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James Nixon on management of farm estates

Supporting research studies from conception to application, and admiration for great team work.

Easter Bush Farm team
The Easter Bush Campus Farm team

James Nixon is the Farm Estate Manager at the University of Edinburgh’s Easter Bush Campus, where the Roslin Institute is based. He oversees and manages the technical support of research studies, and is responsible for the day-to-day care of livestock. In this interview, he talks to MSc Science Communication student Yanran Li about his career path and work, particularly at the new Large Animal Research and Imaging Facility (LARIF).

Could you tell me about your work in a nutshell?

I oversee two farms. One is the Vet School farm which has 240 milking cows used for commercial and teaching purposes.

The other is a small grassland farm, which houses cattle, sheep and pigs. This is solely a research farm and is where all the original Dolly the Sheep work was carried out. Research has moved away from cloning, which used large numbers of animals, to more refined studies that include the introduction of biomedical studies in livestock.

I also oversee the LARIF, which is the University’s new state-of-the-art large animal research and imaging facility on Easter Bush Campus.

Can you tell me about this new facility, the LARIF?

Over the past four years we've been building a new animal facility at Easter Bush Campus called the Large Animal Research and Imaging Facility (LARIF). It's a world-leading facility. It is probably the only one of its type and size in the UK, possibly Europe, and provides cutting edge services.

It’s a £25 million facility co-funded by the University of Edinburgh and the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Livestock (CIEL). The facility is comprised of two surgical suites, an intensive care unit, and an imaging suite with a 3T MRI scanner, a 64-slice CT scanner, ultrasound and fluoroscopy), containment facilities and environment control rooms. The facility also has animal holding and handling facilities.

We conduct a wide variety of studies, including animal welfare, medical device testing and animal and human health and disease. We also carry out work in collaboration with other institutes and universities in addition to commercial work for industrial partners.

How does the work at LARIF enhance the wellbeing of livestock and humans?

Cutting of a ribon to open LARIF
Opening of the LARIF

As an example, we have a sheep model to study Batten disease, a form of childhood dementia.

Scientists from the Roslin Institute have developed a gene-edited sheep model of Batten disease, and have shown that sheep exhibit the same disease pattern as human patients.

The MRI allows us to scan animals at set times including before disease onset. This is something that is generally not possible in human patients as often they are unaware of having the disease until the onset of neurological deficits. This research is extremely valuable to help us to further understand Batten disease and develop treatments.

We also test medical devices. One of the devices is like a little pill with a camera. You swallow it and it travels through the intestinal tract, taking photographs allowing disease diagnosis. It is still in the developmental stage but the aim is that it can also be used to target and treat illnesses as it passes through the gut. So rather than having to treat the whole body, you can treat specific areas.

An animal health and disease study we are currently working on is looking at ovine pulmonary adenocarcinoma (OPA), which is a lung tumour in sheep. It’s a big problem for sheep and the sheep industry. We're working with the Moredun Institute to develop an animal model to study lung tumours and devise treatments for sheep. If the model is successful, it is hoped it will also allow the development of treatments for lung cancer in humans.

How do you take care of the animals that are involved in the studies?

We're regulated by the Home Office, whose standards are exceptionally high. Animal welfare is always paramount. All of our animals have plenty of space, access to feed and fresh, clean drinking water and good bedding. The animals are all checked at least twice a day to ensure that this is the case.

What are the major challenges you face in your job?

Currently, staffing is a challenge. We have moved into a new facility and we're very busy. We need to ensure that we deliver the technical support to projects that we've committed to carry out in the research proposals.

The same goes for the teaching farm. We're finding it difficult to find people to fill posts, like everybody else in the agricultural industry at the moment.

As a research facility, we are trying to cover our costs to ensure that we're not only doing the work that’s ongoing, but also helping scientists to apply for grants and bring additional work and funding, so that we can keep going.

Letting scientists know that we have these facilities and how they can be used in their research programmes is also challenging.

How has the pandemic affected your work?

It has had a major impact. When the pandemic hit we were just about to start lambing sheep, we had animals on the ground, and we had to keep work going. The animals still need to be looked after. It was the same on our teaching farm, although students could not be there, the cows still had to be milked. During the first lockdown all research was stopped, resulting in the premature termination of a number of studies.

We are very fortunate that the teaching farm supplies milk to a Scottish company that produces a wide variety of dairy products which limited the effect of the pandemic on income. Unfortunately, the pandemic decimated income for those supplying the hospitality industry. However, there was a slump in demand and prices, so we had to reduce our output.

After the first lockdown, research started up again but with strict rules regarding PPE and building occupancy. The worry was always that if we set studies up and suddenly the pandemic got worse, we would have to cancel experiments at very short notice. Luckily the operations of the facilities haven't been affected and we haven't had too many instances of people having to self-isolate. We have actually carried out some Covid-19 research.

What inspired you to follow this career path?

My father worked in agriculture. He worked his way up and became the Principal of the local agricultural college. We lived on a smallholding farm in Humberside, England, which had cattle and pigs.

When we moved up to Scotland in 1981, I was 10 and through the school holidays I started to go with my father when he was working on the College farm. I was just absolutely fascinated with milking cows.

I completed a degree in Agriculture in 1992 and worked my way up. I had be working for the Roslin Institute for five years when they closed down the farm in 1995 due to a reduction in large animal research, so I had to look to the future, and started working with my family, running a timber flooring business. But after 12 years, I felt like it's not what I was bred to do. I saw the advert for the Estates Manager post, looking after both farms, and I was successful in getting the job. It's nice to be back.

What is it like to work with scientists?

It's fantastic. I'm busy talking about all these studies but I just facilitate the studies, oversee the animal care and the staff that provide the technical support for them.

It is great to work with a team that come along with an idea and discuss it, take on the practical issues that we might have to deal with, and see that develop through applying for a Home Office licence, getting the project plan through Institute approval, getting the costing together, applying for funding, getting the funding, collaborating with a commercial company, and then seeing that progress. It is great to witness an idea from conception to something big.

What would you do if you were not a farm estates manager?

I quite fancied joining the police when I was a child. I would quite like to have been a detective or an inspector.

Related links

LARIF

Sheep research could aid insights into childhood dementia