17th May is Norway’s national day. On this day in 1814, the Constitution of Norway was signed at Eidsvoll in Viken County. All round the country, and indeed round the world, Norwegians celebrate.
Outside of coronavirus times, the children march through town centres and teenagers in their last year at school don special «Russ» costumes of varying colours. After a month of pranks and dares, both inside and outside of school, they join the parades for their special day. There are various Russ outfits, the most common being dungarees with a Norwegian flag inside the front panel. The straps and flag are often left hanging and the trousers are decorated with slogans and pictures, as you can see with the green-dressed clarinet player standing at the front of the band. Red Russ is the most common, but some wear green, some blue, black or white, often depending on what course of study they are following.
Brass bands are very popular, and as well as the above band playing in the square, there was a marching band which came along the main street before the motor parade. The marching band includes school children who are provided with instruments and lessons after school in return for playing during celebrations.
Russ celebrations have been muted this year and other than the band, the children didn’t march here, but there was a parade of vehicles through the town centre. The emergency services turned out, as did many members of other industries. Ambulances, red cross, farmers and firemen drove through the streets along with motorcyclists and car enthusiasts.
And everywhere, the smart red, blue and white of the Norwegian flag.
Usually there’s a gathering afterwards, perhaps in a community hall, but this year we went home for our hotdogs.
Only another three days and we will reach the point where the sun officially doesn’t drop below the horizon until 24th July. I know now that there will be a delay due to the height of the surrounding mountains. For a few days, it will continue to sink behind them, but after that, on sunny days, we should be able to see the midnight sun.
John told me yesterday about a conversation with a friend. John was trying to express how it felt to see the sun again after the polar night. Although it never reached the point of being dark 24/7 there was an ethereal quality to the light and for a month and a half, there were no shadows, even when the sky was clear. The return of the sun felt like a catharsis. John tells me his friend commented that you have to appreciate the small things, but up here, it didn’t feel small at all.
I feel a bit the same now we are waiting for spring. It’s a long time coming. I’m not sure what I was expecting. After all, I lived in a more southern part of Norway for ten years and spring didn’t arrive until May even there, but with the long daylight hours, it feels strange that things are not further forward. I find myself searching for signs and they are appearing.
All around I hear water running where in winter there was frozen silence. Where there is a rise in the forest floor or a slope that faces the sun, there is a noticeable green tinge. Yellow flowers that look like a cross between daisies and dandelions are pushing through the dirt that has been deposited on the roadsides from five months of snow clearing.
Two days ago, one of the small trees behind the house sprung new leaf buds. I trust that the others will not be far behind. There are a lot of deciduous trees here. The lower slopes of the mountains are swathed in forests and many of them still look black. Surely the change must come soon. I find myself hoping that the lower slopes will be green while the upper slopes are still swathed in snow.
Elsewhere, it seems like winter still has a hold, albeit one that is weakening. Lakes are still frozen, the forests are still filled with snow.
I remember John commenting in August last year that winter never really leaves here. Instead it retreats up into the shadowy corners of the mountains. But that will do for me. Tomorrow is May 17th, which is Norway’s national day. We will be going down into the centre of town to see the children march. As is traditional here, we will be feasting on Norway’s national dish: hot dogs. I hope the sun will be shining for us all.
I drove home from Storslett on Friday last week, but not before taking a photograph of fish hanging outside to dry. Birgit and I were inspecting a goat herd and another flock of sheep, and on the way I finally spotted some racks that were in use. Norwegian stockfish is dried cod, usually of the prime seasonal Arctic variety that is called skrei. It hangs outside between February and May and has been a traditional foodstuff and an export since Viking times. It is the main ingredient in the Italian dish Bacalao. John and I saw much bigger drying racks last summer as we drove through Lofoten, but as that was in August, there were no fish back then. So having spotted these on the way, I asked Birgit to stop on the way back and I ran along the road, hopped over the barrier and staggered down a grassy bank to get a picture.
I took a couple of photos of the mountains as well. It is such a beautiful area and the mountain tops were decked with fluffy white clouds.
By the time I got home, the false spring weather had disappeared. Anna and I went for a walk on Senja on Saturday. There were a couple of reindeer standing in a field and we stopped to take a rather distant photo. Though the grass isn’t growing vigorously yet, I have seen other reindeer taking advantage of the temporarily uncovered pastures this week while driving around.
One of our favourite walks starts beside a school and Anna spotted some skis standing in a rack on the side of the building, so I took some pictures of them and the bike rack that is currently not in use. Outdoor living and exercise is very much encouraged and embraced here, whatever the weather.
