Article Text


Dairy vet with global experience
  1. John Fishwick


Having been born into a busy veterinary household, John Fishwick was advised to choose a non-veterinary career; however, as a teenager he ignored that advice, having decided that a veterinary career would suit him. He has worked in practice in the UK and abroad and is now head of the Department of Production and Population Health at the Royal Veterinary College

Statistics from

MY father trained and qualified as a vet after he left the army at the end of the Second World War. He spent most of his working life in rural Suffolk where I was born and brought up. As a youngster, I lived in a busy veterinary household and, up until I was about 10 years old, part of our house acted as a waiting room, consulting room, hospital and kennels until the practice eventually moved to purpose-built premises.

John Fishwick discussing a new milking parlour with farm staff in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

It was always busy – a noisy but cheerful place – with several vets, nurses and receptionists working under our roof. Numerous cars were parked in our small yard and the powerful radio telephone continuously interrupted any radios or TV sets in the house.

My father always seemed to be working hard; he was often stressed about how he could squeeze all his work into the time available. Night times and weekends on-call were busy too, and it seemed quite a big event when he had a weekend off. He always told me that being a vet was a great job, but suggested finding another way to make a living because: ‘as a vet you just never stop working’. My siblings heeded his advice.

Despite being immersed in this environment, or perhaps because of it, I did not seriously think about becoming a vet until I was about 15 years old. I had spent a few weeks accompanying my father on his farm and equine calls, watched a few small animal consultations and decided that it was the job for me.

At that time everyone told me – in the nicest possible way – that it was a waste of time my applying for veterinary school as it was almost impossible to get in and it was unlikely that I would be good enough to get a place. So, it was something of a surprise to everyone when I sat the entrance exams and was offered a place at St John's College, Cambridge.

I had a great time at university; I made some lifelong friends as we progressed through the course, and I also managed to get an intercalated degree in pharmacology. Although we probably did not always value our teaching at the time, I really grew to appreciate it once I started work.

At the end of my third year, I spent the summer break in the National Park in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, working with the endangered, and now almost extinct, black rhinoceros, together with another student. The pair of us spent about 12 weeks on patrol with National Park anti-poaching units, collecting data to develop a method of estimating rhino populations using indirect signs, such as dung piles and footprints. We were the butt of many a joke about the dung aspect of our work.

Poaching of rhinos and elephants was a major problem in the area due to the high value of rhino horn and ivory. Well armed and funded poaching gangs were common and caused significant loss of wildlife. Our patrols were relatively poorly armed and trained by comparison, and took place entirely on foot as most of the National Park was so run down that it was not accessible by vehicle.

We would set out on patrol for about 10 days at a time, walking from river to river to gain a water supply and we slept around a camp fire at night in the hope that it would keep some of the more hazardous wildlife at bay. It was an amazing experience and we learned so much from the African scouts who were on patrol with us and who we depended on for our lives. We did experience the occasional charge from an angry rhino or hippo, which gave rise to many an exaggerated story of daring or general incompetence in our survival instincts. Fortunately we never came across any armed poachers.

When I graduated in 1985 I worked for a mixed practice near Beeston Castle in Cheshire. At that time the area was considered to have one of the densest populations of dairy cows in the UK. These were very happy days. We spent a great deal of time doing the nitty gritty of dairy practice – calvings, foot trimming, milk fevers, downer cows, displaced abomasa and fertility examinations. We worked hard with a one in two rota, but at the same time I had great support and mentoring from my colleagues to whom I shall always be grateful. We also were busy with small animal work and, rather more alarmingly, we seemed to deal with a lot of horse emergencies. I was in the first group of candidates who sat and passed the RCVS certificate in cattle health and production in 1988.

After nearly five years in Cheshire, I moved to a mixed practice in Essex. This was a rather ramshackle operation with great colleagues, but with buildings that were in a state of disrepair. Avoiding the pot holes in one consulting room floor and working out how to close and open the consulting room doors proved to be a major part of the learning curve.

I had been working in Essex for about 18 months when I met up with a former colleague for a game of squash. I cannot remember who won, but he said that he was working at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and mentioned that it was looking for a farm animal vet. I told him that university life was not for me, but a few weeks later I found myself employed at the RVC as a lecturer in farm animal practice with responsibility for the farm animal side of the RVC's large animal practice.

Carrying out pregnancy diagnosis in cows in Saudi Arabia

I was surprised that there were any farms so close to London, but we had a good selection of dairy, beef and sheep farms in the area. We always had final-year students with us as we made our calls and we had great cooperation from our clients who, for the most part, welcomed the students and worked with us give them the best experience possible. While at the RVC I became the first person to gain the RCVS diploma in cattle health and production in 1993.

Dairy practice in Saudi Arabia

In 1997, I was recruited to work as head veterinarian for what was described as the largest fully integrated dairy company in the world, based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This was a real shot in the dark for me and it was with some trepidation that I left everything I knew in the UK and headed off to the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia was an amazing country. Alcohol was banned and there was no free association of men and women in public places, such as restaurants or in vehicles, except for immediate family members. The country is the home of the Islamic religion and this dominates every aspect of life, with businesses shutting five time a day for prayer. The country considers itself the Holy Land. The Saudi people were wonderful, very welcoming, friendly and with a good sense of humour. Recognising that foreigners such as myself were not well acquainted with their lifestyle and religion they were extremely forgiving of minor transgressions of protocol and behaviour. Although at times it was difficult, I thoroughly enjoyed living in this wonderful part of the world.

The dairy company had five state-of-the-art farms, each with up to 10,000 high-yielding adult cows, together with massive youngstock operations. Helping to ensure the health, welfare and productivity of these farms in extreme heat was a huge and fascinating task. It brought new meaning to the term herd health. The role consisted, partly at least, of monitoring data from each farm and intervening rapidly when any parameter fell behind target. The solution to most problems required a back-to-basics approach of going to visit the farm where the problem was noted, speaking to the staff involved and working with them to sort it – without terrifying them. We had a large multiethnic workforce who were both talented and dedicated to their animals. Training teams of farm staff was a significant part of the job.

I learned a very important lesson there. The CEO of the company told me that although each farm had a hospital, the vet's role was to keep these empty by preventing disease, not to fill them with interesting cases. I have never forgotten this advice.

An additional challenge was the ever present threat of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), which was endemic and poorly controlled in the country. A major hazard was the large number of nomadic sheep, which were a constant concern to us. FMD was largely kept under control through adopting high standards of biosecurity and vaccination, but we did have several major incursions into our farms.

Returning to the UK

On my return to the UK in 2003, I took up the post of senior lecturer in dairy herd medicine, again at the RVC, where I remain to this day. Now a major part of my role is formal teaching in lectures and seminars. I rarely get out to treat animals, and most of my clinician colleagues would doubtless say that is a good thing. I am currently the head of the Department of Production and Population Health, which covers our production animal, epidemiology, veterinary public health, economics and animal welfare and behaviour activities.

I was president of the British Cattle Veterinary Association in 2010 and was recently president of our local BVA territorial division, the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire Veterinary Society. I am an examiner for the RCVS statutory membership examination and a member of the editorial board of In Practice. I am also in the process of working on a PhD in the field of bovine infectious disease, which is taking a bit longer than it might for a younger student.

Although I have made many mistakes in my working life and continue to do so on a regular basis, I feel that I have been very fortunate in my career. I have worked with great colleagues, farmers and students in a variety of roles and it has given me the opportunity to travel to parts of the world I may never have got to otherwise. I can honestly say I rarely know what challenges each day will bring; this is not always easy but ultimately is very satisfying.

View Abstract

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.