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Alan Taylor

Alan Taylor

Vet School student,

University of Bristol

In 1971, long before most of my contemporaries at University were born, I was 8-years-old and visiting a small farm. It was lambing time and despite the usual Ayrshire spring weather this day was fine, sunny with some scudding clouds and not too cold. My uncle was in the barn with the ewes and I was allowed to go and watch what was happening; the sight of a lamb being born was the kick-start for something that has never left me since, a desire, and indeed a vocation, to work with and for animals.

I was also very lucky in that I lived in a small village in the Ayrshire countryside and so was always close to farm animals never mind the usual family pets of dog, cat or hamster. I roamed the fields and woods with friends doing all the things that country boys do, staying out overnight at times and watching deer and badgers in the early mornings. Occasionally, we would come across a lamb or more usually a calf in difficulties and would alert the farmer to its plight and hope that we had helped the animal back on the road to recovery. We went bird watching; ferreting for rabbits, which we took home and ate; fished in local rivers, and took frog spawn home to hatch and watch with wonder as we fed the new born tadpoles and saw their conversion into the frogs we released. I also visited friends farms to watch what was happening or try to help although we usually got in the way, learning to ride in the process, bareback, on the 50 or so ponies that my friends' father had in the field. I also used to look on in amazement when the local hunt gathered to fox hunt, as the horses seemed so huge and the hounds a noisy confused mass of dogs. My friends and I found many nests, and kept a close watch on the development of the chicks: birds of prey nests were especially exciting, as there would be bones or patches of fur from the small animals that the adults brought to the nest to feed the chicks on.

My first real insight into farming proper came when I started working on a pig farm at weekends and during school holidays. I was paid the princely sum of £3 a day, which I gave to my mother and from which she gave me pocket money. This was a huge boon to my ambitions to become a vet. Not only was I feeding and mucking out the animals, I also learned about the importance of housing, husbandry and record keeping. I learned about the requirements for iron injections (piglets can become anaemic if they do not get these in an indoor unit), teeth clipping, castration of boar piglets, scour prevention and control, and the vice that is tail biting. The smell of Stockholm Tar will live forever in my nose. Moreover, I learned to respect the animals a great deal and learned that boars can be very dangerous, as can a sow with piglets if she thinks you are a threat to her litter.

This was it, there was only one career I was interested in and the James Herriot books only reinforced that ideal. A varied outdoor life (I want to be a large animal vet) full of surprises and not a little difficulty but with the satisfaction of knowing that I had been able to help or cure an animal in distress. I also saw practice with a vet in Ayr, which introduced another side of the Veterinary coin, small animal practice and dealing with people. From that week I have also never forgotten that a great deal of the vets time is spent with people. Clients who pay our wage and who love their animals whether it be little fluffy bunnies to the 500kg bull whose nose the vet put a ring through using instruments that looked mediaeval. I also saw that vets have to be sympathetic but also slightly detached as it could be too easy to be drawn into the welters of emotion that can be present during surgeries or at home visits. One small problem got in the way. Exam results!

I was bright and passed my O-levels easily with good grades. I was slightly cocky in fifth year and, disaster, my exam results were shocking despite the fact that I knew that 3 A's and 2 B's (Scottish Highers) were required. Sixth year came and despite better results I was not good enough to do what I wanted. What to do? I finally enrolled, through clearing, to read Biology with every intention of going on to Veterinary Medicine after this. However, I would have to fund my second degree myself and get good honours in my first degree the first time round. I was despondent, as I would not have the money to achieve my aim. I joined the TA as a bit of a release from studying and found an alternative career waiting in the military. I was commissioned into the Royal Air Force as a Navigator in 1984 and went on to fly in Phantoms and Tornado's as well as working for the United Nations and spending time on exchange with both the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy. I went all over the world saw many fantastic sights and some not so fantastic sights and experienced what warfare can do to people, especially to the innocent: this brought out my desire to give something back to the society in a more caring way.

My desire to study Veterinary Medicine was still burning and I had an option. Stay with the RAF until 55, flying occasionally but being behind a desk or in a tent in some remote part of the world or take the plunge and apply to vet school to achieve what I wanted to achieve, and still do, all those years ago. I had left university after only completing an ordinary degree so I needed qualifications. I decided to complete an Open University degree rather than do A-levels, as I wanted more of a challenge. Six years after starting my degree I was invited to interview at Bristol University for a place at Vet School and was offered a conditional entry. I achieved my required Honours degree in October 2000 and started Vet School a year later.

Was it worth it, leaving my career as an Officer in the Royal Air Force, where I was on the first rung of the senior officer ladder, flew fast jets for a living and earned considerably more than I will for a number of years as Veterinary Surgeon? Most definitely, despite the cost and the efforts needed to get in: despite the fact that I will earn significantly less than I did before and despite the fact that there will be trials and tribulations along the way. What did James Herriot say, "It shouldn't happen to a vet". It usually does and I hope it happens to me!


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