On a vet’s operating table in a North Yorkshire market town, a Labrador’s life hangs in the balance. Julian Norton’s patient, Bea, seems to have eaten something she shouldn’t. Earlier in the week, the dog’s owners noticed Bea and her litter of puppies playing with a sock that mysteriously disappeared moments later.
Julian’s fears are well grounded. “This is bad,” he says, under his breath. One piece of the fabric is lodged in the intestine, the other in the stomach. It takes a careful, two-stage operation for Julian to remove the now fetid, soggy sock and drop it into a metal surgical tray. As the unconscious Bea is placed in the recovery room, Julian allows himself a moment’s reflection. “If we hadn’t done this, she would have been dead within a day or so,” he admits. “Toxaemia [blood poisoning] would have developed and that would have been the end – a lot of puppies with no mum.” Continues below...
Don't miss Julian at our Celebrate Summer virtual event on 8th and 9th August. We've got two video sessions with the animal expert:
• The Yorkshire Vet: Your pet questions answered – Saturday 8th, 11am (45 mins): Julian Norton answers our readers’ burning pet questions, hear first-hand expert advice on everything from dogs and cats to horses and hens.
• How to choose the right dog breed for you, with The Yorkshire Vet – Sunday 9th, 11am (30 mins): Alongside his own pup, Emmy, Julian will talk us through how to make the right choice when it comes to welcoming a dog into your life. He’ll discuss temperament, exercise demands and characterful perks.
And then, only moments later, with that buoyant spirit that seems never too far from the surface, Julian adds cheerily: “Bea should feel immeasurably better and, fingers crossed, by tomorrow she’ll be bouncing around. And, hopefully,” he says with a wry smile, “she’ll be keeping away from any more socks.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Julian Norton, co-star of fly-on-the-wall television series The Yorkshire Vet. The Channel 5 programme, which has recently completed its tenth season, has proved a huge hit with animal lovers and those who relish Julian’s unique brand of professionalism, warmth and humour.
The last of these traits is a must in a mixed veterinary practice, where no two days are alike. From cart horses to pygmy hedgehogs, Julian attends to them all. The fact that one chapter in his first book, Horses, Heifers and Hairy Pigs is titled ‘Things Stuck in Animals and Animals Stuck in Things’ tells you everything you need to know about Julian’s approach to some of the funnier sides of his extraordinary job.
He’s a fantastic storyteller and life as a busy country vet provides an endless source of anecdotes. From dogs swallowing false teeth to condom-eating cats, five-legged lambs to cows wedged on bridges, Julian’s working day reads like a Herriot novel on steroids. The pace is fast and furious; when he’s not in the surgery, Julian spends long days rattling along narrow country lanes on home visits and emergency call-outs.
“People might find it very difficult to live with a vet,” he confides. “Add to that smelly and muddy cars, blood-stained shirts and a persistent low-grade bad temper when woken up too many times during the night, and vets could be considered not to make the best of partners.” It is fortunate, then, that he married Anne, a vet in her own right and mother to their two teenage children, Jack and Archie. Never far from animals, the family has a Jack Russell and two rabbits. Only true animal-lovers could understand the all-consuming nature of Julian’s job, not to mention the pressure of a television crew recording your every move.
Life in the spotlight, however, was never part of the plan. As a child growing up in the Yorkshire mining town of Castleford, Julian spent much of his free time with his grandparents. They only lived a few doors down from his parents – Dad was a chemistry teacher, Mum a pharmacist – but they were a million miles away in other respects. His grandparents kept a smallholding in the field behind the house, with pigs and turkeys, and ran a boarding kennel for dogs as well as breeding terriers.
“They were tough dogs,” Julian remembers. “They were kept for rabbiting and catching the rats that were attracted to the pigs and their food at the bottom of the garden. I can still remember standing next to Judy the Bedlington terrier when I was small. I could rest my face against her soft, woolly fur and breathe in that unmistakable smell of dog that I now encounter on a nearly daily basis.”
Julian was also drawn to some of the alchemy of his parents’ work. “Mum and Dad would often take me to work after school and I can distinctly remember the smells,” he explains. “A mixture of hospitals and chemistry labs. I was captivated by the white coats and the measuring out of medicines.” He also recalls being gripped by All Creatures Great and Small, the Sunday night television series based on the books of James Herriot, that went on to influence a generation of would-be vets and farmers. Even at the age of eight or nine, the seeds were being sown for a future career – something involving medicine and animals.
