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Developing a holistic approach to Veterinary Sustainability - Update from the RVC

As the Royal Veterinary College continues to make sustainable improvements, Saira Akhtar, a Teaching Fellow at the RVC and member of Vet Sustain’s Curriculum Working Group discusses the holistic approach taken. This approach is explored with two RVC colleagues championing sustainability, Professor David Connolly and Rachel Ward. As a continually evolving area of importance, current updates and future plans in relation to the veterinary curriculum and campus sustainability are considered.

Dr Saira Akhtar

As the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) new curriculum is rolled out, efforts to include sustainability have been prioritised, with a novel 'Sustainability Series' due to be introduced to the Population Medicine and Veterinary Public Health Strand of the 4th Year BVM and BSc courses. This has been led by Dr Steven Van Winden, Associate Professor in Production Medicine and will be implemented in the 2024-25 academic year. The series will encompass two lectures on sustainability relating to companion animals and production animals respectively. The former aims to introduce students to concepts such as carbon literacy, reducing the environmental impact of clinical practice, sustainable quality improvement and business cases for sustainability. The latter will focus on carbon and water footprints of production animal systems, implementing sustainable practices in production animal management and optimisation of infectious and production disease control. Finally, students will engage in a Directed Learning session which aims to draw on Vet Sustain’s six goals for sustainability and utilise sustainability parameters to inform evidence-based approaches to clinical practice.

It is hoped this exciting new development in the curriculum will support students in developing competence and confidence when addressing sustainability, both in line with RCVS Standards and in response to the RVC student voice. A recent RVC Student Union Environment Officer led survey, across all years of the veterinary course, found that 86% of students that responded would like to see more teaching on sustainability in the veterinary profession incorporated into the veterinary curriculum.

Aside from this new curriculum change, there exists a longer standing opportunity for students to consider sustainability, during the Final Year Research Project which is directed by Professor David Connolly. All students are required to complete this project and over the last 5 years students have been extended the opportunity to choose a research question based on veterinary sustainability. Prospective students meet for a group discussion and are guided to relevant sustainability research topics which they then spend a minimum of 8 weeks (up to 14 weeks for those interested in a research career) dedicating time to investigating their research question and writing up their project. Both David and Rachel Ward, RVC’s Environmental Sustainability Manager, act as supervisors for these projects which aim to support students in development of critical analysis of data and literature. There are currently 5 students undertaking research projects on various aspects of sustainability including the carbon footprint of RVC’s Travel Plan and RVC Campus energy usage. A further 3 projects in relation to RVC’s Boltons Park Farm are investigating farm practice impacts on biodiversity, how soil management policies affect soil biodiversity, and the implications of husbandry changes on sustainability.

Earlier on in the course, preclinical students at the Camden Campus are encouraged to consider the sustainability of their practical teaching which is now incorporated into compulsory Dissection Room and Teaching Lab Inductions. The Anatomy Team aims to model environmental responsibility to the students and since the Covid pandemic, have transitioned to paperless practicals, use biodegradable alternatives to single use plastic and are improving waste management. And across all years, lecturers are required to place a slide at the end of their presentations outlining the One Health implications of the topic at hand, including significance to animal health and welfare, public health and ecosystem health. It is hoped this fosters a holistic approach by considering sustainability from multiple perspectives, alongside future dedicated sustainability teaching.

Supporting this holistic approach, significant work is being done to improve campus sustainability, led by Rachel. The breadth of projects being undertaken covers the entire spectrum of impact, complexity and resourcefulness, and ranges from grassroots to institutional, all with the common aim of working toward the RVC’s Strategic Plan vision to ‘be more environmentally sustainable, and carbon neutral by 2040’.

Hawkshead Wildflower Meadow
Hawkshead Wildflower Meadow

As the RVC navigates its decarbonisation journey, it has been awarded a grant of £2.8 million from Salix, aiming to aid replacement of end-of-life gas boilers with air source heat pumps which is expected to reduce RVC’s carbon footprint by 565 tonnes per annum. Agrisolar systems utilising novel carport technology are in the pipeline and sustainability criteria are now included as part of all upcoming construction projects. At the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals, carbon emissions associated with anaesthetic gas have been reduced. A nurse-led project has implemented low flow anaesthesia, and all nitrous oxide pipework has been capped so it is no longer in use. As a teaching hospital, undergraduates are educated about the use of inhalation agents and their environmental impact. Evidence of the 3 R’s of sustainability can be seen in the hospital through efforts to reduce the waste associated with sterilisation of surgical instruments, implementation of reusable kennel pads and recycling of surgical caps and masks.

Monthly sustainability events, such as ‘No Mow May’, and engagement programmes aim to get staff and students involved in the cause. This year has seen the second round of both the Student Switch Off campaign, a competitive initiative to improve sustainability in student accommodation and the Farming for Carbon and Nature Programme where students take part in soil monitoring and worm counts. It has also been the first year that RVC staff have taken part in Green Impact, a multi award-winning sustainability learning and awards programme, designed to embed sustainable practices across organisations. Funding from the Woodland Trust supports the planting of trees with a new hedgerow and a silvopasture area being created at the farm, providing opportunities for staff and students to volunteer.

Sefton Wildflowers
Sefton Wildflowers

To date, 21 tonnes of furniture have been rehomed, through WarpIt, a resource redistribution network, and donations to charities who have used them to set up new community cafes and provide a meeting space for older people. And every year RVC’s Freecycle rehomes hundreds of labcoats, boiler suits and wellies to incoming students, reducing waste and improving accessibility. Innovative and resourceful approaches to the ongoing impact of Covid PPE have been utilised, with the donation of thermometers and hand gels from student Covid packs due for disposal to local baby charities, and fabric face masks to schools to make bunting.

Integrating multifaceted initiatives is hoped to embed sustainability into RVC graduates critical thinking and problem-solving approaches through formal education opportunities, modelling environmental responsibility and consideration of sustainability ubiquitously through undergraduates’ journeys.

With Many Thanks to Dr Saira Akhtar, Teaching Fellow at the RVC and member of the Vet Sustain Curriculum Working Group.