On Tuesday I worked the early shift at the abattoir. It’s much easier driving over at 5am now it’s light. It was a particularly beautiful sunrise on Tuesday and I paused on the empty road to take a picture.
On Wednesday, with Birgit’s (long distance) help, I finished the course work and the report for the inspections I mentioned in Across the Lyngen Fjord. On Thursday morning there was a summing up meeting. On Thursday afternoon, having finished my homework for the week, I was free to turn my attention to my e-mails. Most of my e-mails contain information about meetings or outbreaks of controlled diseases, but now and then I am sent fascinating updates on the complicated interplay between large predators and domesticated and semi-domesticated animals in Norway.
In the past fifty years, there has been a movement from culling to preservation of species such as bears, wolverine, lynx, wolves and golden eagles. Wonderful as that is, it does have an impact and the Norwegian government have to work with farmers and herders to try to ensure balance.
Most of the domesticated animals such as sheep and cattle, are kept on pastures near to a farm. If they are moved, they go in lorries. Though some sheep (and especially lambs) are taken by predators, in general it is possible to keep the protected predator wildlife areas and farming regions separate. But the situation is much more complicated when it comes to reindeer.
Reindeer herding in Norway is carried out by Sami people using a mixture of traditional and modern methods. The reindeer are semi-domesticated: they are not fenced in, but are moved around to different pastures, depending on the season, food availability and the weather. Unfortunately, some of the important grazing areas, that have been used for thousands of years, overlap with some of the priority areas where there are targets set for these predatory animals.
The political situation is particularly difficult as there continues to be a lot of tension between the Sami and the Norwegian government. Until relatively recently, strong attempts were made to enforce integration into the more modern Norwegian lifestyle, but the creation of a Sami parliament in 1989 and the recognition of the language and way of life has not removed all conflict. Traditional herding methods are not only affected by predators, but by roadbuilding, property development and even wind farms. The grazing areas are mostly in land that is considered to be “state owned” but if that is land that your people have been using for more than a thousand years, I feel it is unreasonable to expect a full acceptance of that claim of ownership.
Anyway, back to the report. Apparently, lynx, wolverine and golden eagles are the biggest predatory threat to reindeer in Norway. Information from NINA, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research shows that the wolverine diet is 95% reindeer and lynx 65%. Some of the herders report many of their calves are taken, sometimes up to 75% of the years progeny. And because of the nomadic lifestyle, it is not only direct predation that can be problematic.
In January this year, a herd of up to two hundred reindeer took fright when they were being moved and it was strongly suspected that this was triggered by predators. Instead of travelling safely to their winter pasture, they headed up into the mountains. The terrain was frozen and largely impassable, and of course there was no grazing. A small group of them returned, but without their calves. Eventually a helicopter was arranged so the herders could get an overview and the herd was recovered, but there’s no doubt that these predators, alongside climate change, have a huge impact on traditional ways of life.
Regular readers might also be interested to hear an update on the female bear with a taste for lamb and mutton that I mentioned in the very first blog post I wrote when I started work here (Piece of Cake). It was too late last year to move the mother bear to a different area where there were no sheep. Now they are waiting to see whether the bear is pregnant and/or whether she will emerge from hibernation with yearling cubs.
Though moving her might prove to be a long term (or even impossible) project, other solutions are also sought. One of the farmers who reported the greatest losses has been granted funds to restructure and he will change from farming sheep to beef cattle. The farmers who lose animals are compensated for their losses, but of course the picture isn’t simply one of monetary cost.
One of the focuses of the report was on the animal welfare issues caused by the hunting of domesticated animals by these predators. In general, domesticated animals are kept safe from that type of harm. The idea that living in nature is some kind of idyllic haven for animals is overly simplistic.
I will finish up with a couple of photographs taken yesterday. The days are now very long and light, but after a week or two of rapid melting, the snow has returned. In the middle of the day, when the sun is high, it is so bright as to be almost unbearable. I really must buy some sunglasses! These pictures were taken at seven fifteen in the morning and at eleven forty five in the evening. Twenty four hour sunlight (and hopefully summer) is just around the corner.
I said earlier in the week that if I didn’t post, I’d be swimming in photos by the weekend. Despite doing so, I still have so many things I want to share with you that this will be a whistle stop tour of Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.
There are lots of tunnels in Norway. Many roads which used to go through mountain passes, or clung to cliff edges around insane bends, have been rerouted to go through or under. Sometimes, the old road stays open, either because there is a village or walking area, or otherwise to provide an alternative route in the event that the tunnel is closed.
