All posts by Sarah McGurk

About Sarah McGurk

I am a veterinary surgeon and author from the UK. I currently live and work in Norway.

Boxes

Sunrise/sunset: 05:12/ 20:29. Daylength: 15hr 17mins

Anyone else love hotels? For me there are few things more pleasurable than travelling somewhere and checking in to a hotel with a comfortable bed with clean white sheets. Better still is waking up in the morning to a lovely breakfast someone else has cooked. I will add that if you have spent a long day working out on farms in cold weather, then stepping under a powerful shower with sweet-scented soap to wash away the chill and the farmyard smells is blissful.

The only imperfection for me, was that I had forgotten to take my book. I am trying to cut down my internet time and take up reading again. There is something about escaping into the world of a book that can never be simulated by online conversation.

Things are, of course, slightly odd at the moment. I spent Thursday night at Vollan Gjestestua (pictured above) with five colleagues from the DyreGo Team, which covers animal health and welfare. Business travel in Norway is limited at the moment, but there is a certain amount of work we have to carry out over the course of the year. The area we cover between us is too large to do it easily and then drive home afterwards. In addition, lockdown and working from home is increasingly wearing, so although we had to all sit at separate tables in the restaurant and communicate by lip reading and sign language, it was good for my mental health to see my working colleagues in the flesh and not just on a screen. Yesterday we had a similarly distanced meeting.

Birgit, Thomas and Anja. Astrid was to my left and I couldn’t fit her into the photo – socially distanced pictures are hard to take!

I read a blog entry earlier in the week by Iceland Penny. It draws attention to some of the contradictions in life, things she came across that held both good and bad/beauty and ugliness. Both/And by Iceland Penny. I was reminded of the post by a discussion in the meeting we had about technology.

I have come to Mattilsynet at a time of upheaval. Some of it is driven by the drive to use less paper and more technology, but the process has been speeded up by coronavirus. If you hand over a pen and paper for a signature, you increase the risk of infection.

When we carry out a visit, whatever the reason for it, we summarise our observations on a Tilsynskvittering. This is an outline of the visit and what was checked, split into different sections related to Norwegian law, stating whether the things we saw fulfilled the legal requirements. This receipt, until very recently, was written on paper, which you then photographed before handing it over to the owner. But since December, we have moved over to using an App.

Astrid pointed out that the new technology could be rendered useless if, for example, you were in an area with no phone signal. I would add that with the small screen on a mobile phone, it is hard to do a lot of typing. In theory you could take along your laptop and connect it to the phone, but then you are still reliant on being connected and anyway, there comes a point when you have to remember to take so many things that the entire process becomes unwieldy. “There’s a lot to be said,” she commented, “for pencil and paper.”

I guess this might be partly influenced by age. I mentioned escaping into a book upthread, and said I never managed to escape into another world online, but I know there are immersive games where my children manage to do just that. But most of the DyreGo team, like me are upwards of fifty.

While I can see that all this new technology has benefits, I also see that it’s challenging when change is brought in so fast. There was an older farmer we visited last year who had been asked to make a number of improvements and Thomas had asked him to send photos once he had done so. Having not received any, Thomas arranged a revisit, assuming the work had not been carried out. When we arrived, Thomas was delighted to find out that it had. When he asked the elderly farmer why he hadn’t sent the proof along, the farmer told us he didn’t have a phone with a camera. I think when we are so connected ourselves, sometimes it’s easy to forget that others are not.

Personally I am on the fence. There is increasing connectedness that I feel ought make us more free, but instead sometimes ties us down. In the meeting, I found myself thinking about the issue of traceability in farming and food production. When an outbreak of food-borne illness breaks out, it’s an advantage that we can find out more easily where it came from. But there is an enormous amount of work in ensuring all the information is put into the system within a very short timeframe. To me that seems like a lot of pressure on farmers who grew up in a time when most of the connections were with family, local farmers and the vet, and the only technology was your machinery and the weather forecast on the radio.

