7 September 2023

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They’ve always fascinated me. Crucibles of humankind (the inhabited ones, anyway) walled in by the oceans, each with its own unique stamp of culture, moulded by its own history of colonisation, topography, climate and natural resources – and by the tyranny of isolation. Which is why, I suppose, the veterinary science degree from Cambridge steered me into a career – latterly, at least – on the UK Overseas Territories of the South Atlantic. My own path illustrates the hugely diverse application of this degree: not at all confined to treating fluffy bunnies and spaying cats but rather encompassing a vast array of possibilities. As a student, I could never have envisaged how vast.

Since 2004 (apart from a one-year foray working for an NGO in Turkey, fighting the cruelly disfiguring disease leishmaniasis in war-torn Syria), I’ve been grafting on these captivating islands, as scattered as they are different.

The Falklands: a grand archipelago, a swathe of sea-girt islands down in subantarctic waters that boast rich fisheries, abundant wildlife and more sheep than the eye can take in.

Tristan da Cunha: the remotest island settlement in the world, a crofting-type community of some 250 hardy souls perched on the brim of a recently active volcano, their livelihoods dependent on harvesting the abundant crayfish that swarm in the undersea kelp forests like armies of ants.

Ascension: an equatorial military base once nicknamed ‘The Cinder’ because of its brutish volcanic landscapes, and yet home to colourful land crabs and nesting sea turtles, and with a lush central peak – the first example of terraforming.

And tropical St Helena: the former darling of the East India Company, once the most impregnably fortified place in the world and crammed with built heritage, dramatic scenery and endemic species, all set in a pristine sea teeming with life.

Here, I have the immense privilege of looking after the world’s oldest known living land animal, my namesake Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise who is close to entering his third century.

On each set of islands, the work has not only involved the standard application of practical skills, but everything else that touches upon the abilities of a vet: from bees, fisheries, biosecurity and seabirds through to legislation, welfare, public health and tourism. Not a whisker of time is lost to boredom.

And now, an interesting byproduct. On the back of some documentaries I had made with the BBC, I was approached by a renowned literary agent to write a book, which is now published by Duckworth. We’ve called it Vet at the End of the Earth. It’s packed with local characters, island colour and, of course, stories about my great love, the animals. I’ve fashioned it to entertain and uplift, to plant a smile on the lips and draw the occasional tear, whether the reader happens to be warming their toes by the fireside in a cosy armchair with a steaming cup of tea or topping up their tan in a deckchair on a broiling costa with an ice-clanking sangria.

If you would like to come on the journey around the islands with me – and, in a way, you’ve already started – you’ll find it in all the best high-street and online bookshops, including Waterstones, Amazon and I hope you’ll find the experience nearly as rewarding and eye-opening as I did, beyond my wildest student imaginings!

Duckworth Books will publish Jonathan Hollins' memoir Vet at the End of the Earth on 5th October 2023.

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