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James Herriot novels created ‘misguided’ public view of vets, leaders claim

The books of James Wight, published under the pen name James Herriot, chronicle the adventures of a fictional young country vet Photo: PA

The much-loved novels of James Herriot have given the public a “misguided” image of the veterinary profession, vet leaders have said.

Veterinary chiefs said that the public perception of vets was based on the “bucolic fantasy world in which male vet gets paid in slices of cake” depicted in Herriot’s books, rather than the commercial realities of modern-day practice.

The books of real-life veterinary surgeon James Alfred Wight, published under the pen name James Herriot, chronicle the adventures of a fictional young country vet.

First published in 1970, they followed the cast of farmers and townsfolk who lived and worked in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1930s.

The popular novels were adapted for television in the BBC series All Creatures Great And Small, which ran between 1978 and 1990.

All Creatures Great And Small is also to become a new TV series and Christmas special on Channel 5, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the original publication of the books.

In a report published in Vet Record, vet leaders said that while Herriot’s novels continue to inspire future vets, the profession is very different from the way it was then.

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Henry Tremaine, a specialist in equine surgery and dentistry, said: “The nostalgic thing is of this romantic life driving around in an old car being appreciated by the clients – but actually the reality is working very long hours in stressful conditions with poor reward, being poorly equipped and with unappreciative clients.”

He added: “That’s being consigned to history – gradually – but I think the public still cling on to the notion that that’s what a vet’s life is.”

His comments follow those of British Small Animal Veterinary Association president Sue Patterson, who earlier this year blamed Herriot for the assumption among some clients that vets’ love of animals would make them prepared to work for nothing.

She added: “I think James Herriot is to blame, because we’re all supposed to love animals and work for nothing, but we all run businesses.”

Vet Record has also published a series of case studies which it said showed how outdated the Herriot depiction of a vet’s life is.

Daniella Dos Santos, the British Veterinary Association’s (BVA) president, grew up in a working class immigrant family in inner city London and had to fund her own studies, it said.

She said: “James Herriot continues to inspire vets and future vets, and we know from our own research that he, along with other vets in literature, is still very popular across the profession.

“At the same time, the profession is very different to what was depicted in the age of Herriot and it continues to undergo significant change.

“We need to make sure that there is a diverse range of role models in place that reflect modern demographics and modern ways of working, while continuing to inspire future generations of vets.”

Adele Waters, Vet Record editor, added: “James Herriot may be a popular cultural figure, but he is 70 years out of date and we should retire him gracefully.

“With 60% of UK vets being female, Herriot is no longer representative of the modern working vet, and today we should really be talking about Jane Herriot instead.”