There are periods when I find myself hankering after pre-internet, pre-mobile phone times. It was way easier to go “off-grid”. Anyone else remember those announcements on the wireless (BBC Radio 4) appealing to people on holiday to get in touch as their relative was seriously ill?

I worked in large animal practice, and once you were out on your calls, there was a kind of freedom, though of course that could be inconvenient if you went all the way back and then found there was another visit in the same direction. I think there was less pressure in practice to be right all the time and to know everything. You built up knowledge through experience, through speaking to colleagues, through reading books that were probably already out of date as they had been sitting on the shelf in the practice for several years.

Nowadays, if you know where to look online, there are answers to be found and groups you can join. Anaesthetists discuss the intricacies of different protocols, breed and species differences and how to achieve perfect pain relief. There’s good and bad in that. Better specialisation, increased cost. Some things are lost as well, in this new world. A safe path can be equally well achieved with long familiarity with drugs and techniques, built up over a lifetime of experience. Sometimes I feel everything is now moving too fast.

That said, I can’t put aside the positives. I wrote six books while living in Norway with a co-author in Somerset for a company based in London. Victoria Holmes and I batted ideas across the ether in e-mails in a way that allowed thinking time without excessive delays. We couldn’t have done that over a traditional telephone line or in letters. I am also connected to friends I went to school with and teachers who would otherwise only be a pleasant memory (hello Mr Gorski!). I would never have heard from them again without it.

Even so, despite the positives, I find myself wishing that we could insert a grandfather clause into modern life. A grandfather clause, for those who don’t know, is an exemption from following new laws if doing so would be too costly or difficult. The most obvious example would be with building regulations that require new business premises to follow certain rules with regards to toilet provision, but don’t require that older buildings are brought up to the same standard.

I can’t help feeling that if staff who have worked adequately for years with a pen and paper are retiring within the next ten years or so, they could be allowed to continue without it doing a great deal of harm. It would save them a lot of grief. There is an aspiration that wherever you are in Norway and whatever your business, Mattilsynet will assess and deal with your case in the same way. I can see the value in that when it comes to assessing whether legal requirements are fulfilled.

But whether the report is sent online or on paper? When it really comes down to it, that doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, in the grand scheme of things.

Road Stop

Sunrise/sunset: 05:44/ 20:00. Daylength: 14hr 16mins

Easter is a big deal in Norway. The first year we came, we were looking forward to the Easter break. The children were off school and work stopped right through from the Wednesday afternoon until the following Tuesday. Thursday morning dawned bright and sunny and I recall we headed into Stavanger, thinking we would go swimming in the outdoor swimming pool. We were disappointed to find it was closed. Who would close a swimming pool in the school holidays, we wondered, in our quaint British ignorance? Many swimming pools in Norway, we have discovered since, close during school holidays. That still seems bizarre to me as in the UK they are thought of as an entertainment and teaching venue and a useful and healthy one at that.

But the realisation that it wasn’t just the pools that were closed but also the shops was the real show stopper. While we probably had enough in the freezer to get by, we had assumed we could buy Easter eggs and all the celebratory food during the first day of our break. It wasn’t our finest hour.

Nowadays I am a little more prepared. I spent Monday out on a visit with Thomas and Tuesday at the abattoir. Charlie had originally been due to arrive on Wednesday, but due to coronavirus the planes continue to be erratic, so in fact he came on Tuesday evening. I had already planned for five days of dinners. Not for the Tuesday itself though, so Charlie bought us a meal from the local Chinese restaurant, which we ate at home due to lockdown regulations. Travel around Norway wasn’t recommended, but as Charlie hadn’t seen John or Anna for months, both our region and his have low infection rates and the planes were already booked, we had decided to go ahead, but take extra care to avoid contact outside the family while he was here.

Because he had arrived early, we were able to take a trip around Senja on Wednesday. We were lucky with the weather. It has been snowing on and off most of the time here, in between massive almost daily thaws, but there was an oasis of calm on the far side of Senja island and at one point, the sun even came out!

