Hunting High and Low

Sunrise/sunset: Up all day.

When I applied for this job last summer, one of the things that attracted me was the very varied workload. Working in remote places where relatively few people live has some (often unconsidered) side-effects, and that is one of them. If you are a (human) GP who lives in a city, you are likely to have many specialist centres available. If you have a complex case, then referring them is the obvious thing to do. But if you are a GP on a remote island, where referral is complex, where a hospital stay might mean that family cannot visit and where sometimes the weather means that nobody can get on or off the island, your workload, and the scope of things you might attempt to deal with locally is likely to be quite different. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they might appeal to different people, and the latter is more like the work I do here. In other areas, those who work in animal welfare in the field are a separate team from those who work in the slaughterhouse. Their teams might be big enough so that their members can specialise. But here, it’s mostly me and Thomas locally, and we cover a very large area and a whole range of different animals.

For large chunks of the summer, I will be working in the abattoir. The staff who work there full time will be on holidays and for now, I am the default stand-in. This is slightly complicated by the fact that the other part of my job seems to be speeding up, rather than slowing down, but most vets will recognise that there is a seasonal pattern to our work. I have accrued several days of flexitime, most it over the past few weeks, but it isn’t looking like I’ll be taking them any time soon.

This week couldn’t have been much more varied. I have been working on a list of places that need follow-up checks. These are farms where there were problems in the past, where Mattilsynet has recorded that the law has been broken. I’ve been creating files showing the timelines of events and the specific areas that needed improvement. The next stage is to follow up with visits, but in order to work on the histories, I’ve had to polish up my Excel skills, which have been sadly neglected in recent years.

Thomas and I also carried out an emergency readiness exercise, which is done twice a year. This is aimed at making sure that if there was a major outbreak that was a serious threat, either to other animals or to people, that we would be prepared. Here’s a picture of me, decked out in protective gear that we might use if there was an outbreak of avian flu.

I hope it never arises. It is incredibly hot inside the double layer of protective clothing. Those who work for the likes of Doctors Without Borders fill me with admiration. And of course, at the present time, there are staff working with COVID who have been spending weeks and months working in protective clothing that perhaps they had never seriously anticipated using. To anyone reading who has been faced with it, you are amazing.

On Friday, I had my day planned out. It was going to be a relatively pleasant day in the office. I had a few things that needed to be updated and I needed to check the lists of animals coming in to the abattoir next week. It’s someone’s job to check through the farmers who are sending in their livestock in case there’s anything in particular that we need to follow up. There was also a departmental meeting to attend, which I have only remembered now as I’m writing this!

But instead of a quiet day with an early finish, it turned into one of those wild-card days that end up being the high points of the year. I knew Thomas was going out for the day. I assumed he was blood testing some animals in our area that have recently been diagnosed with a disease that’s being tracked, so I asked him if that was what he was doing, and whether he needed a hand.

It turned out he wasn’t blood testing. Instead, he had been called out to assess the possible welfare implications of moving a group of reindeer from one area of Senja to another, using a helicopter. Reindeer herding is a traditional Sami occupation. There are families who have been using traditional summer and winter pastures for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Back then, the land was presumably not owned by anyone in the way it is now.

But since more modern styles of agriculture have become normal, the rights of each group can come into conflict. If you are feeding your cattle on one pasture and are growing hay in another, the last thing you want is a group of reindeer trekking through. Arguably, this should have been discussed when the land was bought, but that too will be largely historical as farms are often handed down in families and the sale might have occurred generations back. What was done in the past can’t be undone. Fortunately there are some landowners who are happy to have the reindeer on their land. If I was building a holiday home in the wilds, or had land I wasn’t using for farming, I’d love to be in an area where I was likely to wake up to reindeer in the garden.

When conflict arises, sometimes it’s best for everybody if the reindeer are moved, but that isn’t easy. There are times of year when the herd comes together for migration, and that is when they are generally taken to new places. The herders work with the natural behaviour patterns of the animals. Moving them in the middle of summer when there is plenty of good grazing, and perhaps young calves at foot, is not so straightforward. And that is where the potential helicopter comes in.

