Away with the Elg

Sunrise/sunset: 07:51/ 16:13. Daylength: 8hr 21mins

Just a quick warning that this post contains some details about meat inspection.

The days are getting longer so fast it’s difficult to keep up. From no sunlight a few weeks ago, to more than eight hours in a day is astonishing. It’s been beautiful weather for most of this week, and that’s very cheering.

Just as well for the good weather as there was a rather stressful incident at work on Tuesday. Regular readers will know that the tasks we have to carry out are many and varied and one of them is meat-control on elk.

It’s sadly not uncommon at this time of year for elk to be run over. This is the season when they migrate and unfortunately, despite all the warning signs, flashing lights and blue reflectors on the trees (which apparently help the elk to see when car headlights are coming) it still happens now and then. Once you have hit and injured an elk, there’s a phone number you call. Designated hunters are called in, who trace the animal, then shoot it humanely. They’re well trained and very efficient. Once they’ve taken it in and dressed the carcase, we are called in to carry out inspection of the meat. After all, it would be a waste to throw it away.

Anyway, back to my story. I went out to my first elk inspection on Monday with Ann. The stations where they are hung tend to be isolated places, so finding them isn’t always easy. But with most wild animals the meat inspection is straightforward. Other than their injuries, most are healthy. As well as checking the meat and organs, there is one routine test that has to be done. CWD is a disease that is similar to BSE (mad cow disease) and though it hasn’t been found here in northern Norway in elk, the decision has been taken to monitor the situation.

Sunlight through the forest

Thomas has trained the hunters to take the samples, and on Monday it had already been taken and sent off. The whole process seemed very straightforward. We had checked everything and marked the meat with the official stamp. So on Tuesday, when a second call out came in, Ann suggested I could go out on my own. I was working at the abattoir and it was on my way home. It wasn’t certain the sample had been taken, but Ann assured me it was similar to taking a BSE sample from a cow and I had done lots of those.

With a check of Google Map, I thought I had a good idea of where the station was situated. Despite that, I took a couple of wrong turns on the narrow snowy roads, but there was still plenty of time before dark. I felt a bit silly as Thomas had been at the abattoir and had offered to show me the way, but it was so beautiful that I couldn’t feel too upset about it.

I finally found the station, tucked away in a little clearing in the forest. It was minus twenty three, so I was glad when the key I had brought fitted and the door swung open. Inside, the elk was hanging. I checked the carcase without any problems and then walked over to examine the paperwork. The CWD sample had not been taken and so I made my way back to the tray where the organs and head had been placed.

For the first time since the start of my visit, I felt a quiver of doubt as I began to examine the head. To take the test, you need to get a sample of the brain. Though I could see a hole in the spinal column where the neck had been separated from the body, it didn’t look anything like the cattle I had sampled in the abattoir. There are different sized implements for taking the samples in different species and though I’d expected to use the cattle-sized tool, only the sheep-sized one seemed to fit.

Several minutes later, and despite the cold, I was starting to sweat. There was something far wrong. The sampling tool was going in way too deep: had been since my first attempt. I had tried to turn it as I had been taught, but it wouldn’t go. The knowledge was beating in my head; if I did it wrong, I could ruin the sample.

I took a deep breath. I wasn’t at all sure what the situation was in elk. In cattle over four years old that are taken for emergency slaughter it’s essential that the test is taken and a negative result received. Without one, the whole carcase has to be condemned. In sheep and reindeer it’s a bit different. A certain number of samples are taken each year, but if you can’t get one, you can sample another.

Stay calm, I told myself. I should try to call someone. Thomas had been at the abattoir. If I called him, he might still be there. But his phone rang out and there was no reply. I tried Ann. The same. In mounting frustration, I tried Ammar. He would be a couple of hours away in Tromsø and there was no way he could come out and help, but perhaps he could give some advice.

To my relief, after a few rings, he answered. As always, he was both helpful and upbeat. The sample you take is supposed to be nice and clean. There’s a specific area you are supposed to remove intact, but he told me it could be difficult in elk and to just take whatever material I could get. In addition to the brain sample, you also have to take some of the lymph nodes and he assured me that if I could take those and some of the brain, it would be fine. Call me back when you’ve done it, he said cheerfully, and then I was alone again.