There is a tunnel on the E6 just south of Sørkjosen and Birgit recommended, on Tuesday evening, that I explore the road it replaced. The first section was flat and of the clinging to the cliff face variety. There were road signs reminding drivers not to forget to go round the bends and I wondered how many unwary tourists, distracted by the scenery, had gone over the edge before they decided they really ought to put up notices. The view really was worth looking at. One of the first things I saw was this classic red barn, built into the mountainside above the fjord.
The road itself is called Jubelen and Birgit told me that like “Rest and Be Thankful” in Scotland, it was probably named by people who were heartily glad to reach the top of a stiff climb. Shortly after the barn, the road began twisting its way up the fellside. There was a car park at the top, where a frozen lake was surrounded by warnings that it was drinking water and shouldn’t be polluted. The way onwards was blocked for cars and impassable without skis, so I climbed out of the car and decided to take a walk back down the road to take some pictures.
I walked quite a way down the road. It was a bright day and the sunshine warmed my back as I tramped down the hill. I have been noticing, for the past week or so, that there are patches of green appearing through the snow, particularly on banks that face the sunlight. Often when snow disappears, there can be weeks where everything looks brown and dead, but some of the ground cover here is so hardy that in places it is pushing its way through the snow. After months of white, these intense patches of colour are very cheering, as is the wonderful chatter of newly flowing streams that fills the air.
Further down the road, there were beautiful views across Reisafjord to the mountains beyond.
There was also this wonderful frozen waterfall. I guess it doesn’t get much sunlight, being on the north side of the mountain. A mixed blessing for me as it was hard to photograph with the bright sky above and behind, but I hope you can get some idea of the blue, icy beauty.
It was slower, walking back up the hill. I noticed a few things I thought I’d like to share with those of you who live in warmer places. The roads in Norway are kept remarkably clear, even when there is heavy snow. Gradually the snow builds up on the verges until there are piles so high that in places, you can’t see over them. A friend commented on Facebook that if she was driving here, she’d never get anywhere as she would stop so often, but once the snow arrives, there are very few places you can pull off the road. The laybys and passing places all have to be cleared and side-roads and entrances become narrow and hemmed in.
As the snow has begun to melt, I have noticed that it happens unevenly. Quite often the piled up snow has begun to resemble castle ramparts with regularly spaced clumps of ice perched along the top of the wall.
Winter is obviously hard on asphalt. Lots of the newly-revealed roads have deep holes. During winter, they were filled and masked by the hard packed snow and are only becoming apparent as it melts. Long cracks also appear, many of which look like they were patched up last summer, only to have widened again.
For now, the roads are dry, but when it rains, or the snow melts, there is nowhere for the water to escape. And so as we begin to approach spring, those clearing the roads have begun to create gaps in the ramparts so that some of the water can escape into the ground.
One last picture. As I drove back down and reached the bottom of the hill, I stopped to take another photo, looking back towards Sørkjosen. If you zoom in to the bottom right (thank you Lara!) corner of this picture, you can see the hotel where I was staying!
Wednesday night was quite the contrast. As Birgit had warned me on Tuesday, the weather closed in and by Wednesday evening the skies were heavy and there was snow in the air. Birgit had invited me to eat with her at home and so after work, I followed her on the road that led north from Storslett and out to her house.
I have posted about the wonderful red barns here before, and to my delight, Birgit has one of her own.
Birgit has a small herd of Lyngshest that she and her partner use for breeding and riding. She tells me that once a week, a group of local pensioners come and ride out with her partner, Geirmund. I have often thought Norway is a good place to grow old (often the ski slopes are free for over 70s) and this sounds like one more wonderful discovery of active retirement. She led me into the barn where we found the farrier working.
We went in the house and were greeted by the lovely aroma of food in the oven, and by Birgit’s seven year old Bouvier de Flandres , I Mo. He was as warm and friendly as Birgit herself and very soon, as we stood in the kitchen, he lay down on my feet to keep them warm.
Birgit’s house was wonderfully cosy and filled with photographs of horses and Birgit and Geirmund’s family. Her children, like mine, are mostly grown up, but as we walked into the living room, we were greeted by one of her two cats.
Once the farrier was finished, Geirmund came in and we ate together. After that, Birgit took me on a proper tour of the barn, or fjos, as it is called here.
