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A cow that gave birth to quads and a dog in need of a dentist... just another day in the life of Northern Ireland mountain vet Maurice King and his intrepid team

The stars of the BBC Two series tell Stephanie Bell about their lifesaving work among the domestic, farm and wild animals of the Mournes

Vet Maurice King of Downe Veterinary Clinic
Vet Maurice King of Downe Veterinary Clinic

It is a visit to the vet which the people in the towns surrounding the Mourne Mountains are unlikely to forget as TV camera crews capture their movements inside their local surgery.

Last week saw the very first in a series of new fly on the wall programmes aired on BBC Two and already the cameras are back filming for a second series.

Mountain Vets follows the work of nine vets, several nurses and stablehands in three very different vet practices, observing how they care for a diverse range of animals in clinics, on farms and smallholdings.

From old hands to new recruits working together, the three practices cover the whole Mourne Mountains area, responding to over 100 clinic cases and callouts a day.

With staff Shane McQuoid, Rachel Frew, Hazel McKelvey, Miriam Campbell, Tori Graham, Cahir King, Daisy Dillon, Genevieve Morrison, Ruth Ferguson, Caitlan McMillan
With staff Shane McQuoid, Rachel Frew, Hazel McKelvey, Miriam Campbell, Tori Graham, Cahir King, Daisy Dillon, Genevieve Morrison, Ruth Ferguson, Caitlan McMillan

Downpatrick's oldest veterinary clinic, Downe Vets, is owned by Maurice King whose son Cahir runs a smaller sister practice in Newcastle at the foot of the mountains.

Maurice and his team allowed the cameras in for several weeks last year to capture them in action for the series which will run for six weeks.

The fact that the TV team was back this week to record a second series has proved a huge boost to business as word spread round the town.

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Maurice jokes: "Since the show went out on Friday we've had a surge of people in the surgery this week, whether that's because of my wonderful personality or the cameras being here I don't know."

Maurice (68) is married to Anne, a retired midwife, and has three children, Colin (41) who works in IT, Cahir (39), a vet in his practice, and youngest son Maurice (35), a GP.

He grew up on a farm and qualified as a vet in 1975, working in practices in Dungannon and Portadown for two years before taking over Downe Vets in 1977.

His clinic can claim a proud history as it was first opened by the famous Scottish inventor and veterinary surgeon John Boyd Dunlop and his brother James in 1867.

Known for making the famous Dunlop tyres, which he first developed for use in cycle racing, he established Downe Veterinary Clinic in Downpatrick before moving to a practice in Belfast which became one of the largest practices in Ireland.

Maurice says: "Ours is the oldest practice in the town and we can claim the heritage of John Boyd Dunlop. Of course back then they dealt mainly in horses. It was mostly shoeing horses rather than treating them, which was what most vets did at the time.

"The practice was then run by Carrow man John Feore and his wife Margaret, who was one of the earliest female vets in Northern Ireland, and I bought it off them in 1977 and have run it ever since."

Already something of a local legend after 42 years in the business, Maurice is taking his new TV fame in his stride.

Despite the fact that programmes like Supervet and Yorkshire Vets are pulling in huge ratings nationwide, there seems no chance that this local veteran of the profession is about to get carried away and, back in Downpatrick, he is keeping his feet firmly on the ground.

Downe Veterinary Clinic’s Hazel McKelvey and Genevieve Morrison
Downe Veterinary Clinic’s Hazel McKelvey and Genevieve Morrison

"I don't think there is any chance of me getting famous," he says.

"They approached several practices and made a pilot programme and I never thought anything more about it.

"Then out of the blue last year they came back to us to say that we had been picked and the very next day the cameras appeared and started filming.

"The way it works is they would ask people's permission to film their pet being treated and not everyone is a wannabe - some people wanted to do it and some didn't - although I think overall most people are happy to be on TV.

"When they were filming for series one, people were nervous and worried about their accents. Since episode one aired last week there doesn't seem to be the same fear and we've had more people saying yes for series two.

"They've filmed us in the surgery and followed us out into the countryside visiting local farms.