I set to again with a feeling of determination. Many years ago, out on farms, I had learned that even if you think you can’t calve a cow, or return a displaced uterus, if you keep a calm head and persevere, you can achieve things you never thought possible. But despite all my efforts, I couldn’t retrieve much material. Nowhere near enough. In increasing desperation, I decided to find the lymph nodes. Ammar had told me ages ago with reindeer that if you can’t get a good enough segment of the brain, you should make sure the lymph nodes are there.

But when I started to look for lymph nodes, I felt equally out of my depth. The elg head looked completely different from anything I had seen before. I couldn’t even start to get my bearings. After several fruitless minutes, my determination had sped, replaced by a feeling of hopelessness. There was no way I was going to manage this.

Cleaning my hands again, I grabbed my mobile and rang Thomas again and this time, to my relief, he answered. He seemed astonished I was still working. He had assumed I was safely home by now. He was already back in the office. I felt my heart sink even further. I had been hoping against hope that I would catch him nearby so he could come and help. He talked to me for a few minutes about what was happening and then there was a long silence. I had the horrible feeling he was going to give me more advice and then I was going to have to try again, but I had no confidence left that I could achieve what I had set out to do.

When his voice came again, his words were wholly unexpected. “Do you have any rubbish bands there? Big ones?”

I walked around the corner into the little office area where there were shelves and a sink. There I saw what I had noticed earlier: a whole roll of black bin bags on the middle shelf. “There are,” I replied.

“In that case, pack up the head and bring it back here, and I’ll see what I can do.”

There was something rather surreal about driving several miles along snowy roads with a moose head in the car boot. I vaguely wondered what would happen if the police stopped me… but then as so many people hunt here, perhaps they’d think it completely normal!

I arrived back in the office with a feeling of huge relief. Even if I had messed the sample up in my attempts, at least I was doing something. Sometimes in those moments where you can’t see a way out of a situation, time extends and it’s hard to see an end.

I unpacked the head with Thomas’ help and he looked at it carefully. “No wonder you couldn’t get a sample,” he told me. “They haven’t taken enough of the neck away.” He reached out a gloved hand and grasped the section of spine from which I had been trying to take my sample. Wiggling it, he showed me a huge chunk of meat that moved easily up and down. “We have to take this whole piece off,” he said.

A few minutes and a very sharp knife later, he had managed it. Looking down at the head now, the anatomy was familiar, the sampling sites for both brain and lymph nodes were clear. Thomas went over the techniques again all the same. He has trained all the hunters and he made it really very clear.

As we filled in the paperwork, I suddenly remembered that in my desire to get help, I had forgotten to stamp the meat. It had been a very long day and there was no way I could go back tonight. With something of a sinking feeling – I had really messed everything up in a way I hadn’t for years – I headed home. Despite my awful day, there were still compensations. The sun was beginning to set as I stopped at the shop and so I took a photo.

Wednesday, despite all the finishing up I had to do, was much better. Having taken the sample to the post-office, returned the head, stamped the carcase and written the report (with help from Thomas) I was still finished just after lunch. I decided to use the flexitime I had gathered the day before to go back and take photographs of the places I had driven round. As you see above, it was a very beautiful day for it.

All’s well that ends well; though the sample Thomas had taken looked quite good, it hadn’t been possible to see the section that was meant to be intact. I had done too much probing around. There was still a worry that it might be rejected and if it was, then we would have to ring an expert to find out whether the meat could be used. So I was very relieved when the result came back clear on Thursday afternoon.

With a much lighter heart, I began to pack. We are away this weekend in a cabin, but more on that next week. For now I’m going to bank the fire up with logs and put my feet up. We’re not far from home, but this is the first time I’ve been away this year and I’m going to make the most of it.

3 thoughts on “Away with the Elg

  1. I can see why you felt you messed up, but I read this as a day of great achievement: you did keep your head, you did persevere, you did call on help as appropriate, and there were exonerating circumstances. So, in the end, well done! (Plus, you took some wonderful photos.)

    1. Thank you. It’s a long time since I felt so much out of my depth, but I think lockdown (and therefore the very slow introduction to my new job) is causing frustration. I am looking forward to a time when things are more normal!

      The flip side is that I’m learning a lot of theory, which hopefully will stand me in good stead in the longer term.

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