Veterinary staff shortages threaten emergency call-outs
Vets have warned that a shortage of graduates taking up full-time jobs could threaten the future of emergency call-outs.
They are being put off by the need to participate in rotas for out-of-hours cover, especially for farms.
As many as 40 positions in practices around Northern Ireland are unfilled.
Most of the positions are in firms which specialise in mixed work covering both pets and farm animals.
And they say if the situation worsens, some practices may no longer be able to answer call outs which happen after practices close.
Phil Walsh, a senior vice-president of the Association of Veterinary Surgeons practising in Northern Ireland, said there was a danger Northern Ireland could eventually become like parts of the west of Ireland and the Scottish highlands - where out-of-hours cover has ended.
Spring is a particularly busy time for veterinary out-of-hours calls, with lots of cows being calved and ewes lambed.
Complications at birthing can require intervention in the middle of the night.
Mr Walsh says young graduates are often looking for part-time jobs, are emigrating or focusing on small animal work which tends to be done in office hours.
The weekend, evening and night-time calls of a mixed practice are putting some graduates off.
And if a practice is unable to fill a position, it means the burden of out-of-hours work falls on fewer people and is harder to sustain.
"Out-of-hours calls tend to be proper urgent emergencies, they're not frivolous things that could wait and there's implications there for animal welfare if they can't be sorted out in a timely manner," said Mr Walsh.
He said practices can "struggle on" trying to share the night-time cover rota between a couple of vets, but it can quickly become unsustainable.
Practices could employ locums, he said, but it was expensive and made week-to-week planning difficult.
Mr Walsh's Armagh-based practice is fully staffed.
Rebekah Mulligan, one of his colleagues who graduated several years ago, loves the variety of mixed practice work but knows of several firms which are a vet down.
There were a hundred graduates in her year at Glasgow University, but many were from abroad and returned home, while others do not want to settle into a full-time role too early.
"People like to travel and won't necessarily want to start working immediately on graduation," she said.
"So I think it's a vicious circle where you do have quite a lot of people but they don't always take jobs."