'Vets are retiring and are not being replaced' - Western counties face vet shortage
Special supports are needed to maintain veterinary services in western and north-western counties
There are serious concerns about the sustainability of veterinary practices in western and north-western counties.
Professor Michael Doherty, the Dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine in UCD, says the problem is impacting on "small farmers" in parts of Donegal and Mayo.
His comments come as figures from the Veterinary Ireland Journal reveal that 110 vet posts are vacant nationwide.
Other animal health experts claim that out-of-hours work, unattractive rota systems and limited practice supports are driving new graduates away from large-animal country practice towards small-animal clinics in urban areas.
In some instances it's claimed that large-animal vets are working an extra week every month compared to their small-animal colleagues.
Prof Doherty recently discussed the viability of western-based practice with Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed at the launch of the new Dept of Agriculture National Farmed Animal Health Strategy in UCD.
"There is a challenge in providing veterinary services to the remote areas of the west and north-west of the country and the Minister is aware of that.
"There is a challenge of driving long distances to see sick animals on isolated farms," he said.
Prof Doherty, who previously worked in a large-animal practice in Inishowen, Co Donegal, suggests that the Scottish model is worthy of consideration in Ireland.
There, the government has created the Highlands and Islands Veterinary Services Scheme with the aim of supporting large-animal veterinary practices in remote areas.
"The croft farming of the highlands and islands of Scotland is similar to that in the small farms of west Donegal and Mayo, so the model would be applicable," he said.
Despite the challenges, Prof Doherty is optimistic about the future of the farm animal veterinary sector.
Last June, a total of 121 students graduated from veterinary medicine in UCD, and Prof Doherty said over 60pc will remain in Ireland, working mostly in mixed practice, treating farm animals, horses and small animals.
UCD is one of just five European vet schools fully accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association, which offers graduates an opportunity to work as vets in the US and Canada.
Prof Doherty said there is no significant trend towards emigration based on figures available.
"Compared to last year there is a slight increase in numbers going to New Zealand (five compared to one last year).
"For many young professional graduates, there is a natural excitement and curiosity to travel and spend a few years gaining new experiences abroad.
"Many return home after two to three years having cut their clinical teeth, bringing that invaluable experience back with them," he said.
But Conor Geraghty, animal health chair at Veterinary Ireland, says that returning vets are less interested in working with large animals for financial and lifestyle reasons.
"A lot of our graduates go abroad to Canada or the UK or Australia for a year or two, which is normal enough, but when they experience that they don't want to come back to traditional veterinary practice in Ireland.
"UK practices are much larger - for a similarly paid job in the UK you'd be in a practice with maybe 15 vets compared to two or three here," he said.
Mr Geraghty, director of XL Vets Ireland, a group of 25 independently owned veterinary practices working in partnership, said the issue is also affecting older vets who are due to retire.
"It's similar to the problem with rural GP practices - older vets are retiring and there is no-one to take up the place. At least GPs have the out-of-hours thing sorted but it's still a big issue for us," he said.
However, Prof Doherty says the country practice model in modern Ireland is improving.
"Minister Creed recently launched the new Department of Agriculture National Farmed Animal Health Strategy in UCD, focusing on the need for more herd health involvement by veterinary practice, 'more prevention is better than cure', with structured farm visits as opposed to fire fighting.
"That is a much more manageable way to practise," he said.
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