Pigeon Post: Ian Neville writes from the UK

Our dismal winter of freezing weather and Covid is finally over! Spring has arrived and a rapid Covid vaccination rollout has begun to break the link between new infections, hospitalisations and deaths … the weather is about the same to be honest! By mid-May just over 70 per cent of the UK  adult population had received their first dose and nearly 40 per cent had been fully vaccinated. At the same time, the average maximum temperature this week has been around 12⁰C and the chance of encountering rain (or hail) during the working week 3/5.

The government plan, or hope, is to relax all remaining restrictions by June 21 and for normality (whatever that was) to return thereafter. As I write hospitality is reopening for the first time since the autumn and international flights to just 12 countries including Australia and New Zealand, but also to specks in the Atlantic Ocean: St Helena, Tristan de Cunha and Ascension Island. In actuality, you cannot fly to Ascension unless you are in the military or on government business and Tristan de Cunha doesn’t even have an airport. How many Britons now feel comfortable enough to take advantage of pubs, restaurants and airports again after so long remains to be seen.

The international tourist has become a rare breed, excepting a brief time last summer between our first and second COVID waves. Also critically endangered (according to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust) is the Suffolk Punch, one of Britain’s traditional heavy horse breeds. While it is common to see classes for Shires or Clydesdales at any agricultural show, the Suffolk Punch has been reduced to an estimated population of less than 500 pure-bred individuals including just 70 breeding mares, making them rarer than the Giant Panda. The Suffolk breed originated in East Anglia in the early 16th century, hence its county name, while ‘punch’ suggests vigour or momentum or perhaps derives from an archaic English word for a short or stout person, though they stand 16.1–17.2h and weigh between 900–1000 kg.

They are always chestnut in colour, shorter and more muscularly compact than the other British draught breeds as they were predominantly used for agricultural work, rather than road haulage. In recent times their use has changed to riding and niche haulage tasks like eco-sensitive logging, but this has not been enough to sustain numbers and a healthy gene pool. As a consequence, in recent times only 30-35 Suffolks have been foaled each year.

Another iconic British breed in trouble is the Old English Sheepdog. It was common to encounter these large (27–45kg, 51–61cm tall), shaggy dogs when I began my veterinary career, but they have fallen markedly out of favour since. It is the largest British sheepdog breed, probably originating in the southwestern counties of England in the early 19th century, transitioning to become a popular pet during the mid-20th century (6,000 Kennel Club registrations in 1979).

According to the Kennel Club its recent decline has been dramatic, with a 28 per cent drop in registrations since 2019. The current 227 registrations designate it a ’vulnerable’ breed. This decline in popularity may be associated with its need for regular grooming, copious exercise and the fact it isn’t easy to accommodate one (or more) OES in small, modern homes. In contrast, the popularity of the petite, shorthaired, baby-faced French Bulldog continues to grow with 39,266 registrations in 2020 (up 2700 per cent since 2004) making it the second most popular breed in the UK. The native, medium-sized Labrador Retriever, however, remains the nation’s most popular breed by a whisker with 39,905 registrations. A rarity in veterinary practice management is the Employee Ownership Trust (EOT) business model.

In the days of Old English Sheepdogs just about every veterinary practice in the UK ran as a partnership with salaried assistant veterinary surgeons employed as the workload demanded. This began to change at the turn of the century (1999/2000) when non-vet ownership of practices was first permitted, and corporate veterinary businesses began to develop. In the twenty or so years since corporate groups have expanded to own over 1,700 sites and employ more than 12,000 vets and vet nurses. If this trend continues its estimated that 70–80 per cent of UK practices will be corporates within the next 5–10 years.

An EOT is an alternative management option which so far has not been widely adopted here. Pennard Vets, a six site, 90 employee group practice in Kent opted to become an EOT in March. Pennards three veterinary directors declined corporate takeover offers and instead will continue to work in the new Pennard EOT. Their motivation was to retain their staff, culture and control and to maintain its historic continuity (the practice has been in operation since 1895). The best known EOT in the UK is the John Lewis retail chain, which up until recent times had prospered well and rewarded its employees with an annual bonus. An EOT is an indirect form of employee ownership in which a trust holds a controlling stake in a company on behalf of all its employees and provides owners with an incentive to sell their controlling stake in the business. Employees of an EOT do not pay any of their own money into the business and all their shares are held on their behalf by the trust. If the business prospers a dividend is payable to the trust which then shares it among the employees. The EOT model gives staff a stake in the business (enhancing engagement and productivity) without them having to undertake any capital risk.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.