It’s holiday time, and my phone keeps pinging with reminders of upcoming flights and stays. Konstantin is housesitting for me, so I know that Triar and the guinea pigs will be well cared for. Lots of other things are bubbling along. I signed the house contract this week. On first of August, I will be a house owner. So far, we have a TV and stand, a washing machine and cooker, a desk and chair, and one bed. Fortunately we have a month between buying the house and moving out of our current flat, so there will be time to rectify that. Hopefully by the time we move in, we will at least have two beds and something to sit on!
Last week, I mentioned that Ger had submitted The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic to ten publishers. So far, two have turned it down. Ger tells me this is quite normal. I believe Harry Potter was turned down by twelve publishers, so I am staying positive for now. I am in the final stages of getting the storyline for book two finished. Hopefully I will find some time to write during my holiday. Due to Covid we won’t be going out and about too much, so I will be able to escape to the fictional town of Invercorrich on the west coast of Scotland. I will also be staying with my parents for the last two weeks of the three weeks I’m taking. I haven’t seen them since December 2019, so being with them again will be truly wonderful.
Just to slightly complicate matters (as if they weren’t already complicated enough) I have been vaguely unwell for a few months and finally heaved myself to the doctors about three weeks ago. She referred me to Tromsø for a colonoscopy, which was done on Thursday. Probably the less said about the procedure the better, though I survived the process without having to have sedation or painkillers, which was a bonus.
There are flowers on all the roadsides, even around the hospital, so I will share a few pictures here.
The good news is that my intestines are in good shape. The bad news is that the doctor I saw in Tromsø agreed with what I was initially concerned about, which was that there is probably something going on with my pancreas or bile duct. I don’t have a gall bladder any more, so it’s not that. He said the next stage was an ultrasound, but given that I was going on holiday for three weeks, he decided he would do that there and then, rather than wait. He couldn’t see anything big, which is good, but he says I will have to return for an MRI when I get back. He suggested that my bile duct might be blocked, possibly by a stone or stones, which wouldn’t be that surprising. There were complications after my gall bladder was removed, and now and then signs of stones passing (a very distinctive feeling, for anyone who’s experienced it). So all that is slightly hanging over me. I know the UK has an NHS, but it would be much less complicated if I didn’t have to use it.
Anyway, all my photos this week are of flowers. I went up to Tromsø a day early before the colonoscopy and went out to explore the Arctic-Alpine Garden near the hospital. There was a cafe there, which I would definitely have stopped at for an ice cream, had I not been banned from eating anything. Next time I’m up there if it’s fine weather, I’ll definitely pop in. I began with the intention of taking photographs and taking down names, but the labelling seemed somewhat erratic, or at least some plants seemed to have spread and others perhaps died back, so I’ll just spam you with the gorgeous flowers and hope you enjoy them, as I do, without ever knowing their names.
This week has been very intense. So much so, that when I thought back and realised I had been to my first audit on Monday, it’s hard to believe it’s the same week. The long daylight hours are quite disconcerting, though they also mean that everything is growing at an enormous rate, so I’ll throw in a few pictures of all the flowers and undergrowth as I go along. The audit was in the abattoir, or at least in the meat processing plant attached to it. My colleagues Ann and Ronny carried it out and the areas that came under particular scrutiny were traceability and recall.
It was fascinating to see the planning and processes that go into ensuring that the meat that’s sold to the public can be traced, not just right back to an individual animal, but to the batch of plastic that’s used in packaging and the temperature range in the lorry that transports the product onwards. We also got to see mince being packaged, from the time they place it into a huge funnel, to it being arranged into individual squares in a grid pattern on a conveyer, which withdraws suddenly, dropping it into plastic containers which are sealed and marked. I hadn’t noticed before, but the packets are marked with the same oval mark, with Norge and EFTA and the individual number of the abattoir, that we use to stamp the meat itself when we examine it and pass it as fit for consumption. It was also interesting to see how cleanliness is achieved. We had to change our protective clothing multiple times as we passed through the different areas.
The writing whirlwind that started last week also continued. My agent is Ger Nichol at The Book Bureau and she is in Ireland. The contracts were signed last weekend and after about four days of intensive editing, she felt The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic was ready for submission. I will give you the blurb I sent her, though I’m not sure how much of this she uses, or whether she’s changed it for sending it to the publishers.
“The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic” is an exploration of the life of a recently widowed veterinary surgeon and how she deals with the consequences of a lifetime of putting her family before herself. I was aiming for a cross between James Herriot and Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax). It is set in rural Scotland and is filled with diverse women and their animal friends, from the partnership between receptionist Gail and her guide dog Beth, to butch lesbian, Mags, who loves her crazy mare, Strumpet, almost more than life itself.
