As part of the first year reading Veterinary Medicine at Cambridge, students are required to do twelve weeks of pre-clinical extramural studies, typically at farms, stables and veterinary practices. Although Government guidance to contain the spread of Coronavirus has required much of the country to shut down, those with animals to care for have to carry on with business as (not quite) usual.
Having arranged a placement to work at a farm in North Buckinghamshire, Wolfson vet student Chloe Ellison found that her assistance was still welcome when the annual lambing season coincided with the early days of the lockdown.
"Not much can disrupt the farming lifestyle," says Chloe, "They get up, feed their animals, have a cup of tea and carry on."
Although she had some experience with lambs at the Farm Animal Veterinary Services in Cambridge, this was Chloe's first real season lambing and she enjoyed it so much that she volunteered to stay at the farm for an extra week into her Easter break.
"I learned loads," she says. "With lambing you mainly try to keep an eye on the mothers to let them deliver on their own, but you have to learn to spot when they are having trouble and you might have to go in and assist."
One challenge was maintaining social distancing when trying to assist at a birth, which often calls for two people to attend to one sheep and at least one lamb (sheep sometimes have twins or, rarely, triplets). Because Chloe was staying at the farm, she and the farmers were able to consider themselves a household in order to adhere Government guidance.
Learning about different sheep breeds was part of the work. The farm crosses North Country Mules with Blueface Leicester rams as the Mule ewes are known to be 'good mothers'. They also have some Beltex and Charollais mothers, known for their excellent heavy muscling which makes them good breeds for commercial lambing. The farmers have to keep an eye on things after the ewes gives birth, to ensure that the mother is attentive.
"Sometimes they are a bit clueless. Often the mothers will push a lamb out and walk off, or another will dive in and think it’s her lamb. That’s why you pen them up right after birth so the lamb can figure out who its mother is and attach to her."
Virtual Vet School
Now that Easter Term has started, Chloe is at home just outside Milton Keynes and studying online with the rest of her cohort. There are about 70 veterinary students and in the first two years they share many of their lectures with the larger cohort of 300 medics. As for all other Cambridge students, Chloe's supervisions and lectures have moved onto online platforms like Moodle and Zoom.
"The Vet School is trying move exams and extend deadlines for placements," she says. "They realise it's an awkward time to approach people and ask if they want a vet student for two weeks." Chloe likes the online lectures but she misses the social aspect of College and Vet School life.
"You miss everyone being in the same boat, spending time together during the hours between lectures. Fortunately, our welfare reps have been brilliant and our supervisors and lecturers have definitely been on our side."
Chloe was living in J block before leaving for her placement but she didn't realise that she wouldn't be coming back for Easter Term. Now she's hoping - like all of us - that she'll be back for Michaelmas. In the meantime she's trying to find her next placement, preferably with horses or possibly with the RSPCA, so she can see a different aspect of animal care and husbandry.
Chloe Ellison is a Wolfson College Alborada Scholar in Veterinary Medicine.