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- Credit: Nick Butcher

Horses and farm animals will, as always, have a starring role at this year’s Suffolk Show but none of that would be possible without a small team of vets who work around the clock, unseen by most showgoers, during the two-day event, as Sheena Grant reports


- Credit: Nick Butcher

On Wednesday night, vet David Stockton will trade his usual bed for a night at the heart of what he likens to a temporary farm of 2,500 animals.

Equine vet David Stockton is one of a team of vets at this year's Suffolk Show

Equine vet David Stockton is one of a team of vets at this year's Suffolk Show - Credit: Nick Butcher

He’ll hopefully get a few hours’ sleep before he’s woken around 6am by the cows, sheep, pigs and horses – whose handlers will already be up, washing, grooming and preparing their animals for one of the biggest days of the year.

But there could be a knock on the door far earlier, even before the first grey light of dawn, if he’s needed to attend to a sick or injured animal.

This is behind the scenes in the animal quarters at the Suffolk Show, where some of the most prized equine and farmyard specimens for miles around are given temporary lodgings ahead of their big moment in the show ring.

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It’s a world unlike anything the average showgoer would be able to imagine but it’s one that David, one of five practising vets on hand to ensure the animals’ welfare, absolutely loves.

“There’s a real sense of camaraderie and everyone working towards a common goal,” he says. “It’s brilliant to be part of that.”

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Organisation is at the heart of this extraordinary farmyard home-from-home. Everything possible is done to ensure the animals are settled into the sort of routine they are used to - and that even includes setting up milking facilities for the dairy cows on site.

“It really is something to behold and I take my hat off to the people who set it all up,” says David, from the Chapelfield Veterinary Partnership in Norfolk.

David’s been one of the show vets for the last five years, a job he was invited to do to help ensure there was sufficient expertise in the farm animal and equine fields, areas in which he specialises.

“It’s a sad thing about agriculture in Norfolk and particularly Suffolk now that the number of animals has dwindled because a lot of farms have turned solely to arable in the current economic climate and there are not that many veterinary practices in Suffolk that do a lot of farm work,” he says.

Animals taking part in the show will start arriving at Trinity Park as early as Monday, when one of the team of show vets - Ben Ryder-Davies, from Woodbridge, will be on hand to check all is well.

“From Tuesday night the main work starts to build up,” says David. “Ben sleeps over on Tuesday night at the showground and he and another vet from Stowmarket cover Wednesday until I come down at about 5pm, sleeping over Wednesday night and covering Thursday with my partner, Chris, also from Chapelfield.

“Head vet Jake Waddilove is in on both days and has more of an administrative role, which includes liaising with any show stands that have any living animals, making sure they have water and are comfortable. He would also get involved on the odd occasion we get a report of a dog left in a hot car.”

Having been part of the event for a few years, David is now well acquainted with the rhythms of the show. Wednesday morning is generally busy on the cattle front, with lots of showing classes that one of the vets needs to be on top of in case of a problem while another needs to keep an eye on the show jumping arena. A horse ambulance is on hand in case of emergencies.

“You need to be prepared but it’s a long time since it has been needed,” says David.

“In quieter periods we will also have a vet round the stables, just ensuring that all the horses look OK and have water.

“We also have to be constantly aware of things that come under the description of biosecurity so when we’re walking round the temporary stabling we’ll be making sure that none of the animals has any sign of a runny nose or anything that could indicate an infectious disease. It’s very rare that we see anything but it’s something we have to check on. Even if we do spot something, more often than not it’s an allergy rather than anything else but it will need checking anywhere you have large gatherings of animals.”

Although farmers are usually on top of most things as far as their animals are concerned, the vets also need to keep an eye on the livestock, including the welfare of the dairy cows.

The milking lines and tanks installed at the showground are not an added extra to help farmers keep their businesses ticking over while they’re away from the farm - they’re a necessity.

“The cows need milking on the same sort of schedule they have at home or they can quickly become very uncomfortable,” says David.

As well as the animals’ physical welfare, the vets also need to make sure regulations, such as those governing movement of farm animals, and paperwork are adhered to.

“In the UK we have very strict animal health disease controls,” says David. “For instance, there are rules about how often cattle are tested for TB according to where in the country they are. In this part of the country we’re lucky and it’s only every four years but in other areas it could be as often as every 12 months along with pre-movement testing. Farmers know all about it but it’s the sort of thing we need to be aware of.

“All the show livestock will be the top animals in their herd. The biggest exhibitors might bring along a dozen animals and they will be looked after and mollycoddled like no tomorrow. These farmers will be down on the cattle lines until midnight or even later and up again as early as 3.30am to get their animals ready for the show. “There are wash lines, shampoo lines, everything you could imagine, and if one of them does a poo it is removed within seconds. It is much the same with the horses, whose handlers will be up at a similar time, preparing their animals.”

Thankfully, serious incidents are rare. The worst David can remember is when a horse reared, throwing its rider and running into the lorry park, where it struck a glancing blow to its side on a vehicle, causing in a gash that had to be treated.

The incident was dealt with quickly by everyone concerned, which just goes to underline the importance of being prepared for anything.

“I always think of it as a massive farm and you just need to keep your wits about you so you can keep on top of things and deal with any problems that arise quickly,” says David.

“On the night I stay over in a caravan at the back of the cattle lines I tend to go to bed around midnight and get up at 6am. But during the night I am on call. I might get a tap on the door at 4am if someone is worried about anything. Not every case requires any treatment but you can sometimes get problems with the horses getting stressed away from home or a cow that has mastitis.

“Most the things you might have to deal with are probably everyday occurrences as far as the working life of a vet is concerned - you’ve just got a large number of animals in one place instead of spread out at different farms and yards.

“Normally, I would say, the biggest dairy herd you are likely to see is 250 milking cows but at the show you’ve got way over that in one place. It’s all hugely enjoyable and I love it. I see a lot of my clients there and meet a lot of farmers I have never met before. There is a common aim - everyone is there to show their animals - and a really friendly atmosphere. I always feel I am incredibly lucky to be part of that.”

For more details about this year’s Suffolk Show, on May 29 and 30 at Trinity Park, Ipswich, visit www.suffolkshow.co.uk.

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