What does a District Vet do?

By Coonamble District Vet, Dr Jillian Kelly

We sometimes get asked “what’s the difference between the District Vet, and the private vet?” The answer is actually very interesting and goes a long way back through the history of agriculture of NSW.

Put simply, the District Vet visits production animals (such as sheep, cattle, pigs, goats and poultry) on farm to check for herd health and disease issues.  We don’t look at individual animals and we are solely a diagnostic service – we do not carry medications or treat animals.  Our job is quite strictly legislated in terms of what we can and cannot do, and we work closely with private vets to make sure we fulfil our role and deliver animal health outcomes.  Landholders pay yearly “rates” to Local Land Services, which funds our activities (so there is no charge at the time of our visit, aside from lab testing fees).

We work closely with NSW DPI, and are always on the look out for emergency, exotic, or notifiable diseases.  Thankfully, we rarely find them, but every time we are on farm testing for these diseases (and finding nothing) we are proving our “absence of disease” to our export markets.  We record each farm visit, have targets that we need to meet each year, and all of this filters back into a much greater food security system that helps keep our export markets open and our “clean, green” image around the world.

The District Vet system is unique to NSW and started in the mid-1800s, in response to sheep scab, which was a mite that arrived in Australia with the First Fleet.  This mite caused extreme itching in sheep, damaging the fleece and causing sheep to lose condition and sometimes die. As wool production was the only real source of income in the early days of the Australian colony, any disease that reduced this was of prime importance for the expanding colonies. In his 1865 Report, the Victorian Chief Inspector of Stock estimated that the annual financial loss to the colony was over £500,000.

The occurrence of sheep scab led to two streams of innovation in the Australian pastoral sector: one technical, the other organisational. In the first, pastoralists developed new and more effective acaricides that in combination with such developments as the race and dipping troughs meant that they could treat large numbers of sheep more efficiently. In the second, sheep scab was directly responsible for the first Australian legislation that was aimed at controlling an animal disease.

In 1832, the NSW Parliament passed the Scab in Sheep Act, which was intended to provide for the control of mange within the “boundaries of land for location to settlers”.  A similar Act for influenza in sheep was enacted in 1838, followed by the consolidation of both Acts in 1846, which was itself repealed in 1853 and replaced over the following two years with Acts providing for the appointment of Sheep Inspectors and payment of compensation for sheep destroyed, funded through the raising of a two-pound per 1000 sheep levy based on annual sheep returns. This legislation was replaced by the Scab in Sheep Prevention Act 1864, which authorised the proclamation of “scab districts” and the election by leviable owners of five sheep directors in each district.

The Diseases in Sheep Act 1866 repealed the former legislation and established 41 sheep districts. These districts were based on the police districts of the time, and this is what today’s current PIC numbers are based upon. In 1870 the Act was amended to introduce the principle of fees being payable for travelling stock, and for the fire-branding or tar-branding of sheep.

Under this Act, full-time inspectors were appointed, and they could issue warrants to inspect, detain, seize and destroy infected sheep. Infected sheep had to be kept under constant supervision by day and enclosed by night. Travelling sheep had to be branded and notice of intention to drive sheep across another person’s land had to be given.

Once the legislation was enacted and enforced, eradication was rapid with the disease being eradicated from the Australian continent by 1896; a remarkable achievement.

The Pastures and Stock Protection Act of 1880 replaced the 1866 Act and continued the concept of local Boards comprised of eight elected directors. The concept of noxious animals was introduced and landholders were for the first time required by law to control such species, and Boards were empowered to ensure such work was done.

Originally, Stock Inspectors did not have veterinary qualifications, but essentially operated as veterinarians in terms of diagnosing and controlling disease under legislation.  The first vet school in Australia opened in Melbourne in 1908 and then one in Sydney in 1910.  At the opening in 1910 in Sydney, there were about 16 enthusiastic students, some of whom had waited for years to enter the course. The buildings were incomplete, staff minimal and the course work yet to be fully developed.  Only one graduated - Ian Clunies Ross in 1914.  Numbers at the Melbourne Veterinary Faculty fell to the point that it was closed in 1928.  Eventually, veterinary science gathered steam in Australia and from the mid-1900s onwards each “board” employed a District Veterinarian, who serves as a Stock Inspector under the legislation.

The “boards” had several name changes over the years - Pastures Protection Boards became Rural Lands Protection Boards, then Livestock Health & Pest Authorities and most recently, Local Land Services.

Throughout this time, District Vets have contributed to Australia’s Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC) which ran for 27 years from 1970 to 1997, the endosolfan residues of the 1990s, the Equine Influenza outbreak in 2007 and many other disease and natural disaster responses.  The District Vets Association held it’s 100th conference in 2018, a remarkable achievement.

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