After studying veterinary medicine at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Julian found himself in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, working first as an assistant and then as a partner at the surgery that was once the practice of Alf Wight (Herriot’s real name). Channel 5 came calling in 2015, hoping to capture some of the challenges of working in a mixed practice (treating farm animals and pets), and the rest is history.
People instantly warmed to Julian’s gentle confidence, but also to the rugged beauty of the North Yorkshire landscape and the indomitable wit of many of the locals and regular clients. Real stories are almost always more interesting than fictional ones, and the practice had them in spades: from a suspected tumour that turned out to be a Fox’s Glacier Mint stuck in a dog’s fur to the cat that survived a brief spin in a washing machine.
Highs and lows
At this time of year, it can also seem like an idyllic life. The freneticism of springtime lambing and calving has melted away, replaced by the optimism of late summer. When the weather’s good, few places are as captivating as North Yorkshire. As Julian often comments, “There’s no better place to be a vet – the history, the scenery, the variety of animals.” A favourite journey is the one that takes him down Sutton Bank, a steep and dramatic escarpment that overlooks the Vale of Mowbray and the Vale of York. “It’s such a privilege to be looking after all the animals in this beautiful landscape,” he says. It’s no wonder Alf Wight dubbed the view from the top of Sutton Bank the “finest in England”.
And yet, the job is not without its darker moments. Putting much-loved pets to sleep is something Julian calls a “wrenching process”, as is the grim euthanasia of livestock that results from diseases such as foot-and-mouth or tuberculosis. Inoperable conditions, unsuccessful births and cases of animal cruelty also take their toll.
Fortunately, his cheerful disposition gets him through. “While the job of a vet is tough, I’m often delivering a puppy or a farm animal, which always cheers up a bad day,” he says. “Bringing new life into the world is a strong tonic.” Julian also tries to relax by playing sport. “A run or a bike ride after a long day goes a long way to reduce the cortisol levels,” he says. “Mind you, so does a glass of red!” Julian has even represented Great Britain in a triathlon, and is currently training for a ski mountaineering race in the Alps.
Perhaps one of the most stressful parts of his job is watching a career he is passionate about change, as many small practices and farms become more corporate. Traditional mixed veterinary medicine and farming communities have coexisted for decades; as more small farms go out of business, it influences the nature and variety of veterinary work.
Large corporations are also swallowing up small veterinary practices. The drive to make money can change the focus of a surgery – taking away the family feel of a place, putting up prices and changing the kinds of procedures a practice will offer. When Julian found out that the Thirsk practice, which he’d worked at for more than 20 years, was destined to become part of a chain, he realised with enormous sadness that it was time to move on.
The next chapter
According to Julian, however, life as a vet has “a good knack of smoothing out the low points with well-timed happy moments”. Never one to sit still, he quickly moved to a traditional rural mixed practice in Boroughbridge, only a few miles from Thirsk, and set about opening an independent small animal practice in Wetherby, over in West Yorkshire. He also wrote another book, the fifth in his series, aptly named A Yorkshire Vet: The Next Chapter, and has just started a podcast, The Naked Vet, talking about animals with the stand-up poet Kate Fox.
Back in the surgery, with Bea the Labrador on the mend, Julian sets out on his last visit of the day: a goat with a suspected case of ruminal acidosis after gorging herself on sheep nuts. The creature in question has form. Julian’s previous clinical notes include: ‘Visit goat – completely tangled in wire’, ‘Visit goat to trim feet – unable to catch’ and ‘Visit goat – eaten gardening gloves’.
- 1972: Julian grows up in Castleford, West Yorkshire, going on to study veterinary medicine at Cambridge
- 1997: Joins Skeldale Veterinary Centre, once the practice of Alf Wight (James Herriot), as an assistant, later becoming a partner
- 2015: Co-stars in a new Channel 5 show, The Yorkshire Vet, which has now been running for ten series
- 2016: Publishes his first book, Horses, Heifers and Hairy Pigs, about his veterinary career
- 2017: Moves from Skeldale to work at Rae, Bean & Partners
- 2019: Opens his own practice, Sandbeck Veterinary Centre
- 2019: Launches The Naked Vet, a podcast about his life as a vet, with stand-up poet Kate Fox
- 2020: Publishes his latest book, A Yorkshire Vet: The Next Chapter
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