We made a stop at Steinfjord rest stop, a sandy bay at the end of a short fjord. The tiny village of Steinfjord nestles right at the base of the steep mountains. It’s a beautiful place.

Triar was, of course in his element, though he did have to wait patiently with his ball as Charlie spent some time taking drone footage of the surroundings.

The drive back was also beautiful, though as we rounded the north end of the island, the snow set in and after one final picture of another mountain range receding into clouds, I didn’t get any more worth sharing.

The end of Triars day was not so cheery. He had rolled in something or other back at the beach and so when he came home, he went straight into the shower and emerged, clean but not delighted.

And so for now, I will wish a very happy Easter to you all. See you again soon.

The Art of Killing

Sunrise/sunset: 05:15/ 18:33. Daylength: 13hr 17mins

I started this week with a farm visit with Thomas. We were collecting cow poo to check for paratuberculosis (Johne’s disease). I had arrived prepared with some of those long orange gloves I used to use years ago in practice for calvings and pregnancy diagnosis, but in the event, Thomas simply scooped up dung from behind the oldest cows in the herd with a green plastic spoon. Don’t tell me my job isn’t filled with glamour!

I also spent part of the week at the abattoir, where on Tuesday I stood on the pig line by myself for the first time, and yesterday when I stood in for a colleague on the sheep line. Meat inspection of pigs is more difficult than inspecting sheep. This is partly because they are prone to abscesses in unpredictable places and partly because of their thick skin which remains in place rather than being removed, as is the case with other species. I have never been particularly fond of pigs, though my biggest veterinary claim to fame is that I once helped one of the stars of Emmerdale Farm (as it was then) to give birth to a very fine litter of piglets. As I work in the abattoir though, they are starting to grow on me as I become more familiar with handling them.

Compared with cattle and sheep, pigs are both noisy and noisome. Unlike the others, pigs are omnivores, which means their dung smells way more unpleasant than the digested grass or hay that herbivores produce. They are also descended from forest dwelling foragers, rather than being herd animals living on grasslands. They have a tendency to squeal very loudly when you try to get them to do something they don’t want to and when I first started to examine them in their pre-slaughter check, I would often find them squealing at the top of their lungs as I encouraged them to stand up. They mostly come into the abattoir the afternoon before, and when I arrive to check them at about six thirty in the morning, most of them are sleeping.

To carry out a thorough check, I have to go into the pen and wake them. I want to see them all walking about and check them more thoroughly than I can if they are lying flat on their sides. Obviously waking them up is never going to be particularly popular. Indeed sometimes when the whole pen is deep in slumber, I will check the other pens first, where at least one or two of the pigs are already up and rooting around. But I have learned, from experience, that most of the squealing comes when I disturb them unexpectedly and they want to get up but can’t due to a lack of space, or because another pig stood on them in the flurry of rising. So now I go through very gently and try to ensure that when I start to nudge a pig to get up, it has space around its head so that it can do so without panic. There are still occasional squeals when they come up against each other, but more often I elicit a rather pleasant grunting.

Controversial though it might be, I have also found myself watching the slaughter process with increasing fascination. As a very young vet, I once shot a sheep and was so horrified that I have never done it since. I suppose it’s cowardly to have taken that path as there are times when it is necessary and somebody else had to do it, but I wanted to mention it in light of my monitoring the pigs at the abattoir. It’s part of my job to check that the stunning and bleeding process is done properly, so that the animals do not suffer. I had no choice in the beginning, but I no longer worry about what I might witness. I have discovered that they are so efficient with the pigs that I now see it as being close to an art form. They bring them in in small groups, manoeuvre an individual into position without stress (the slaughter men encourage them to wander around the pen until they end up in the right place) and then stun them with a carefully placed tong that sends an electric current through them. There is no squealing and no sign that they are distressed by the smells in the pen or anything they can see. I can’t speak for any other systems, but I genuinely believe that the pigs in the abattoir where I work meet their end in a way that doesn’t cause distress. I take no joy in killing, but in doing it humanely? That is of the foremost importance.

