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“Gentle care is as important for students as it is for cows”

06 May 2018, at 11:35am

“Gilbert and Sullivan is in our DNA as Englishmen” said the light opera enthusiast, and most in the discussion group agreed with him. It’s amazing what can be taken as fact, especially if it’s said on Radio 4! I was struck by this comment on a programme last week. Most, as I say, seemed to accept it without question, apart from one sole female voice stating most emphatically that it wasn’t in her DNA! 

A recent advertisement for the Land Rover Discovery would have us believe that adventure is in our DNA. But what behaviour really is pre-programmed? 

We know that newborn babies recognise their mother’s face even at 36 hours old – Tiffany Field and her group reported that in the early 1980s. There is indeed something in human DNA that makes us aware of the human face, as patients with hereditary prosopagnosia (face blindness) demonstrate. But truth be told this wasn’t where I was aiming to travel in this discussion. Let’s start again! 

This afternoon I walked through the fields neighbouring my home village, delighted to see the sheep and their newborn lambs. But they weren’t delighted to see me. As I approached, they skipped away as soon as I came into their flight zone. Is that fear of humans coded in sheep DNA?

Keith Kendrick’s great work, summarised in his paper “Intelligent perception” published 20 years ago this year (well worth reading for free online) and still being continued in recent times, has shown that sheep do have different emotional responses to images of familiar and unfamiliar sheep and humans. 

As we know from lambs that have been bottle fed, fear in these animals seems as much related to their early experiences as it is hard wired into them. An orphan lamb that has been intimately cared for by a person doesn’t develop an “inbuilt” fear of people, or at least that is my experience back 35 years ago when I was on lambing EMS. 

What are a lamb’s normal experiences in the first days of life? Quite often being tail docked and castrated, being injected and moved around by a farmer too busy to spend much time giving it a caring stroke. No wonder most of them are fearful of anybody who comes close. 

We also know from previous studies that dairy cattle that are shouted at and pushed around have lower milk yields than those which are gently cared for. Hedlund and Løvlie were so convinced of this that they entitled their 2015 study “Personality and production: Nervous cows produce less milk”.

Some students ask why they need to undertake 12 weeks of preclinical EMS working on farms. The answer is that this sort of an understanding of our interactions with animals and their importance is key. Yet I don’t think we tell students that enough before they go, or maybe get them to reflect enough on what they have learnt when they return. 

A prior grasp of what we are aiming to achieve and then a reflection on how much we have is, or at least should be, a key part of CPD for all of us. Now we ask veterinary students going out on clinical EMS to be much more specific in what they want to gain from their time “seeing practice” as we used to call it. But it’s not all their responsibility. 

I’m not sure how important some vets see their care and mentoring of students on EMS. Those 26 weeks are absolutely key in providing vital practical skills and one-to-one tuition. Gentle care is as important for students as it is for cows. Do remember that when you next have a student with you please!

Associate Lecturer, Veterinary Ophthalmology
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