It felt like a slice of heaven to me. As well as the older of the Lyngehest tied up in stalls there were chicken and sheep. Lead ropes and sheep-bells hung on the walls and there was the sweet smell of horses and hay.
The younger horses are outside. Despite the patches of snow and the dampness of the ground as it melts, they too seemed to be thriving. Birgit tells me they are very even tempered and cheerful, even when faced with injury or difficulties.
Despite the mud and the snow, we went for a short walk afterwards down towards the fjord. I stopped to take the photograph of the tractor and floats. I saw them on top of a bank as we walked past and I couldn’t resist. Farming and fishing, thrown together, old, but probably still working. Note also the boat with the green deck in the background. The far side is filled with holes, but perhaps there are parts that can be used. And you can also see the ubiquitous wires that spread over so much of the landscape in Norway. Often I try to photograph round them, but here I felt they were very fitting.
As we passed the tractor again on the way back, Birgit told me that in winter, there was an otter slide on the bank beside it. Presumably the otters will head into the fjord shortly for the summer, if they haven’t already gone. As for me, I hope that I will be back here very soon. Thank you Birgit for a lovely evening.
Yesterday was another of those gorgeous days of endless blue skies. Birgit and I drove south in the morning sunshine and then took the ferry across Lyngen Fjord.
Our destination was Lyngseidet in Lyngen Kommune. Though it is possible to drive round, it would take several hours. The crossing took about forty minutes and as well as taking photographs, Birgit and I bought drinks from the small cafe on board. I had a slightly surreal moment when I approached the lady behind the counter and she spoke to me in English. Given that I was wearing a Mattilsynet jumper with a Mattilsynet badge hanging from a Mattilsynet lanyard, and was waving a Norwegian credit card, I was slightly taken aback. Perhaps my face looked British, but I didn’t ask so I guess I’ll never know.
Birgit had planned two visits to blood sample goats, but there were some last minute cancellations and so we visited some sheep farms to check ear tags instead. I am taking a course at the moment on inspections, and so Birgit let me lead both of them. Better still on the first farm, as well as the sheep, the owner had some Lyngshest/Nordlandshest. These wonderful little Norwegian horses are immensely strong and hardy. Most of them are between 12.3 and 13.3 hands (130-140 cm) but Birgit assured me they can easily carry an adult’s weight. She had told me before we arrived about the little horses – she has some herself – and so when we had checked the sheep, I asked the farmer whether we could see them. He led us outside, and to my delight, he called them and they began slowly to walk towards us.
Despite being a little shy at first (he told us they were suspicious that we were vets) very soon we were making friends. Considering the bizarre protective clothing we wear, I think they were surprisingly courageous!
The second visit was great too. The farmer gave us a warm welcome and was very positive about having a visit from Mattilsynet. She seemed rightly proud of her mixed flock, half of them tiny Norsk Villsau (literally Norwegian wild sheep) the other half being the sturdier Norsk Kvit Sau, or White Sheep.
Once we were finished, we headed back to the village where we had landed. After stopping to take a photo of Lynseidet church with its friendly red roof and one of the irresistible mountain behind the Co-Op, we ate lunch outside on a scarlet-painted table beside the fjord. Birgit pointed out the curlews flitting over the water. The arrival of the curlews on their migration to the north means that spring has arrived, she told me. With the warm sun on my face, I could well believe it.
After that it was time for our return journey across the Fjord. As I looked back towards Lyngseidet, I was already making plans in my head to visit again in the summer. It will all look very different in a few weeks time when (most of) the snow has melted.
As we drove around, Birgit told me a bit about the local area. Norway has, of course, a great seafaring tradition. With its long coastline and sheltered fjords, it was the perfect place to create a trading hub. And here in the north, we are also very close to the Finnish, Swedish and Russian borders. She tells me that traders created their own language, which is a mixture of the various languages and dialects, so that they can all understand one another.
I had heard of the Sami before, but not of the Kven people. Descendants of Finns who moved to Norway in the 18th and 19th centuries, they too have their own language. So just as in Scotland, where many road sign have Gaelic alongside the English spelling and in Wales where Welsh names are shown, up here there are road signs with three different languages: Norwegian, Sami and Kvensk.
As we arrived back in Sørkjosen where I am staying, Birgit told me that the building opposite my hotel was one of the few in the area that was not burned down by the Germans as they retreated towards the end of the second world war. I had taken a picture of it in the morning as it was a beautiful old building.
And so, with all the new information whirling in my head, I stopped for a moment to look at the boats that were safely tide up in the harbour. Despite the desperate thought of past destruction, so far I have found nothing but peace and happiness here in Nordreisa.