Sound and Salmonella

Sunrise/sunset: 05:47/ 18:06. Daylength: 12hr 19mins

For the first time this winter I have seen ice in Gisundet, the sound that runs between the island of Senja and the mainland. I had wondered whether it would freeze in winter, but this year it hasn’t been cold enough. I could ask someone local, of course, but it’s not the kind of thing that has come up in conversation so far.

Rather than being a sign of impending freezing, this ice appears to be what I have discovered is called brash ice. Brash ice is an accumulation of floating ice made up of smallish fragments, not more than two meters across. It appeared after a long warm day, when the sun was up for twelve hours and the temperature reached five degrees. The heat must have broken up some of the areas of ice that had formed in the bays around the edges of the sound, where the water moves less. Later in the day there was also wind, which was moving the ice along. You can see the the ice in these photographs, some caught along the shoreline in the first picture, and in the second, the flow right along the middle as it passes under the bridge.

Moving back to the topic of work, I have always had a weird fascination with infectious diseases and outbreaks. I confess that last year, when the pandemic began, that I spent far too much time searching the internet for the latest news from Wuhan, then later watching the spread across the world. I had always wondered what it would feel like to live through a pandemic, and though this one has been way less deadly than bubonic plague or Spanish flu, I would now say that living through one is periodically terrifying, with long periods of boredom and frustration. If I survive this one (and I realise my chances are relatively good) then I will be happy if there isn’t another in my lifetime.

That said, my interest remains and I have been watching the news recently as there has been an outbreak of salmonella in Norway. As Mattilsynet is Norway’s food safety authority, it has been involved in trying to trace the source of the infection. When it is a localised outbreak, it is often easy to trace the source. If all the affected people ate at the same hotel or restaurant, or bought food from the same shop, then the situation is generally clear.

This outbreak however, seemed to be spread across Norway and some other countries in Europe. This was confirmed by serotyping the bacteria – assessing the outside surface to check for distinctive structures that allow us to separate them into different groups.

When an outbreak is so widespread, it can be difficult to work out what food it was that caused it. The assessment is made more difficult with a bacterial infection such as salmonella as the time from eating the food to the time when infection causes illness can vary from six hours to six days. Trying to find out what a very sick patient ate almost a week ago can be nigh on impossible, however there can be some indication from examining which groups of people were affected. For example in another recent outbreak, most of the patients were children and that one was eventually narrowed down to chicken nuggets. Earlier outbreaks in Norway have related to chocolate bars, salad and black pepper so you can’t even concentrate only on meat products.

In this case, the infection has been found to come from a batch of beef imported from Germany and processed as mince. Now follows a process of trying to track down any remaining packs. Though they will by now be out of date, a few people might have taken them home and frozen them. Freezing will not kill the bacteria, though thorough heating would. As with any other outbreak, Mattilsynet must now also try to assess whether its internal procedures can be improved from the information collected. We will never stop all outbreaks of illness, but it is part of our job to try to ensure they occur as rarely as possible.

I will end on a more cheery note. It was lovely and sunny this week and I walked down to the little harbour on the edge of Gisundet below where we live. The water was wonderfully still and clear, as was the light and so I took a few photographs. I hope you enjoy them.

Big Red Barn

Sunrise/sunset: 06:18/ 17:38. Daylength: 11hr 20mins

If you were raised in the United Kingdom, as I was, you might occasionally have found yourself wondering why all the barns in picture books and on those alphabet pictures on the wall of your classroom were painted red. Barns in the UK tend to fall into two types. Traditional farmhouses often have a yard surrounded by byres or a steading where the animals were kept before farming was industrialised. They are often constructed of brick or stone, depending on the area.

Those traditional buildings are often now used for stock which require a lot of close attention, for example calves that need to be fed twice a day, cows that are about to calve, or which have recently done so, and animals which are sick.

