James Russell, Senior Vice President, British Veterinary Association
Hi, I’m James Russell. I'm the Senior Vice President of the British Veterinary Association. My clinical history is that I've been a farm vet in a mixed practice in Derbyshire for around about 17-18 years before joining in with BVA and becoming very involved in the development of the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway.
And I'm here today with Martin Jenkins, who has the policy lead on this at Defra and we’re hopefully going to chat through and break down some barriers and hopefully dispel some myths about what the Pathway means.
Martin, I came into this perhaps after it had been born as an idea, but how would you explain the Pathway to our vets who are out in practice at the moment? How would you explain the Pathway to them and what does it mean for them?
Martin Jenkins, Defra Policy Lead, Animal Health and Welfare
So I think the Pathway itself is a really simple ambition that's really easy to understand but can be quite hard to achieve. And really at the core, we're talking about healthier, higher welfare animals on our farms and trying to really help farmers and vets to do an even better job than the incredible job they’re already doing today.
And that's split into a whole series of different things, and the thing we're going to talk about today is the Annual Health and Welfare Review, which at its core is about making the most of the really trusted relationship that we have between farmers and their vet, and getting more vets out onto farms, more time for the farms already talking to their vets a lot about health and welfare, and giving them extra time to do new things, but also helping those farms that maybe aren't seeing their vet as frequently as they might like to, and the space to have really good conversation about health and welfare with government helping rather than getting in the way.
So, if we delved into some of that a little bit, and I'm trying to imagine some of the concerns that my members might have as we were thinking about this. And I suppose the first one to say, we've got a lot of farms that we’re engaging with in that proactive herd-health, flock-health planning way already, and we do some of that for accreditation bodies, for assurance bodies, and why is this different? Why should I want my farmers to take advantage of this Pathway?
Well, it's always helpful to have additional support available. So there are plenty of farmers and plenty of vets that are having great conversations, and we want those to happen more, and we're happy to provide some funding to help facilitate that.
So, in the case of some farms, they'll be building on the planning that they've already done, perhaps as part of an assurance scheme, or perhaps completely separate from an assurance scheme. And this might mean that they've got a little bit more time to delve into something in more detail or undertake some work that they'd like to do, but maybe don't normally have the funding to undertake at that time.
But of course it's not just about that conversation, it's also about some priority testing. So particular diseases or conditions, so PRRS (Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome) for pigs or BVD (Bovine Viral Diarrhoea) in cattle or drench testing for sheep with respect to anthelmintics.
So it's a little bit of extra space to do that for those that are already doing good stuff. But also really important to recognise this is a totally different space. So there's no connection to audits, there's no connection to inspections by government or any other body. This is genuinely free time for the farmer and the vet to have a really honest, open conversation without worrying that there's going to be some kind of financial or regulatory impact for the farm.
Absolutely. But I can imagine that, we're going to need to give some feedback to government, aren’t we, in exchange for the funding, which is going to come out to enable us, as you say, to not just have our time on the farm doing the Review, but also those bits of testing as well. So how could we reassure both our members, but also our farming clients that we're not going to be the eyes and ears of government when we're undertaking this review?
Yeah, absolutely, James, and you'll remember from some of the really early conversations about this, information's precious and there's information that we'd like to understand better as government so we can have a better understanding of the health and welfare of the national herds and flocks.
But equally, that's precious to farmers, it's precious to vets, they want to be using it really effectively, and there's information that they'll need to share between one another to have really good quality conversations that perhaps government doesn't need to know.
So there'll be some relatively simple high level questions that we'll be asking farmers and vets to answer as part of the Review and share with government. But actually a lot of the detail is going to come between the conversation between the farmer and the vet, the reports that the vet’s writing with some clear actions to improve health and welfare on the farm that the farmer’s agreeing to and that are achievable, simple, deliverable.
But that report doesn't go to government. That's specifically between the farmer and the vet. It's about them having a really clear understanding, shared understanding about what what they're going to do next and how they're going to work together to make further improvements.
And of course, that report's going to look really really different on different farms. For some, this is already absolutely embedded in how they operate their farm, for others, this might be something slightly different and a bit new, but hopefully really helping, a really good helping hand for them to make achievable improvements on farm.
