A report to analyse the best options for establishing a vet school within the region has been commissioned by Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

It’s the first formal step towards establishing a veterinary school within Northern Ireland, despite the proposal being bandied about for several years.

Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots commented: “I have been concerned for some time that Northern Ireland may not attract sufficient veterinary surgeons to meet the needs of the local agri-food industry in the future, and I have been keen that my department continues to explore options for a more secure supply of vets for Northern Ireland on a longer-term basis.

Northern Ireland is particularly exposed in this respect as its agri-food industry depends so much on exports and a high animal health and welfare status; while it is the only region of the United Kingdom that does not have its own indigenous veterinary education facility.

“Whilst in post, my colleague Gordon Lyons met with the vice-chancellors of Ulster University and Queen’s University Belfast, to discuss the potential and the possibility of developing a veterinary school for Northern Ireland.

“An analysis of options to deliver a more assured supply of vets for NI into the long term, including consideration of the various models for third level veterinary education has now been commissioned.

“This analysis will be taken forward by officials working with the Strategic Investment Board, under the joint oversight of the department’s chief veterinary officer and senior representatives from the two universities.

“The analysis and identification of the best potential options is expected to be complete before the end of the year.”

University support

Queen’s University vice-chancellor Prof. Greer said: “The engagement with DAERA was a key step for the development of a veterinary school in Northern Ireland, which has always depended on veterinary graduates from GB and Ireland.

Being able to produce our own vets would be transformative for Northern Ireland and particularly our agri-food industry, which is such an important part of the economy.

“Furthermore, the proposal will draw on the collective strengths and assets of Northern Ireland with a novel and exciting partnership model. We look forward to further engagement on this in the coming months.”

Prof. Carol Curran, executive dean of the faculty of Life and Health Sciences at Ulster University, added: “Ulster University is supportive of proposals to consider the establishment of a veterinary school in Northern Ireland and interested in discussing this concept more fully to develop a preferred way forward with the steering group, which includes the relevant government departments and stakeholders.

“Ulster University offers outstanding overlapping provision in a range of disciplines, including our existing expertise in biomedical sciences and pharmacy and through a strategic and longstanding partnership with CAFRE.

“Therefore, we are confident we can bring related and valued expertise and experience to this discussion.”

Opportunities to strengthen veterinary research

British Veterinary Association Northern Ireland branch president Mark Little said the establishment of a veterinary school would not only encourage young people locally to enter the sector but also strengthen animal health research.

“We warmly welcome the announcement of this options review which demonstrates how much the Executive values the role of the veterinary profession in the success of Northern Ireland’s agri-food industry,” he said.

Across the UK we are seeing real problems with veterinary capacity. We’re already working across the sector to increase recruitment into the veterinary profession and improve the retention of our colleagues across all areas of veterinary medicine.

“Opening a new vet school in Northern Ireland presents opportunities to encourage young people from our local community to pursue a veterinary career, as well as building on our strengths in veterinary research into animal health and welfare and public health.

“We look forward to engaging positively with the options analysis on behalf of our members.”