Final-year veterinary students from across the United Kingdom have joined the battle against the foot-and-mouth epidemic.
So far, 136 volunteers have answered last week's call from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to assist veterinary officials and temporary veterinary inspectors with everything from office work to supervising the slaughter of infected animals.
The first recruits are mostly from the Royal Veterinary School, University of London, where final exams have already been taken, Bristol and Liverpool universities. The number of fifth and sixth-year volunteers from other schools is growing, despite imminent final examinations. Others are on stand-by. Most have signed up for four weeks and will be paid by Maff. The universities will provide welfare support and counselling.
Joe Mayhew, head of veterinary clinical studies at Edinburgh, described the work as "extremely tiring and emotionally charged", requiring a constant turnover of volunteers.
Mac Johnston, professor of veterinary public health at the Royal Veterinary College, which approached Maff three weeks ago to volunteer its help, said:
"They won't be sheltered from the slaughter policy and for some it will be horrendous. Nevertheless, we think it is great that they are able to make this contribution."
Veterinary school heads may have to rethink their balance of student interests and national demand if the crisis has not eased by the end of the Easter break.
In this instance, the prospect of postponing final exams, scheduled for May and June, may be discussed reluctantly along with other options. Bob Ward, senior lecturer in the farm animal division of Liverpool's veterinary faculty, said turning to fourth-year students for help could be one alternative.
Some universities are already preparing practical veterinary exams that replace live farm animals with specimens and videos. Diploma and residential courses have been disrupted, veterinary hospital services closed or restricted and many students have been unable to gain practical experience.
Veterinary academics have also pitched in with various ways to help fight the outbreak, from plotting the spread of the epidemic to hands-on work on the farms.
• Sparsholt College near Winchester, which earlier this month imposed a teaching ban on all but horticultural students, has lifted the embargo.
The college resumed all courses this week but with strict controls, placing its farm and farm management centre off limits. Students who were on farms or in contact with animals in the interim were asked to stay away.