So if I broke that down, and thinking a bit more as a clinician, I suppose with this, then I would be interpreting what you've just said to be that there’d be some sort of census-style data that we might be collating and that might be what we pass back to government. But our clinical notes, if I could put it in those terms, will remain, as all the work we currently do with our clients, as part of the property of that relationship between us and the farmer.
And I think what I'm hearing you say as well is that there's an opportunity within that bit which remains between vet and farm to explore some different aspects that aren’t going to be proscribed by the requirements of the Review, but perhaps allow us to think about how do we add value to those farms that we're already doing the routine visit to once a fortnight or whatever in the same way that we can add value to farms where we haven’t walked onto that farm for for a long period of time, and by having that bit of flexibility within that side of it, as long as that census data and the disease data is recorded in return. Would that be a fair assessment?
That's absolutely right. Getting some of this information is really important. But actually, what's really really important here is the conversation that's happening and the actions that can get taken on the farm, that's the most important thing. We want good conversations, fantastic advice to be delivered by vets. And bluntly, what we needed to make sure that we do as government is we're not overly prescriptive in how the vet and the farmer need to spend their time.
We're not the best judges of that. The best judge of that is going to be the vet working with their farmer on what are the clear, most important priorities on that particular farm. And part of that's going to be on the preferences of the farm and the vet, the state of the animals, that sort of farm business, the kind of funding that the farm might have to make for the changes, all of those things are going to need to be factored in for the farmer and the vet to make a good decision about how they spend their time.
But that's their decision. We're not going to prescribe X minutes on this, Y minutes on this. It’s absolutely got to be flexible. I think a really important part of that is, while it's about health, it's about welfare, it's about biosecurity, the responsible use of medicines, vaccines and antibiotics and so on, actually, different farms might want to direct their attention in different places, and that's really important.
For some, they might want to look at activities they can undertake to improve health or tackle particular diseases. Another might think actually, they want to think very carefully about biosecurity, either in herd or from how they're making purchasing decisions. This is all about having time available for the things that are most important to your farm and make the most direct impact for you. That's really, really important.
And as you said about your clinical notes, that's absolutely right. That's private between the farmer and the vet, obviously the Pathway as a whole and the Review in particular, these are the things that are going to change over time. So it might be that we find we want to ask other bits of information in the future.
But actually, a really important thing here is, we need to build trust, and there's a lot of trust already between farmers and vets. We need to ensure that that trust includes government as well, and how we're going to use that data, which is going to be anonymised, it's not shared for inspection purposes or anything like that. And those are really, really important parts of what we're doing on the Review, and those have really strongly come across from farmers and vets as we've been co-designing this.
I wonder if you could just explore what you understand, what you mean by co-design, and why it's been important to you for us to take that route.
Yeah, absolutely. So I talked earlier about trust and how important that is. Actually around four years ago or so, the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England, on looking at opportunities post leaving the EU, looked not just at the opportunity to reform some of our agricultural regulation, but also an opportunity to use some of the post-common agricultural policy in a different way, maybe for different priorities, and one of those was around animal health welfare and really critically, as part of their recommendations to ministers, which were really warmly received, was the idea of doing this in genuine partnership with industry.
We thought that was a great idea and absolutely agreed. And so, very early on, we sat down with people from the board and a few others from various different organisations, including the BVA (British Veterinary Association). And we said, actually, why don't we do this genuinely together?
So rather than doing this in a way where maybe government takes some ideas away, comes up with some proposals, has a couple of conversations and then launches a consultation, why don't we instead sit down together looking at the same objective of healthier, higher welfare animals and why don't we together design what the best solution might look like?
And it's absolutely right to say that the ideas that that group came up with together at the start over time changed quite significantly. And that was really important to give people the freedom to try and design something that would best fit the problems we were trying to address.
So quite early on, we identified endemic diseases as being something we could have some really fantastic outcomes on. We also identified a real challenge around not knowing where the diseases really were. And a lot of the information that we have in England and across the UK had some real gaps in it, was quite old, and from there, through this co-design, we came up with the idea of the Review to get a bit more information about the prevalence of disease, but also deliver some real direct on-farm benefits using the trust that exists between farmers and vets. And this was an idea that came up in our co-design.