Anyway, Thomas suggested that if I had time, I would be welcome to come along. It would be useful to have an extra pair of eyes and also helpful if I can start to learn more about the political landscape here in the north of Norway.

Assessing the welfare implications of such a move requires an examination of two separate factors. One is looking at the landscape. We drove round the likely route, looking in particular at fences they might have to bypass or leap. The other factor is the reindeer themselves. Moving a group of adult male reindeer is very different from moving heavily pregnant females, or mothers with calves at foot. Ideally, Thomas wanted to inspect the animals. He wanted to assess whether there were any pre-existing injuries that might make running at speed and jumping over obstacles a high risk.

But of course, it’s not always easy to find groups of animals that have freedom to roam. We hit lucky on our first location. A group of nine reindeer were standing at the top of a sloping pasture. One of the herders had dogs, but as the reindeer flew off at full pelt as soon as they caught sight of the dogs, it was obvious that herding them that way could be almost impossible.

We only saw them from a distance. I assumed what I saw was a buck with a group of females. There was one magnificent male, dark in colour, bigger than the others and with impressive antlers. But I was told that in fact it was a group of nine males. How they could tell, I’m not sure, but I hope in time I will learn a little more about them and it will seem a little less foreign.

I had assumed, from the first stop, that finding the rest would be straightforward. What actually happened was that we spent the rest of the day playing the most spectacularly unsuccessful game of hide and seek I have ever been involved in.

But for an unsuccessful day, it was very satisfying. If you’re going to waste a day in the wilderness looking for elusive creatures, it might as well be done in one of the most beautiful places on earth in the early part of the summer. I was told before I came here, that the summer was intense. That the contrast between the white of winter and the green of summer was extraordinary. But what I hadn’t reckoned with was the flowers. They are everywhere, from roadsides and pastures to the forest floor. Different sizes, different hues, stretching out as far as the eye can see.

We were at the southern end of the island – a part I haven’t really explored before. And as well as trees and pastures, there were beaches and bays with white sand and turquoise water that looked more tropical than arctic to my eyes.

I was very glad I had started my fitness project a few weeks back. Though the general pace of life in Norway is slower than that of the UK, Norwegians walk much faster. When the group were walking, I could mostly keep in touch with them, though at one point everyone set off and scrambled up a steep slope. It was heavily strewn with fallen branches and knee high undergrowth that caught on my bootlaces and clothes. I found it so tough that I had to give up halfway to the top. Had I not, I have the feeling I might have ended up flying headfirst down the hill into one of the alarming looking nests of fire ants.

Still, Thomas offered to take a photo of me at the beach, so here it is. This is me: a typical day at the office!

In the end, we didn’t see any more reindeer in the wilds of Senja. We had to return home having inspected only half the group we had wanted to see. But we were assured the remainder were also all male and that there were no calves. Most of the fences were well constructed as well. It is now illegal to build new barbed wire fences in Norway, so hopefully they will gradually disappear. Thomas gave a cautious go ahead to the move. The owners of the reindeer will be given time to make the attempt themselves, but if that doesn’t work, the helicopter may be needed. Thomas told me that the ownership of the reindeer is also complicated. The herding is very much a family business, so children in the family are likely to own a couple of reindeer alongside their parents’ larger share. All in all, it was a very interesting day and by the end of it, I felt I had learned a few basic facts about how herding works. It’s a very different way of life.

We returned to the office, where I had to speedily download a link for a website to my phone. There’s work to be done next week that I probably should have prepared for yesterday. With a bit of luck, I might be able to fit most of it in on Monday, assuming nothing else comes up. But I wouldn’t have missed yesterday for anything. Sometimes you have to seize the moment. And if Thomas is reading, he might be pleased and surprised to hear that I actually found two reindeer on my way home. For some unexplained reason, this mother and her calf were lurking in the Co-op. Appropriately, they were standing right beside the Polar Bread. Now that really isn’t something you see every day!

1 thought on “Hunting High and Low

  1. Pingback: Summer Days |

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