The newer barns, which have been built to house the main herd or flock, tend to be huge affairs, built high, with solid walls at the base to reduce draughts and open spaces or slats higher up to allow good air circulation. Red paint doesn’t feature in either the old or the new.

I had concluded, when I thought about it, that the red barn picture-book phenomenon was probably a US import. But why were so many barns painted red? They certainly look attractive, but how did the tradition begin?

When I moved to Norway, one of the very obvious differences from the UK was the way houses are built. Here, most houses are made of wood. Nowadays, they are painted many different colours, but in contrast with that, most barns are painted red. One of my neighbours in south-west Norway explained to me that traditionally houses had also been painted mostly in two different colours: red and white.

A white house was a sign of wealth. White paint was more expensive, red was cheaper, both because the paint was less expensive and also because it was less obvious if it became dirty or discoloured. Quite often, the houses of well-to-do farmers would be painted white, but the barn continued to be decorated with the cheaper red paint.

And so it seems likely that the reason barns in the United States are red is because the tradition (and the methods of making paint or stains) were taken over from Scandinavia. Presumably red barns in children’s picture books will remain that way, even if the tradition stops. They are, after all, much more distinctive and picturesque than modern barns in the UK.

Anyway, I have been meaning for a while to get photographs of some of the barns I see as I am driving around as I work and yesterday I took the afternoon off to do it. They are a very distinctive part of the landscape. Some of them are old, some look newer. Unlike most British barns, they are built on different levels and as you will see, many have a kind of bridge through which you can enter the upper levels. Building to fit the steep, mountainous landscape is definitely a feature.

I have been saddened to find that quite a number of these barns are no longer in use. I hope that they will not gradually disappear, although I confess I have seen a few which are falling down and in a state of decay, they still hold onto their romance and beauty. I didn’t get any photographs yesterday of those, but hopefully at some point, I will.

Anna was with me on my trip and she couldn’t resist taking a snap of this buried van with its tiny house and the wonderful backdrop.

And though today it is snowing again, this was the sunset behind the gathering clouds as we drove home from our trip yesterday. The mountains of Senja taken from Sørreisa.

The Open Road

Sunrise/sunset: 06:49/ 17:11. Daylength: 10hr 21mins

The feature photograph above is of a message Anna left me on Tuesday, having watched the snow gradually deepen as she sat up into the early hours, knowing I had an early start. She left it propped against the cream in the fridge, correctly surmising I’d see it when I made my coffee before heading out. She knows me so well!

I read an interesting report this week. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have carried out an assessment on Norway’s food safety, which includes an assessment of agricultural practices. I’ve probably mentioned before that when I visit farms in Norway, a lot of attention is paid to biosecurity. There are laws requiring certain measures, including notices placed outside the barn or shed to say that entry is restricted and a “lock” area with some kind of physical barrier or line which requires a change of footwear (and often clothing) to enter.

I don’t know the current situation in the UK. Presumably in some areas, such as poultry production, they employ a similar system and change clothes on the way in and out, but when I went on cattle or sheep farms, I would travel around using the same wellingtons and waterproofs with only a quick wash between each visit. Even during the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001, the only difference was that the wellie wash was a bit more thorough; disinfectant was used and sloshing down the car tyres was added in.

So I was interested to see what the OECD had to say. Unsurprisingly, Norway scored very highly on food security. This is surely a good thing, you would imagine. But the feedback messages were mixed. Despite the high score, the OECD criticised the system for being too expensive. The word “overfulfilling” was used. The rules don’t allow enough potential for increased value, apparently. Of course, that is business bunk for “your food is too expensive and therefore not competitive in our international markets”.

The Norwegian response to this was rather predictable. They know (of course they do) that their food is not competitive. I have been reading a lot around pig farming in Norway and it is specified and fully accepted that almost all the pork produced in Norway goes directly into the Norwegian market for exactly that reason. But they feel it’s a price worth paying to ensure health and welfare are prioritised. Biosecurity in the food industry is the cornerstone of the Norwegian government’s agricultural policy. Meat in Norway is, of course, notoriously expensive, but perhaps it should be. The recent discussions during Brexit about chicken washed in chlorine were an eye opener for many people. There are lots of ways to keep food safe and ensuring your animals are as free of disease as possible is, in my opinion, beyond criticism.

