“Veterinary practice- a vocation not a business”
Born in Ayreshire, Scotland, in 1930, son of a vet who worked at the Hannah Research Institute and who helped eradicate TB in S.W. Scotland, Nicol was always destined to have a love of animals and the countryside. Success brought promotion to his father as Chief Veterinary Officer for West Sussex and he moved with the family to a home overlooking Tangmere airdrome near Chichester. The area had frequent bombings and plane crashes during the ongoing war so he moved Nicol to the grandfather’s farm in Leicestershire. As there was a shortage of meat rations Nicol, as a lad, used to catch rabbits and sell them for 2/6d at the farm gate. His father, once again, did a career move; this time to the Ministry of Agriculture Head Office in Blackpool and Nicol was sent to Bedford Boarding School. After a further move his father relocated the homestead to Reading as he was engaged in work at Compton Research Station near there. Sadly, at the age of 13, Nicol lost his father, aged 43, to Cancer. His mother moved the family back to Leicestershire to look after the grandparents, a move which encouraged Nicol to enjoy the outdoor life. At Bedford School he became Head of House and excelled at sports. Turning 18 he left for Veterinary College in London for 4 years, moving to Streatley in Berkshire for his final work experience year.
As a qualified vet, he was called to National Service, did his basic army training with the Sherwood Foresters in Derby and moved to the Royal Army Veterinary Corps before getting promotion. He gained valuable experience in looking after and training horses, guard and tracking dogs. As a lieutenant he was posted to the East African Battle School in Kenya where he trained dogs to help in the fight against the Mau Mau rebellion. One of the main tasks of the trained dogs was to go ahead of the platoons and sniff out any potential ambush. Nicol remembers that the Mau Mau were not always the biggest risk as there were wild animals always in the vicinity prompting him to sleep with a pistol under his pillow. To help feed the officers mess at Nanyuki fishing expeditions were encouraged, always in three’s, two fishing and one heavily armed guard. Even then there were sportsman’s rules as fly fishing was the order of the day but if the fish weren’t taking Nicol hinted that a hand-grenade lobbed in the river usually produced food for the plate!
Nicol recalls that he was sent to collect 50 wild horses to replace American Champ jeeps that were not effective on the highest jungle ridges due to the lower atmospheric pressure at that height- engines simply would not run. The horses were completely wild and had to be broken in which included castration of the colts and various tests by injection. That is when Nicol found out, the hard way, that horses kick with their front legs as well as their back legs and promptly lost two front teeth. A lot of Nicol’s work involved understanding animal temperament and making sure their handlers were a suitable match. Working to place 50 German Shepherd guard dogs collected from Mombasa with new African handlers was not the easiest task, as Africans generally don’t like dogs and the same could be said, vice versa. One particularly vicious dog decided it didn’t like the sight of Nicol’s backside and left its mark accordingly. This did not deter him for his love of dogs which was evident when the colonel of the battalion was posted and made Nicol ‘Master of foxhounds’.
As well as checking for shoe- loving scorpions before putting on your foot ware each morning there were other surprises. On night before turning in Nicol pulled back the bedding and found a puff adder between the sheets – terminal if he had not checked first. Reflecting on his National Service Nicol said “It was definitely the making of me -I went as a boy and came back as a man.” After the war Nicol was discharged with the rank of captain and started working as a general vet’s assistant with the Hale Veterinary Group based in Chippenham in 1955. There, he met Mr Hales daughter Jane whom he married in 1957. They set up home in a cottage in Wadswick before moving to ’The Firs’ in East Tytherton so Jane could look after her mother. Then came the house built at Hazeland in 1961 which later had an annexe built for the elderly Hale parents of Jane in their twilight years.
In the 60’s it was unheard of for women to be part of veterinary practise, possibly due to the very unsocial hours and the need for physical strength, particularly when dealing with bulls. That was a time when farmers didn’t treat milk fever in cows themselves and always called the vet. Some farmers checked their livestock at midnight, some at 3am in the morning, others at various times during the day, and the vet was always on call seven days of the week and every case was a priority! It was compounded by a waiting room, often full of clients and their pets, who walked in without an appointment frequently interrupted by a farmer on the telephone insisting “I need your services now!” Nicol could often be found asleep in his car on the driveway after overnight calls, such was the work pressure.
Jane had her own way of telling Nicol that his work was sometimes smelly as a vase of flowers would often be placed between him and herself as he was explaining his latest call- out. On one occasion he was called to a farm where a pig had fallen into the slurry pit and after rescuing it and checking it over Nicol was completely hosed down. Needless- to- say, out came the vase of flowers when he eventually got home! He also developed lightning reflexes, as on one occasion, he was inside a bull enclosure, the farmer insisting he could hold the bull by the nose ring, without a yoke, from outside the metal railings. The bull decided it did not want a blood sample to be taken from its tail and kicked out aggressively. To this day Nicol and the farmer cannot fathom how Nicol exited the enclosure at lightning speed through a gap 6” narrower than the width of his body. Lightning speed is one thing, actual lightning is another. On Bowood Estate Nicol was blood testing a herd of 100 cows in a field enclosed by metal railings when a severe storm suddenly arrived complete with lightning flashes. A decision was taken to abort the tests which was just as well as the tree next to where he was working took a direct hit and crashed to the ground- a lucky escape.
Farming practice was not always forthright and a vet had to be wise to the ‘tricks of the trade’ that sometimes beset him. Cows, when fed inside, were in paired byres. The animal quickly became used to being only on the left or the righthand side, head bent around the centre dividing wall so it could feed. The only way a vet could get to the cow to test for TB was around the outside. If a farmer saw a reaction before the return of the vet the cows could be swapped making it impossible for the vet to get to the test side as the animal was tight against the centre wall. Also, if a vet was called to certify a dead animal to make sure it had not died of Anthrax the vet had to be careful of the circumstances given so that certification reports were correct and not fudged by some offered reasons like “It was hit by lightning”!
Nicol’s wide experience as a vet enabled him to become a trainer for the Agricultural Training Board which included lambing, hoof trimming and calving best practice. He also became an inspector for white meat and subsequently red meat on behalf of Chippenham Council and has been called in as an expert witness on many RSPCA cases. A career spanning all these various aspects of animal husbandry and general veterinary practice is best summed up by Nicol’s own words “In my day Veterinary practice was a vocation, not a business. If someone could not afford the services, you still gave treatment for the sake of the animal. On farms you became an extension of the family, now it is all about computerised invoicing, possible litigation, statutory regulations and practice pressure, it is no wonder one of the highest rates of suicide in the UK is among vets.”
Nicol’s philanthropic attitude to life and community spirit has also led to him being Churchwarden and a member of the choir of St. Martin’s Church for 25 years, President of the Bowood Angling Association for 40 years and Lifetime President of the Friends of St. Martin.
Interview between John Harris and Nicol Jordon 24/04/2021