GP interview - The GP farmer

Dr John Locke practises full-time as a GP and farms 300 acres in Scotland.

In my youth, I spent my weekends and holidays working on my great-uncle's farm and with a local contractor, driving tractors and combine harvesters - a really great job for a 17-year-old.

Although the expectation was that I would leave school to work for my great-uncle, there was no guarantee this would be long-term, so I decided to study medicine.

When my parents bought their own farm, I helped them for years, all through my training and after becoming a GP partner.

I have been a GP in Kirkcudbright in Scotland since 1987, working in a five-GP, 6,500-patient rural practice. I had hoped to find a country house with a few acres when I was in my mid-50s, as an interest to pursue into retirement, but the opportunity came early.

Lifetime project

In 1998, I had just turned 40 when the chance came up to buy a farm four miles from the surgery. So my wife and I bought 200 acres with a run-down cottage and set out on a lifetime project.

It took a year to sell our house and as we were also renovating and extending the farmhouse, we required a bridging loan. We survived by renting fields and buildings to other farmers for two years before accepting an offer on our house on the spot, leaving us four weeks to move the family (including my son, aged 12, and daughters, aged nine and seven) into an unfinished property.

On our first night, we slept on bare floors, without internal doors or a proper staircase, surrounded by a muddy building site. A spectacular lightning storm kept us awake and cut off the electricity.

Five months later, the foot-and-mouth epidemic hit, with local livestock culled, right up to our neighbour's farm. Fortunately, we were only quarantined, but we faced problems selling livestock, poor prices and then huge demand for replacement stock, which delayed our plans for expansion.

Over the next three years, we gradually built up the numbers of sheep and cattle, until my son left school to work the farm; however, he soon went to college, meaning I was back to late shifts during the week.

While my son was away studying, I was feeding and tending stock for up to three hours a day, increasing to five hours at weekends, or 12 at busy times. I regarded that as some people would view golf or other hobbies.

I was working full-time as a GP, four miles away, with a half-day off each week and some on-call work with the local co-op.

I have done most jobs around the farm, including cultivation, sowing, building and fencing, and am quite adept at lambing and calving.

My wife helped with stockand book-keeping.

After my son graduated from college, we were able to expand the farm. We now farm more than 300 acres, with 90 beef cows, their offspring and 200 sheep.

Disease burden

Working with animals involves cold, wet, lots of muck, deaths and physical effort, but great moments when I see a calf or lamb being born.

A highlight last year was when one of our cows had triplets. I helped out with the delivery and all three calves are thriving.

Pulling a calf needs a winch and lever contraption, with potential to do harm. Knowing your limitations and when to refer on to the vet is important.

There is a significant potential disease burden to manage, mainly through prevention (good housing, shelter and food, clean water and vaccines), as in human health.

Antibiotics are not routinely used and growth hormones are illegal.

Cows and sheep get degenerative diseases - lost teeth, foot problems, arthritic joints. I have to be ruthless and send them for slaughter before they die, or I will be billed £100 for disposal and I lose their sale value. Infertile stock cannot be kept - a cow costs more than £400 a year to feed.

Parasites are a problem, with gut and lungworms rife, and the wet winters have brought an epidemic of liver fluke.

Farming relies heavily on subsidies. There are major funding changes due across Europe, which will see winners and losers, just like MPIG.

Basic payments are similar to general practice core services, based on historical activity, with smaller grants (like enhanced services). Penalties for non-compliance with legislation are severe. Inspections are stressful and unannounced.

Precarious occupation

Farming is a dangerous occupation, with about 50 deaths per 100,000 annually. Lone working, tiredness and an unpredictable environment are major factors, and causes include accidents, falls and animal attacks. High suicide rates are due to financial problems, loneliness, livestock deaths and the availability of guns.

I have had several injuries while farming, the worst being when I was knocked out by one of my cattle.

Farming is asset-rich and income-poor, but I now have enough stock for a reasonable turnover. Ultimately, the farm has provided work for my son and my wife, as well as a welcome diversion for me.

  • Dr Locke is a GP in Kirkcudbright, Scotland

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