Anyway, enough politics. This week has been noteworthy because after two months of working almost exclusively from home, there has been a big change this week. Birgit, Thomas and I have been visiting our local veterinary practices. Building up links is a useful thing to do. Mattilsynet carry out some routine inspections on farms, but we can’t check everywhere and rely on reports from other people to direct us to places where there are concerns about welfare. There’s a very human side to that, of course. Animal welfare doesn’t always suffer because of intentional negligence. Sometimes animal owners are ill or unable to cope. Sometimes they are uncertain of how to care for their animals too, and part of our job is to step in when there are problems.

So we want the vets who cover our patch to be part of something bigger than Mattilsynet. We need a network of support. During the visits, Birgit explained that there are now two dedicated “animal crime” police officers in Tromsø who form part of a new initiative . This is important when it is potentially unsafe for us to carry out visits, for example, and in the other direction, when police activity leads to the discovery of neglected pets during the course of carrying out their routine duties.

And so, I have been out and about a lot more, and of course here in Northern Norway, that requires assessment of (and allowances for) the weather conditions. After a huge thaw at the beginning of the week, with landslide warnings all over the place, it has now settled back into seemingly perpetual snow showers. The thaw, while rather alarming, was beautiful. Instead of a huge flat expanse of snow, the lakes took on some colour, though the thaw was not long enough for the ice to melt.

But now the snow has returned with a vengeance. One of the veterinary practices we visited was up a narrow track between snow-capped trees. I confess I was rather envious of the vet who had set up her one-woman practice in such a wonderful place.

The Norwegian road agency do a great job keeping the roads clear. On the way to my last visit, I was a little early and I stopped in a layby and took a photograph of the E6 road. This is the main trunk road that stretches down through the whole of Norway and then to the southern tip of Sweden. One day, perhaps I will drive the length of it. But that will be a whole new project.

The Log Cabin

Sunrise/sunset: 07:20/ 16:42. Daylength: 9hr 22mins

One of the things I liked about living in Scotland was the good condition of the major roads and its relatively small size. Sure, if you drove from Jedburgh to Dunnet Head, it took about six and a half hours, but living in central Scotland, as we did for a while, it was easy to explore other cities on weekend trips. When the children were young, we may have spent more time running around castles than city centres, but the point remains; it was easy to find budget hotels in all kinds of different places within a three to four hour drive.

On the first weekend we arrived in Norway, our friendly landlord invited us to his cabin. He had a beautiful house in Stavanger, but had kept his mother’s house on an island in Flekkefjord after she had died. Though Flekkefjord was no city, the idea seemed similar, if not better. This was the chance to escape to a different area, weekend life on an island with a boat and as many crabs as you could eat. We learned that it was common in Norway to have a second home. Sometimes they were inherited, but not always. It offered the chance to escape to the sea or the mountains. Not that those were particularly lacking in or near the cities I’ve visited in Norway, but the idea of travelling to somewhere distant and different resonated with me. Cheap hotels like Premier Inn or Travel Lodge, where you can comfortably fit a family of four in a room are definitely not a feature in Norway.

But as I lived in Norway longer, I began to find out that it was quite common to have a cabin much closer to home. People would have a weekend home only half an hour from where they lived. I confess this seemed bizarre to me. Surely the idea of a weekend break is to explore somewhere different? Perhaps eat out in a restaurant you haven’t tried before or go to a museum you haven’t visited two or three times already? But with time, I began to understand it better. Eating out in Norway is becoming more common, but it’s still an expensive treat and not a weekly event. Your cabin is somewhere you go to relax, probably enjoy the outdoors, and simply to have a change of scene. Unless you specifically want it near a ski resort or in a particular area, why not have it only half an hour’s drive from home? Better still, if you have it fully stocked with clothes, there isn’t even a need to pack.

