Each May, several thousand people gather to showcase livestock, arts and crafts, and food. While the county fair setting seems familiar to Southwest Virginia, the Shropshire County Agricultural Show is nearly 3,700 miles away in Shrewsbury, England.
Among the Shropshire crowd in summer 2013 were 19 Virginia Tech students. During a two-week study abroad program, the group interacted with community members, farmers, researchers, and policymakers to learn how animal care differs in the United Kingdom.
Led by Cynthia Wood, associate professor in animal and poultry sciences, the program focuses on research and applications of applied animal behavior and management — from agriculture to zoos — in the British Isles.
“When students are given the chance to expand their horizons, they learn firsthand that there are more similarities among people than there are differences,” Wood said.
The program offers students an opportunity to compare how animals are viewed and treated in the United States and the United Kingdom. The insight gained can be used to further develop interests and future career paths. When they return, all students are required to write a research paper based on a topic relating to their experiences abroad. The program may also be used as part of a capstone project.
Before the trip, as a point of comparison, students visited the livestock facilities at Virginia Tech, Hickory Hill Farm (owned by Virginia Tech President Emeritus T. Marshall Hahn), and the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Sarah Greenway of Nokesville, Va., a junior studying animal and poultry sciences, was ready to explore as soon as she landed in England. “We visited Pet Kingdom in the Harrods department store, and it was interesting to observe the pet care culture in London,” Greenway said.
Writtle College, one of the largest land-based institutions in the U.K., shares many commonalities with Virginia Tech, including roots in agriculture. The group was introduced to Writtle’s programs in equine science, pig, sheep, beef production, and companion animals.
Agriculture representatives at the U.S. embassy spoke on the animal-related issues England has encountered, including mad cow disease and climate change. Samantha McCarter of Annapolis, Md., a junior double majoring in dairy science and animal and poultry sciences, said, “It was surprising to hear that both countries share the same arguments on a variety of issues, but there are also many differing views on livestock, ranging from what are considered humane practices to marketing.”
While visiting the Royal Highland Centre in Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh, the students met with an agriculture youth group. Cheyenne Cline of Mount Solon, Va., a junior studying agribusiness, said she enjoyed the interaction with the young farmers. “Growing up on a farm and in a town with 500 residents, I felt like I could relate to them,” Cline said. “Being able to see the agriculture aspect of another country prepares me for what I hope to do after graduation.”
At the Edinburgh Zoo, students were able to draw comparisons with the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Aside from numbers — Edinburgh Zoo holds nearly 1,000 animals, while the National Zoo has 2,000 — the two operations had noticeable differences. “The animal enclosures at Edinburgh seemed more natural with lots of vegetation. It also felt like visitors could get much closer to the animals,” McCarter said.
The smaller size of the enclosures provided another contrast. “Zoos in the U.S. try to prevent stereotypies or repeated unnatural behavior in animals like pacing or self-harming, which they say is caused by lack of activity or space,” Greenway said. “I didn’t observe that effect on the Edinburgh animals though.”
The group also attended several applied animal behavior research presentations at the Roslin Institute, the site where the first mammal was cloned.
The group toured the agriculture, food science, and veterinary medicine programs at the University College Dublin. As bilateral exchange partners, Virginia Tech and University College Dublin have exchanged 50 students since 2000.
At the Irish National Stud, a working stud farm, the group saw prized stallions and foals. The Stud is one of the most successful horse breeding facilities in the world.
A brief homestay with local families in Kilkenny gave students a glimpse into everyday life in the community. “The farm visits offered exposed us to different operations and challenges,” Greenway said. “At the goat dairy production farm, the woman told us about having to compete with other dairy products like cow cheese. She also shared her ongoing challenge negotiating prices with grocery stores.”
Wood said the biggest reward in leading the British Isles study abroad trip is in seeing how the experience affects her students. As an undergraduate, she spent a year studying in Germany. “I wanted to offer our students the same adventure I had at their age, an experience that’s impacted my own profession,” she said.
Explore the United Kingdom through pictures taken during the students’ two-week trip in summer 2013.
Nationally ranked among the top research institutions of its kind, Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences focuses on the science and business of living systems through learning, discovery, and engagement.
Virginia Tech Dining Services has partnered with the Department of Dairy Science to offer “Virginia Tech Milk” in D2 at Dietrick Hall.