"I honestly don't mind at all. People have been saying they saw me on TV but I don't mind and honestly I don't think somehow we are in the same league at all as the likes of the Supervet."

Like most veterinary clinics, Maurice and his team mainly deal with domestic pets such as cats, dogs, guinea pigs and rabbits as well as farm animals.

Being at the foot of the Mournes, they also get their fair share of wildlife such as injured deer, badgers, foxes and hedgehogs.

Vet Rachel Frew at work
Vet Rachel Frew at work

Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry is also a client and has provided the clinic with one of its more unusual cases.

Maurice explains: "We largely treat seals at Exploris but six months ago we had a young turtle that was rescued off the coast of Co Antrim and it is believed to have come all the way from the Caribbean on the Gulf Stream.

"We have just chipped him and he is doing well. He has just kept growing and is now a metre long and the plan is to release him in the springtime in the Canary Islands.

"The main enemy of turtles is plastic as they think it is jellyfish and so they eat it.

"We also get a lot of injured animals from the Mournes spotted by people out walking who bring them to our attention.

"That happens all the time and sadly sometimes they are so badly injured they have to be put down."

The variety is what makes for such a fascinating series for the BBC.

In series one we saw Maurice answer a call about an extraordinarily rare birth on a farm he knows well. He heads straight out to check on the new arrivals and is shocked to find that a cow has given birth to quads.

He says: "I don't know what the odds of it are but in over 40 years of practice I've never seen anything like it.

"They must be the only quads calves in Northern Ireland and the British Isles."

There was a poignant scene when Rachael Frew, Maurice's most experienced vet, gets an emergency call to a smallholding where a goat has been attacked by a donkey.

It is obvious to Rachael as she sees the lifeless pigmy that there is no hope and she has no choice but to put him to sleep.

The six-part series, funded by Northern Ireland Screen, has been made for the BBC by Rare TV whose team continue to follow the pets and animals during their recovery after they have been treated by the vets.

This is one aspect of the programme which Maurice is particularly looking forward to.

He adds: "The focus for the show is the start, middle and end for the animals we are treating and often we don't get to see the end.

"A lot of the animals are brought in and treated and we might not see how it ends for them.

"The odd person would ring up and thank us or say 'here's a box of chocolates, my cat is doing well' but you don't always get that.

"The show follows their journey after they have been treated and for us that's something different and quite satisfying.

"Thankfully most of the stories covered in the series do end well."

Another star of the show is Downe Vets head nurse Hazel McKelvey.

Hazel (38) from Ballynahinch is married to Raymond, who works in construction, and has been with the clinic for 21 years.

She grew up on a smallholding surrounded by horses, cats and dogs and from a young age wanted to train as a veterinary nurse.

She says: "My job is to help out during operations and nurse the animals back to good health.

"When the TV company asked us to take part nobody had a problem with it.

"They came to watch us and looked at the area and some other practices first and then spent a couple of months with us last year filming.

"They filmed me doing a teeth scale on a dog for the first programme last Friday night and the feedback has been amazing.

"People love it but there is no doubt Maurice is the star of the show."

As well as tending to countless beloved cats and dogs over the years, Hazel has helped treat a large array of pets including gerbils, guinea pigs and even chickens.

In one of her more unusual cases she helped remove a lump from the leg of a hamster which was nearly half the size of the animal itself.

Never knowing what a day might bring, she was on hand last weekend when an anxious dog owner brought her pet in after it had swallowed a small bouncy ball. The ball had to be surgically removed and Hazel assisted.

She too is taking the spotlight of the BBC cameras in her stride and believes that Downe Vets has more than enough activity to keep viewers engaged.

She adds: "They most definitely found the right practice in us as it is a very friendly place to work and no two days are the same.

"You never know what is coming through the door and for me it doesn't feel like work as it is so interesting.

"We are a nation of pet lovers and animals are brilliant, they are your best friend.

"Even though I work in a vets all day I still watch all the vet shows on TV and it's a bit surreal now to be watching yourself do it.

"I just hope people enjoy watching it as much as we have enjoyed taking part in it."

Mountain Vets continues on Saturday on BBC Two at 5.50pm

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