For now, having my own cabin is only a dream, but with coronavirus still at the forefront of every travel opportunity, we decided that a weekend away would be a change of scene. Andrew was away, so John, Anna and I made our preparations. Rather than choosing a city to explore, with a long drive, we decided that comfort was key. What could be better than spending some time in a cosy cabin with a wood stove, Norwegian curios on the walls and sheepskin rugs on deep cushioned sofas?

And so last weekend, we drove about an hour from home to spend the weekend in a log cabin on a husky farm.

The husky enclosure

Our arrival at the farm was wonderful. We stopped the car and climbed out into the silence of a Norwegian winter in the middle of nowhere. There were snow filled fields all around and the log cabin with its warm yellow wooden walls looked just as inviting as it had in the pictures on the website.

We had brought Triar along and so we rushed round to the boot of the car to let him out of his travel cage. Though the sight of a car and humans had been greeted with silence, on Triar’s appearance, the huskies began to raise their voices. And what a wonderful sound it was, howling and yodelling, a wonderful crescendo rising in the crisp still air.

We felt even more at home as we explored inside. The range in the kitchen had been lit and it was wonderfully cosy. There were pans on the walls and a huge table. The range was complemented by a modern cooker, coffee machine, toaster and kettle. John and Anna were with me and I couldn’t resist starting to cook on the range. It reminded me of a friends farms back in Scotland, where the kitchen was the heart of the home. There was always a huge kettle on the Aga on the edge of boiling so family and guests alike could grab a hot drink at any time of the day or night.

There were loads of quirky features. As you can see, there is silver birch trunk holding up one of the beams in the kitchen. The little twisted staircase in the corner leads up to the living room where there is another wood stove and wonderful couches with animal themed cushions. Off that room there was a bedroom that Anna and I shared.

It truly was a wonderful place. It was minus ten outside and Espen, who runs the farm with his wife Delphine, had advised us to light the stove in the kitchen as soon as we rose each morning. The house was built upwards, so heat rose from the kitchen, up those rickety stairs to the living room and from there into a quirky loft bedroom under the rafters. Life somehow slows down when you have to feed a wood stove all day.

Our only trip was a visit to Bardufoss to buy John some warmer trousers. John and Anna humoured me as I stopped on the way back to take some photographs of a rural church with its snow-covered graveyard. You can see it was cold. The halo of light around the sun here, and in the pictures of the house, is formed by tiny ice crystals in the air.

It was good to have some time away. Easy in these winter months and lockdown times to stay at home more and more. Lovely though the view is from the windows of the apartment, it was great to have a change of scene. And perhaps in future, it might provide a wonderful backdrop for a new novel.

The weather changed over the weekend. The wind began to rise and the snow began to drift, but we stayed cosy and warm inside. As I lay in bed on Sunday morning, listening to the wind gusting against the thick wooden walls, I contemplated calling to see whether we could stay another night.

But I was due to work on Monday, and even if I didn’t have to put in an appearance in the office, it wouldn’t be possible to combine work with packing up and going home. And so reluctantly, I pulled myself out from under the covers and began to get ready to depart. But I hope to return in future. The farm runs dogsledding trips, traditional food in a Sami lavvo (similar to a wigwam) and tours to meet and make friends with the huskies. We will definitely be going back one day.

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.

Dog in the Snow

Sunrise/sunset: 08:23/ 15:42. Daylength: 7hr 18min

I started the week in Bardufoss. John was here last weekend and I took him back on Monday night and stayed over until Wednesday. The temperature is much lower inland and it was -24°C when I parked the car.