I know I usually update on Saturdays, but this week is special. My long awaited, coronavirus-postponed trip to Mattilsynet Troms and Svalbard’s most northerly outpost in Storslett is finally here. It was a wonderful drive up through glacier carved mountain ranges and along the steep edges of fjords.
The sun was shining on the snow-capped peaks, and waterfalls are beginning to appear, mostly at present as tiny droplets falling from mossy rocks, but soon there will be torrents as the ice melts and the world turns green.
As I neared Storslett, the land beside the fjord stretched out. Small boat sheds, cheerfully painted, stood beside ramshackle frames where cod would be hung to dry in winter. I didn’t manage to take a picture of the frames, but I will try to do so on the drive back, or when I’m out and about with Birgit, who is my mentor for this week.
By the time I got to my hotel I was tired and fell asleep for an hour, but I woke to the most wonderful evening sky. Goodnight all!
I had a phone call this week from a member of the public who had sent a “concern message” and wanted some follow up. In the UK, this is the kind of report someone might send to the RSPCA (SSPCA in Scotland) when they have seen an animal or animals that they are worried about and want someone in authority to do something about it. Here messages are made online via an official form.
One of the challenges in a new job where there is contact with the public is being put on the spot before you are fully genned up on how everything should be managed. Due to coronavirus, the learning process has been slow for me, but I feel I am finally getting a handle on things. Phone calls are rare (I can only remember receiving three or four) and as they can be redirected from a central line, they don’t always go to the person best placed to give an answer.
For me there’s also a language issue. As others who regularly use a language that is not their mother tongue have confirmed, if a topic of conversation arises where the context is unclear, it can take a minute or two to catch up. On one occasion when I was rushing out to a doctor’s appointment, I was called by a man about a visit someone else had made to carry out meat inspection on a wild moose. As I had no context, I thought we were discussing a call Thomas and I had made the day before. Luckily as I was in a hurry, I accidentally redirected them to the appropriate person, but as you can imagine, all the ingredients for creating some kind of Fawlty Towers level farcical misunderstanding are present.
Fortunately there was no such misunderstanding in this case, though having answered the phone without any opportunity to prepare myself, I did manage to forget almost everything I had learned.
I took down what I thought were the salient issues: details of the nature of the report (horses standing in mud with no food) and the name and number of the person who had sent the report.
Running through my head was the knowledge that Thomas would almost certainly know more because the concern messages in our area currently come in to him and he shares the details with or (on one occasion so far) delegates them to me.
I ended the call and thought through my next steps. Obviously I had to call Thomas, but I wanted to work through as much as I could on my own before doing so. There is a shared file within the DyreGo department of all current and ongoing concern messages and so my next step was to look them up. It was at this point, I realised the first of my errors.
Quite often when people make reports, they choose to be anonymous and the online form gives anonymity as a clear option. Ongoing cases are not listed under the details of the person reporting: rather they are recorded under the name and address of the animal owner. None of the cases on the list fitted perfectly. Worse still, I realised that the central bod might not have even redirected the call to our office, but to the wider Troms and Svalbard team. The horses in question could easily be hours away in Tromsø and Thomas might know no more than I did. Still, having done what I could, I went ahead and called him.
Thomas is very patient with me. He told me early on that he wasn’t, but being aware there were many things I couldn’t do, I made an effort to take on the things I could, even if it was something as mundane as coming in early to clean snow off the car we were going to use. Sometimes I get ahead of myself (MATS, the computer system we work with, is very unforgiving if you make an error – it’s designed to work through things in order and going back to correct can be “challenging”) and then he rolls his eyes and tells me not to go so fast, but mostly we laugh together.
We weren’t far into the call when my second error became clear. I had received a request for information from someone who was worried about some animals, and so of course I wanted to help. But as Thomas reminded me, as soon as we begin investigating welfare cases, we are obliged by law to keep all the details secret. Even if I could work out which case it was, I couldn’t tell my enquirer what was happening.
Nevertheless, as he knew no more about this case than I did, he advised me to call one of the members of our team who receive and review all the cases when they first come in. They carry out a preliminary investigation, examine any evidence from previous interactions with the animal owner, assess the severity of any welfare issues highlighted, and then either close the case immediately or pass it on to the nearest office for further assessment.
