Veterinary medicine is not for the faint-hearted but growing up on a sheep farm provided Nicole Bratton with a solid foundation to survive the challenge.
The 19-year-old hails from Kesh, a village outside Enniskillen, County Fermanagh and is currently living in Nottingham, where she is studying veterinary medicine.
“My family have always been farmers – I am a fifth-generation farmer on both sides of my family.” she explained to Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming.
“My earliest memories of farming life all involve my granda, Edwin, (Graham) who has taught me all I know about farming and tending to livestock.”
“As a young child, I would follow my granda around the farm in my Massey Ferguson boiler suit and pink wellies asking him 101 questions about sheep, cows, tractors, or anything else farm-related.”
A first love
Her interest in veterinary medicine stemmed from seeing vets at work on the farm, whether it be TB testing or performing surgical procedures.
“I have always wanted to do veterinary medicine for as long as I can remember. I loved animals and biology at school and felt it was the career for me.”
“As a child, I was in awe of vets, how they could take a calf out of the side of the cow and leave nothing but a line and a few stitches, I was hooked.”
“The first time a vet asked me to assist in helping restrain a ewe or holding up the skin while they worked, I smiled from ear-to-ear and would tell everyone I met how I had assisted the vet during an operation.”
Following her dream
Nicole is currently in her first year of studying at the University of Nottingham School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at Sutton Bonington campus in April 2020.
She began the course after completing her A-levels in summer 2019, however, due to the nature of the degree programme, she had a gap period from September to April where she split her time between farming and two off-farm positions.
She is part of the first-ever April cohort for a veterinary medicine and surgery degree in the UK. She began the course in April as scheduled, however, she had to remain at home due to the global pandemic.
“At first, it was daunting starting our university life at home, especially with a predominately practical subject such as veterinary, but after the first initial weeks, I started to fall into a routine.”
“We would have lectures most days 9am – 5pm with a half-day on Wednesdays. Tuesday evenings and Thursday mornings were dedicated to practicals which consisted of completing worksheets or watching pre-recorded anatomy videos online or live demonstrations.”
“The practicals I struggled the most with as we could not physically see the specimen in front of us and we used a lot of video chat to help each other answer the questions.”
“Although I loved the content, it was very hard to keep motivated while working at your laptop each day for hours at an end.“I also found it hard to meet new people as we could only chat with each other online.”
After they completed their first module, neuromuscular, students moved into campus in late July 2020 after weeks of deliberation. “I could finally, meet the people I have seen on screens for the past 14 weeks!”
“After a few days, I was settled in and got stuck in to do some real-life practicals, even if we must wear PPE and masks.”
“Practicals were something we found it hard to complete and learn from online as well as completing all the theory of our animal handling.” she added.
Nicole is finding living away from home while also having livestock to keep very challenging.
She assists her father Ray (works full-time off-farm), with the running of the family farm and together, they run the 40-strong flock, which comprises of mainly Suffolk-crosses and Texel-crosses.
“The first sheep I ever bought with my own money were my Hampshire-down crossbred hoggets. I bought them 5 years ago in Ballymena and all have had 1-2 lambs each year since,” added Nicole, who helps other family members with their farms.
“However, my pride and joy are my own very own flock of purebred Kerry Hill sheep. I got my first two hoggets as a Christmas present in 2017 and put them in–lamb to an award–winning, pure-bred registered ram the following year,”
“I am gradually building up my flock keeping all ewe lambs as replacements and selling my ram lambs.” explained Nicole, who hopes to exhibit sheep at agricultural shows in the future.
She will have time allocated to start my placements in our winter holidays (January to March 2021), in February, with intentions to travel to Germany to Real Grass Milk for one-month.
“In March, I will return to the farm I previously worked at in Pettigo, Donegal to help them lamb over 300 ewes, while also learning how to use sheep dogs from the farmer and expert sheepdog breeder and handler, Allistair Lyttle.”
Looking ahead, Nicole has her heart set on becoming a mixed practice or farm vet when she graduates, however, before she enters the working world, she would like to explore agricultural practices in other countries.
New Zealand and Australia, or to European countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden are on her bucket list.
“I would ideally like to become a predominately sheep vet with an interest in researching common problems such as mastitis and sore feet of sheep and cows.”
“Personally, as a young woman and quite small for a farm vet, I feel I will have to prove myself over and over again to all who meet me and think I will not be able to perform the task in hand or perform it well.”
“My goal is to prove people wrong and I am making it my mission to be the best at what I do and perfect my skills showing people they cannot judge a book by its cover.”
“I always knew my future would involve agriculture and I am pleased with how it is going so far. I’m so grateful for getting the opportunity to study my dream degree and I’m excited to see what the future will bring,” she concluded.
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