GP Life: The GP who keeps sheep

Dr Martin Nicholas a GP in Cheltenham keeps a flock of sheep on his family's former farm in the Cotswolds.

How did you first become interested in keeping sheep?

My father, and generations before him were farmers. He wanted me to have a qualification in something else before working on the farm - the best advice he ever gave me.

When I failed to get into vet school I became the first person in our family to go to university, studying medicine at St George's in London. I had only been to London once before my interview. 

When our girls were small my father arrived with two orphan lambs which they bottle fed, and they became our first mini flock. Since then we have moved back to the remnant of the family farm, 35 acres high in the Cotswolds and what we had planned as our retirement project, keeping sheep, started prematurely on the retirement of the tenant who had rented our grass keep. He still keeps an eye on things over the wall.

How many sheep do you have and what does looking after them involve?

We have 40 breeding ewes, a ram, and their 80 offspring at the moment. We do everything for them apart from shearing and the antenatal ultrasound to see how many lambs each ewe is carrying, in order that we can feed up the triplets and not over feed the singles (big lambs make for tricky deliveries).

The year has a rhythm of preparation for tupping, winter feeding, spring lambing, with vaccination and worming, but these patients are less demanding and more tolerant of waiting for our attention!

My wife is also a GP and between us we cover the six weeks of lambing, she gets up at 1am, and I get up at 4.30, although we intervene in less than 10% of deliveries.

For welfare reasons we sell as few as possible through the market, and take most to the abattoir to then sell on privately, to our local pub and to a butcher who is also a patient of mine. 

The meat quality is superb because they graze species rich old grass, and grow much more slowly than many commercial flocks, with no artificial feed.

What do you like about having and looking after a flock of sheep?

It's a great antidote to my six sessions of general practice and teaching.

Biophilia (being in touch with nature and the rhythm of the seasons) is an increasingly talked about way of avoiding burnout.

The sheep are surprisingly quite bright and always interesting to watch. We know the behaviours of many of the ewes, and can recognise most individuals now.

Along with the husbandry we also manage the land and the fencing (good fences make good neighbours) and are looking at restoring a wildflower meadow next year if our grant application to Natural England is successful.

How do you balance looking after the sheep with being a GP? 

Monday can be busy, as it's a full day at work, and I have to be at the abbatoir 15 miles away by 6.15 am to get back for morning surgery. 

I have two whole weekdays off a week and, although there can be problems, happily so far we haven't had a major problem that conflicts with medical work. 

Hedge laying is a good winter pastime, although fence repairs and weed control are a year round job. The daughter of one of our community nurses house sits for us when we are on holiday, she is an apprentice on a farm and a very safe pair of hands.

What advice would you give to other GPs interested in keeping sheep? 

We started with 1.5 acres and 2 ewes. I would recommend finding a course about livestock keeping, many farmers have branched out into educating smallholders, and we attended a really good day in Somerset that covered sheep obstetrics, and so far we haven't had to call the vet. 

Medicine involves ‘seeing’ through one’s hands and problem solving, but occasionally I need to go back to the textbook to work out how to manage a malpresentation. James Rebanks wonderful book The Shepherds Life describes shepherding in the Lakes, and you can follow him on Twitter @herdyshepherd1. Tim Tyne also publishes good books for the novice shepherd.

Why did you decide to become a GP?

I'm senior partner and GP trainer in Cheltenham, but am retiring to sessional work at the end of 2016. I always wanted to be a GP since medical school, favouring the small business model, and (laughably in hindsight) having control over my work. I wouldn't choose another career pathway, although I do think young GPs coming through now have a much tougher job to learn than I did.

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