And so I called Birgit and explained the situation and as well as managing to find and update me on the case, she explained how to deal with the enquiry as well. One of the things the enquirer had asked was whether we’d received the report. I know from dealing with veterinary cases that when calling people, it’s often true that if you haven’t got, or aren’t able to give them the information they want, it’s helpful to have at least one positive point you can emphasise, even if it’s minor in the grand scheme of things. And so I called the enquirer back and explained that I was unable to give details about what was happening, but at least we had received the message and it had been assessed.
I was relieved to have put the enquiry to bed, as it were. I hate having unresolved things hanging over me. But a number of thoughts went through my head following the call about how I could have dealt with it if the caller hadn’t been satisfied with my response. I could have explained more about the processes we have, and perhaps how such a case would be handled.
The initial assessment would look at whether one of our team had investigated similar allegations before and the results. Where there is no history, or where the history indicates the case should be taken further, the case is sent to the local office where the inspectors decide whether it can be handled over the phone – better in these covid times in simple cases where the animal owner can send a picture or video during or shortly after the call to demonstrate whether something is true or untrue – or through a visit.
Some thoughts crossed my mind about that possible visit too. I was called out to a similar case years ago by the SSPCA. They were trying to put together a court case against an owner and I remember going out and looking at all these poor horses, standing up to their knees in mud, and thinking that if it did go to court, I would be happy to stand up for them to try and stop their suffering. But I’m not sure, with hindsight, that I would have done them much good. I can’t remember what examinations I carried out, but I do have vague memories of warnings at vet college that giving evidence in court was something of a specialist activity and we should be wary if we weren’t experienced, which I wasn’t. Perhaps fortunately for me and the horses, it was resolved without reaching court.
It crossed my mind though now, that what Mattilsynet are doing is akin to training me to be the kind of expert witness I needed to be back then. I would no longer go out to such a case and ask for guidance from the SSPCA. I would go out armed with the exact wording of the laws and by-laws that govern animal ownership in Norway.
I also have a better understanding of how you could prove or disprove an allegation. To assess whether a horse or horses were indeed without food, we would start by asking the owner. We would find out through questioning, whether they had enough theoretical knowledge to know how often you should feed a horse and how much. But that would only be the first step.
After that, we would examine the food they had available and how it was stored. We might take pictures of that. More importantly, we would examine and photograph the animal and compare it to a prescriptive scale based on anatomical features. If you can see various bony structures, you can assess where the animal falls on the scale where 1 is way too thin and 9 is very much too fat. We would look at other details as well to assess more general health and welfare. I’m not sure yet about how it would work if we ended up in court (or indeed whether that happens) but all these processes allow us to be very specific in being able to back up our claim that “the animal looks like it is suffering” with verifiable and objective facts to demonstrate that it is.
The great thing is though, that having worked through all that, the next time I get a similar phone call, I will deal with it easily. Even if the enquirer is difficult to work with, I will have a raft of background information to help me deal with it. That is the nature of being a vet. When you start out, almost everything is a challenge, but as you deal with challenges every day, managing them becomes routine.
In my current role, with coronavirus and working from home, I’ve received so much intensive theoretical training that it’s nearly coming out of my ears. This phone call and last week’s practical training with Thomas has led to all that information clicking into context. I am finally beginning to believe I will one day be good at this job. On Monday, I am going on my long-delayed week-long trip to Troms and Svalbard’s most northerly office in Storslett. I hope Birgit is prepared for the onslaught of the three million questions that have become apparent with my increasing knowledge. It’s very true that the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know.
To finish up, I wanted to talk a little about daylight and about spring. The quality of the light here continues to surprise me. As you can see at the top of the page, we have full daylight for over sixteen hours each day. By the end of the month, there will be just over half an hour of what is called civil twilight around midnight. Civil twilight is the brightest form of twilight where the sun is just below the horizon: the same kind of light we had during the polar night.
The speed with which the changes occur probably shouldn’t surprise me. After all, we had it in the opposite direction only a few months back, but the daylength changes are so fast that the weather doesn’t really keep up. Though there have been a lot of days where the temperature has made it above zero, when rivers of melt water have run down the middle of roads and rushed down newly visible mountain streams, there is still a thick layer of snow on the ground.
Back in Scotland, it wasn’t impossible to have the odd day of snow in April, but it was a rare occurrence. I tend to associate snow with short winter days and near permanent twilight. But now I look out on all this wonderful light and the snow is still on the ground and it’s almost magically white. The picture at the top of the page shows the wonderful warm twilight as the moon rises over Gisundet Sound and the island of Senja. But the day time is equally rare and magical, and I hope that I caught something of that in this second picture.
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.
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.
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.
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.