It really resonated with lots of the people involved and we saw it as a really different way of achieving some really good objectives. Now, of course, someone might sit back and say, it's not the most innovative idea that if you want to improve health and welfare on farms, you should get more vets out onto farms.
But actually doing that in a way that's genuinely flexible, puts trust in the hands of the farmers and vets together, actually is really a good way of demonstrating that as government, we want a really different relationship with the industry and we want to be designing something together and giving people the freedom to do this in the most effective way we possibly can.
Now, of course, we're not going to fund the Review forever. We've agreed to fund that for three years and then review how it's gone and think about what we do next. But absolutely, what we wanted to do is support something that can act as the backbone of our Pathway and give vets an opportunity to deliver great advice onto farms, but also signpost other forms of support from government, whether that's on other endemic disease support programmes, whether it's animal health and welfare grants, but also to the plethora of initiatives that already exist doing fantastic work, which we're working with as we establish our new programmes as well.
So you've just taken us forward a little bit in the process there, Martin, I think, and outlined that the annual Review is not the Pathway, is it? There's more to it than that, and we're looking forward to those welfare grants and payment by results which we can see spinning out as further benefits for farmers in the future.
So could you just help us to sort of sew those together, please Martin, what the Review does and how it ties into those future parts of the Pathway?
Yeah, absolutely. So I talked a little bit about the report the vet’s going to put together with a few clear actions that are achievable that the farmer can take. It's a short list of really doable, achievable actions that the former can undertake, can afford to do. That's a really, really important part of it, it's got to be practical. Now part of that can include signposting to some of the other things that we're going to do.
So it might be that you think through some capital investment that could be a really good outcome, that could be maybe some different flooring still with a lameness issue, could be all sorts of different things. And for some of these, there are going to be grants available. So what we really want is vets to be able to say, take this action, government will pay a proportion of the money towards this, it's a really sensible thing to do.
Equally if a particular BD or PRRS is found, once those programmes launch, we'll be able to say, look, there's a programme available where you can take action against this or in the sheep sector to address particular sheep health challenges, that's going to be a broader package of options in the sheep sector. Equally it might be, so we're exploring payment by results for delivering higher welfare standards, which aren't necessarily rewarded properly by the market.
So there might be additional payments for those. So it might be just highlighting, actually you've got fantastic welfare, you're really delivering beyond the minimum that everyone needs to deliver to, and actually there's an opportunity here for you to do maybe a bit more and get properly rewarded for it by a payment from government.
So really trying to deliver those better health and welfare outcomes, but in a way that makes some of the support available from government really accessible, easy to understand and quick to act on. So it's not just giving a load of information, demanding a lot of action and then stepping away and telling the farmer it’s their problem.
What are going to be the requirements on vets to be able to go out. Do we need to be going away and filling our study wall with a whole raft of new certificates that say we’re qualified as review deliverers? Where do you see that going? What would be your anticipation with that?
So, we're starting from a point where there is enormous expertise in the veterinary industry. One of the things that we've heard from vets, and I should say, actually, vets are embedded in all of our different co-design groups, as well as the specific veterinary co-design group that you mentioned, one of the things that we've been hearing from them is, there will be parts where just because individual vets tend to specialise on particular species, they might just appreciate a few reminders.
And actually that's a space where that group and you have really stepped into that space and said, look, we can put together some reminders, I think you could describe it as training, but probably, this isn't replacing the knowledge that people already have. I think it's just reminding people of things they already know.
And of course, I think a couple of things we've heard really strongly is actually, everyone sees their professional obligations and takes them really seriously. That would be no surprise to anyone watching this, of course, but actually vets are the best people to decide, do they feel sufficiently confident, qualified, up to date to go and look at a particular species? So it'd be silly for us, as government, to impose those requirements on the industry. Individuals know that already and can do that appropriately.
I think the other point that's connected to that is actually for some of these farms, it's been quite a while since they’ve seen a vet, and actually even if it's not an absolute expert in that particular species, the feedback we've had from quite a few farmers and plenty of the vets has been actually getting a vet on that farm could be a really enormous step forward in terms of improving the outcomes there.
