides began to replace carbon tetrachloride capsules. The first aim of the health plans was to raise the number of lambs sold to the number of ewes put to the ram. This was an achievable target, and one that was met. The downside was that the price of lambs fell disastrously for two successive years. Whether apocryphal or true, it was reported that a well-known circus owner was buying fine crossbred lambs at £3 to feed to the lions! It remains true that when setting any sort of target in the sheep sector it must be achievable and realistic.

It was at this time that we acquired our first sheep at home. We also breed salukis, which are sighthounds and will chase anything that moves. We bred a litter that we were determined to teach not to chase sheep. A local farmer donated four lambs, which included two Swaledale gimmers. These young sheep were successful in training the dogs and invariably the two gimmers were mated. The flock grew and now stands at 35. Hands-on management with a critical unpaid shepherd, my wife Rosie, enabled me to appreciate clients' problems and constraints far more easily.

By the end of the 1970s, practice was becoming more complex and I decided on a change of career. I became a veterinary adviser to the UK marketing arm of ICI, New Zealand. The product portfolio was based on sheep products and dog vaccines. My interest in sheep was useful, and New Zealand entered my life. We moved from the Lakes to Bury St Edmunds, which was quite a culture change – as was having a 9 to 5 job. Some years later, my resignation, on a matter of principle, led me in another direction. Fortune smiled on me, and I joined the then Veterinary Investigation Service at Shrewsbury. This proved to be a satisfying and challenging move. In those days, farm visits were encouraged, allowing for far more active surveillance.

I was sad to have been retired at 60 years old, but it did mean I was able to gain a short- notice appointment allowing for part-time work – in particular allowing me to maintain my association with a flock of New Zealand sheep of known scrapie genotype, bred for research into scrapie and BSE. I was selected to accompany the importation of 1036 sheep from New Zealand in 1998. The trip started badly, with the aircraft arriving a day late. Worse was to follow, as, on leaving Honolulu, the landing gear refused to retract. On returning to the airport, the crates were removed from the plane and placed on the tarmac in temperatures of 30°C; luckily a stiff cool wind was blowing, which helped to keep the animals comfortable. Finally, as we approached Luton airport, I was sitting behind the pilot, who was far from happy about the shortness of the runway. On landing, we virtually ‘nosed’ the far perimeter fence; it turned out to be the first fully laden 747 to land there. The satisfying outcome was that no sheep died in transit or within the next few weeks, and they significantly increased our knowledge of scrapie and BSE.

No-one will ever forget foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in 2001; my involvement stemmed from our own flock of sheep, which was just five miles from one of the early Cheshire cases. I was not prepared to leave on detached duty for Rosie to possibly be confronted with disease in our flock. As a result, I was asked to represent the Sheep Veterinary Society (SVS) at stakeholder meetings along with two colleagues. It was a harrowing time, but it enabled us to build a close relationship with the National Sheep Association. Sadly, there were major differences of opinion between the SVS and the British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA), which could not be resolved by the BVA.

We achieved a few successes, one of which was preventing the entire population of hefted sheep in the Lake District from being slaughtered. Based on the epidemiology that was then available, we argued for a six-day standstill compared with the BCVA's 21 days. We exposed flaws in the modelling, which argued for 3 km slaughter, and subsequently discovered that the model was based on human sexually transmitted disease, but we still lost many of the arguments. In 2007, there was, happily, a huge degree of cooperation and pooled skills, and the SVS, BCVA and BVA worked closely as a single entity to deal with FMD and bluetongue.

Sheep people are very friendly and we have made many friends. My involvement with the International Sheep Veterinary Association (IVSA) has resulted in many overseas friends, particularly in New Zealand.

I have been very fortunate in my veterinary career, having run my own practice, worked in the veterinary pharmaceutical industry, been in government service and finally run my own sheep consultancy. None of this could have been possible without the support of Rosie, who probably had an undue amount of responsibility in bringing up three children, never fewer than four or five salukis and the sheep. Her support allowed me to achieve the RCVS diploma in sheep health and production and to be a founder diplomate of the European College of Small Ruminant Health Management.

The advice given to me over my career has had a profound effect. Seeing practice, Horace Bell was insistent that ‘you should never take a flier’; if you did not know, say so and find out. Another of my great mentors was the late Terry Boundy, particularly for his enduring enthusiasm and deep knowledge of sheep, as well as so many others who have contributed to my veterinary understanding. Their advice was always given freely and willingly. I admire today's graduates, who have so much to learn and have to assimilate so much in their five-year course. In my case, knowledge was limited in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it has been so much easier to learn by osmosis over subsequent years!

The sheep industry is changing and it behoves the profession to realise the potential for involvement. For the industry to prosper, it requires greater disease management and nutritional advice. The top 10 per cent of producers leave a large number who are underperforming. The SVS and its ‘Talking Sheep’ programme should enable everyone in farm animal practice to confidently encompass sheep work.

Involvement in the Sheep Veterinary Society

A new job in the pharmaceutical industry in the 1970s allowed Chris to have a greater involvement in the Sheep Veterinary Society (SVS).

His first meeting in his new role was held in Exeter, where 32 people, including a number of ADAS sheep advisers and nutritionists, got together. He says: ‘A mix of vets and non-vets persists to this day, and in my opinion gives the society a broader base. Management and nutrition are vital aspects of sheep husbandry and disease control, and I have been fortunate to have been well tutored by specialists in these areas. I am disturbed that the sheep medicine taught in our veterinary schools tends, in general, to ignore these important aspects.’

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He was subsequently appointed the society's secretary, and the then SVS president, Karl Linklater, suggested that the SVS should organise an ‘international’ meeting at Heriot Watt university in the early 1980s. ‘It still seems surreal that the secretary organised the speakers, the venue, the accommodation and a multitude of other tasks’, says Chris. ‘We have moved on a long way; the forthcoming meeting in Rotorua, New Zealand, in February 2013 has a professional approach.’ Having attended every international SVS conference, he was appointed secretary of the International Sheep Veterinary Association in 2009.

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