You really find out how good your vehicle is in those conditions. After a few short journeys, my lovely BMW started to tell me that its battery was not very happy (it’s a very chatty car and likes to forewarn me before things get out of hand – though sometimes I wish it wasn’t quite so fussy about seatbelts when I want to shuffle the car on the driveway). A quick check on the internet told me there was probably no real problem, but for the last twenty four hours of my stay, I was worried that I might not make it back without complications. When I returned home (where it was a balmy -4°C) the warning light was still on, so I decided to get it checked out. It was snowing hard and the weather forecast was warning me that it wasn’t going to stop any time soon. The garage Hilde recommended was busy, but they kindly arranged for me to go to the petrol station next door. After a quick trip home to remove the dog cage from the boot (because that’s where the battery is apparently) the mechanic very kindly checked that the battery was indeed fully functional and then waved me on my way without charging anything. He’s definitely gained a new client!

When I’m not in the abattoir, I’m still working from home and for now, I’m concentrating hard on trying to qualify as the Norwegian equivalent of an Official Veterinary Surgeon. This will allow me to work in the abattoir without another (already qualified) vet. The course really does cover a lot of material, mostly to do with welfare, but some of it is very technical. On Friday I found myself learning about stunning chickens with electricity, which actually isn’t a method used here in Norway. Nonetheless, I found myself back at school learning all about Ohm’s Law, current, resistance and voltage, only this time it was all in Norwegian. Life here does sometimes throw up unexpected challenges!

I was, as you can imagine, quite relieved to arrive home safely on Wednesday and I decided that having got there, going back out again should be kept to a minimum. Here’s a summary of the weather forecast from Thursday lunchtime.

By Thursday morning, it looked like this.

It soon clouded over again though. Wave after wave of snow has passed. They come in from the North, slipping in over Gisundet, the sound between the mainland and Senja.

There has been quite some digging of the driveway to be done, though happily my landlord keeps popping over with his snow blower to remove some of it. It’s getting harder to dig out though as the snow at the sides gets higher.

Though of course my driveway has nothing on the public car parks down in the town itself. For reference, the zebra-crossing sign is a good deal taller than me.

But one of the best things about the snow is watching Triar playing. He loves going outside and flolloping through the deep snow, burying his face and emerging cheerfully covered. He will happily play outside for ages and doesn’t seem to feel the cold.

And of course, after all that play, it’s time for Triar to go to bed. Sleep well Triar!

Sunlight

Sunrise/sunset: 08:56/ 15:09. Daylength: 6hr 12min

It’s getting lighter very fast now. We have an hour more daylight today than we had last Saturday. We took Triar for a run on the beach last week, and these pictures were taken at around four in the afternoon.

We finally have some snow. It’s been falling on and off throughout the week and it makes the world seem much brighter as well. Back in Scotland, growing up, it generally snowed a couple of times each winter. It was usually around zero when it happened and often the flakes were huge. They landed on the ground and stayed there.

Snow at minus ten is quite different. I have occasionally seen bigger flakes, but they’re mostly much smaller. If there’s any wind at all, it carries them effortlessly. Sometimes they move so fast horizontally that I wonder if they’ll ever hit the ground. Driving at night, the snow skitters and dances across the road in the headlights. When lorries pass, they create clouds of it that seem to go on for miles. Of course, if there’s a lot of snow and some wind, you can get dangerous drifts, but so far it isn’t deep and nor is it windy. It has, though, covered over all that ice, and to enough depth that it is no longer treacherously slippery.

There is, as yet, no obvious heat in the sun. It finally made it over the hill to hit the house on Tuesday. Odd how heartening it was to see it, though it was gone a moment later.

It was rather misty as well that day. I was fascinated to see the bridge to Senja had become a bridge to nowhere. I took two pictures. The first is at the top of the page, when the sun was turning the fog a wonderful pink colour. Moments later, the sun was diminished as the cloud thickened, and then it stopped looking warm and colourful, but was beautiful nonetheless.

And now it’s Saturday morning and John is home for the weekend and wants to take Triar out. It’s half past nine and already light, so who am I to say no! I will leave you with a picture of the cloudberry liqueur I picked up yesterday at the Vinmonopol. We tried it last night and it tastes of honey and late summer warmth. Cheers!