And so that's something we really need to recognise. I think over time this will improve. People get more used to these sorts of things, particularly on farms that they're already familiar with that maybe keep multiple species. But I think that's something we want to put in the hands of the industry with the vet, with the farmers to make the decisions, rather than us try and be overly prescriptive to what is already a highly regulated, highly qualified, highly expert industry.
As you say, perhaps some pointers that just either help people with some of the specifics they might be looking at for those species. But also I would think it might just support people who are thinking, what are they going to do with this review?
And I'm thinking again here about some of these farms where we're working at a slightly more entry level, that we haven't already done a whole load of herd or flock health planning work. There's a job of work for us as a profession there, to convince people of the merit of using this funding to pay for our time to help support them with that.
Perhaps part of the training, part of the understanding is, how are we going to have those conversations? How do we open that one with somebody who hasn't seen a vet since granddad was a nipper? I think that's something that our profession is probably very well equipped for. But equally can see some opportunities here for us to just share best practice of how have we handled those little wins and help people to help themselves really?
Yeah, I think we've definitely heard from some farmers that they don't necessarily believe they're going to get enormous value for money from getting a vet out onto their farm. We think they will actually and we hear from plenty of farmers that that feedback’s wrong, certainly from the vets as well.
But actually, this is one of the things that we're trying to overcome with this support, because a farmer won't need to be putting their hand in their own pocket for this funding, they’ll be getting it from government. So that gives them a safer space to test out. Actually, do they get fantastic value from the vet when the vet comes out to their farm? And the whole of that payment isn't just for the vet, part of that is to reflect the time taken by the farmer, part of it is the cost of testing, and part of it is, of course, the vet’s time.
So actually this should be the opportunity to overcome the barrier that some are feeling, not wanting to spend the money without being completely confident they'll get a really good-value outcome. But actually this will be down to the industry. They'll be able to demonstrate the fantastic value they can add on to farms, delivering on productivity, delivering on welfare, making farmers’ life easier, as well as all the public goods and all the bits the taxpayer will be interested in. I think really what we're trying to do is overcome that initial barrier that might put some people off.
Yeah, absolutely. And that's one of the things I love about this is, I can't think of another scheme I've been involved with which has actually recognised that farmer time is valuable as well, and has recompensed people for the time they’re going to spend, whether that’s carrying out some of the testing or spending time with with their vet on farm.
I think it's, as you say, a real encourager, isn't it, to people, to say this is how seriously we government, vets, the profession, the industry, are taking this, that we're actually willing to support your time as well to engage with it.
Absolutely. And these have been difficult conversations which you'll remember throughout the whole co-design process. And actually we want to remove barriers, we want to get out of the way, and we want to let incredibly capable people, farmers and vets, work together to make improvements and go beyond where they are at the moment, and do that free from fear of inspection, fear of failing an audit, all those sorts of things, and give people the space to make really significant improvements and deliver some really good outcomes.
That's not going to come overnight. We've all talked for a long time about the Pathway being small steps and building over time. The Review's not going to save the world overnight, but can definitely set people on the right path.
Martin, I think that's a really nice point for us to pull this to a close. And probably just my reflections here would be that I don't see anything to lose really by engaging in this, and I see an awful lot that can be gained. And I think we've pointed towards that early career vet who maybe is able to use this as a way on to farm, maybe to the slightly longer in the tooth vets like myself who have just failed to break through to some of our farm clients over time.
But also as a real way, I think, of bonding in some of our more proactive clients to the idea of that greater good and of taking the little bit that they can get, because it will only be a little bit in terms of the testing something and what have you that's been added onto work they're already doing, but taking that in exchange for this broader piece of better understanding of where we're at with some of these endemic diseases.
And who knows where that might lead to? I've harboured this dream for a long time that I might be able to walk out onto a cattle holding and use much better predict and prevent terminology when I'm discussing with them their disease risks and whether they should be vaccinating, when they shouldn't be vaccinating. And that's going to rely on a broader understanding of the data around the country. And I'm sure we could say very similar things about our pig and our sheep units as well.
So Martin, thank you for your time today to share that. And I know that this is just going to be one part of a lot of information which is available to people undertaking these reviews and that there's much more can be found out online about the Pathway as well.