A Penrith vet who has pioneered IVF for cattle in the UK and played a leading role in the Foot and Mouth crisis, has been honoured.

David Black, managing director and founder of Paragon Veterinary Group, has been awarded a Fellowship of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. It is the most prestigious award the veterinary profession can bestow. “The real honour about this is that it is a peer award, and that is why I feel so humbled and proud,” says David. “Certainly, for my generation of vets, being a Fellow is the ultimate. It’s the highest we can get within our profession.”

Since buying a small three-person practice in Dalston in 1994, he has built Paragon into a leading independent veterinary group with 25 vets and centres in Newbiggin and Wetheral.

David’s interest was fired when, aged 11, he watched a family friend who was a vet operating on a sheep. “We had gone for lunch one day and he was putting the lamb-bed back into a sheep and the farmer was there in the yard. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen and there was a bit of blood around. He put the uterus back into the sheep and the sheep jumped up and got back into the Land Rover. And I decided there and then, that’s what I wanted to be,” says David, who grew up in north-east Scotland, and whose grandparents were both farmers.

He lives near Ivegill with his wife Sue, who is a health visitor. They have three grown up daughters.

Today David is known internationally as an expert in cattle reproduction and fertility, travelling all over the world to lecture on the subject. He gained a Diploma in Bovine Reproduction, began to learn embryo transfer techniques and gained specialist status in bovine health and reproduction from the RCVS. “To get that you have to publish papers and lecture and be advancing the sector, and you apply for it every five years." He kept the status for 20 years until in 2018 the RCVS granted him the status permanently, making him an Emeritus Specialist.

His work on advanced cattle breeding and embryo transfer led to developing IVF for cattle in the UK.“It hadn’t been done much in this country. My practice partner Will Christie was doing a bit in the late Nineties but foot and mouth stopped it. In 2004 to 2006 we started looking at that again.”

David and his small team, which today consists of three vets and five technicians, based at Newbiggin near Penrith, blazed a trail. With the help of grants from Innovate UK they carried out research and developed techniques. David achieved a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree over nine years part-time, completing last year. He believes it may be the only PhD thesis on IVF in cattle in the UK. He also set up a company called Activf-ET providing cattle IVF nationally. It allows farmers to improve their herds quickly using IVF to produce calves with useful genetic traits such as a tendency to be healthy, meaning for example, they need fewer antibiotics. “We have some very advanced research under way looking at improving the embryo transfer process."

Another innovation was XLVets, which David co-founded in 2006, acting as managing director for 11 years. “That is about sharing skills and knowledge and developing a network of independent practices working together.” The scheme has now spread to Ireland, New Zealand and Canada. He also co-founded VetSalus, an organisation dedicated to international collaboration between farmers, food corporations and vets. His work has taken him all over the world including North and South America, Australia, Japan and across Europe.

David ended up playing a leading role in the FMD crisis in 2001. More than 85 per cent of the livestock looked after by his team at the time was wiped out in the cull. “We were the worst hit practice in the UK. "We were in Cumbria with all this carnage around us and Tony Blair at that time was saying everything was fine.We had a meeting at the practice and decided we should start to speak out, and by that evening I had interviews on the BBC and with newspapers like The Times.” David, who later contributed to one of the government enquiries into the crisis, describes the outbreak as career defining. But he says it has helped him tackle the impact of Covid-19 on the practice. “Like Foot and Mouth, I want us to come out of Covid positively with our heads up and ready for the next thing.”