Ger sent it off on Wednesday to ten editors at well known publishing houses, and now it’s another waiting game. There’s no guarantee, even at this stage, that it will be picked up, but this is way further than I’ve ever got before. The Hope Meadows series was sold to Hodder before I was involved and would have gone ahead with another writer if I hadn’t been chosen. This time the work is all my own, though if it hadn’t been for Lara Wilson egging me on through the pandemic, even though I was in Norway and she was in Belfast and Glasgow, I definitely wouldn’t have got this far.
The rest of this blog is going to be about Tromsø, where I spent Thursday and Friday at a Mattilsynet meeting for all the staff in our region. In particular, I want to rave about a restaurant we went to. Regular readers will know what a foodie I am and how much I love new restaurant discoveries, and what could be better than a real Italian pizzeria in the far north of Norway?
I must admit here that I didn’t have high hopes when I discovered we were going to a pizzeria. Pizza is very popular in Norway and (as in the UK) a lot of it is adequate but by no means exciting. Casa Inferno certainly looked pretty good as I walked in. It has a steampunk theme, with a brutalist style ceiling – all steel rods and exposed air conditioning pipes. Somehow, it achieved a very cosy feel. There were a few old things scattered among the copper lampshades and retro-futuristic decor. This gramophone on the bar was probably my favourite.
We started with antipasti – selection of olives, various cheeses, hams and salamis and some most delicious red pickled onions. It was served on shared platters and looked great, though for once, I forgot to take a photo. It was the pizzas that were the real revelation though. It’s a long time since I’ve had a proper wood-fired pizza, created by an Italian chef. The pizzas were for sharing too, but by some miracle, the one that was placed in front of Konstantin and me would have been one of my first choices from the menu.
The next pizza brought to our table was even more spectacular. The Inferno was quite literally, flaming hot.
The Inferno had tomato sauce, spicy salami, olives, fresh chilli peppers, onions and chilli flakes. It looked even better, once the flames died down.
As we were waiting for desserts and coffee, I took a few photographs, including the steampunk weapon at the top of the page. It was only at this point, that I realised there was an actual wood stove for the pizzas. No wonder they were so wonderful!
The final indoctrination, and the realisation that this was somewhere I really wanted to come back to with the offspring, was with the dessert. I was going to order what I thought was a chocolate fondant, when Hilde pointed out that it was not actually chocolate fondant, but chocolate fondue. I guess chocolate fondue isn’t technically very difficult, nor is it particularly Italian, so far as I know, but it was certainly fun! And along with an espresso coffee laced with amaretto, it rounded off the meal very nicely.
I’m going to start with a couple of photos this week. I need to find a way to stop myself huddling inside through the winters here. Having just lived through my second, I have come out the other side hopelessly unfit again. Still, I have made a start, and Triar and I took our first outing up the track that leads to Kistafjellet, which I discovered at the end of autumn last year: Changing Wheels, Changing Weather
I won’t make it up Kistafjellet before I go on holiday in two week’s time, but hopefully I will when I get back. It’s a long walk, but not technically difficult and there’s a good track all the way up, so it’s a good mountain to start on. I walked for about half an hour, which isn’t that much, but the track is pretty steep. I got as far as this river, before turning to come back.
In other news, I have found an agent who wants to sell my book. Having written the Hope Meadows books with Vicky Holmes, I have been hoping to write something that would be all mine and published under my own name. This is part of the letter I sent the agent last Friday, along with part of the manuscript.
“The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic” is an exploration of the life of a recently widowed veterinary surgeon and how she deals with the consequences of a lifetime of putting her family before herself. I was aiming for a cross between James Herriot and Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax). It is set in rural Scotland and is filled with diverse women and their animal friends, from the partnership between receptionist Gail and her guide dog Beth, to butch lesbian, Mags, who loves her crazy mare, Strumpet, almost more than life itself.
I finished writing a while back and had been looking for an agent, but hadn’t been very active in pursuing it. After something of a break, I looked through The Writers’ and Authors’ Yearbook last Friday and something about this agent caught my eye, so I sent off a submission. Since then everything has happened at high speed. Anyway, I don’t want to say any more right now as we are at the contract stage and it’s not quite complete. Suffice it to say, I think I’ve found someone I can really work with, which feels brilliant!
More pictures now. Thomas, Gry and I were driving back from a case yesterday when we noticed the almost-perfect reflection of mountains in Skøvatnet, the lake we were driving beside. It was so still and so beautiful that Thomas actually turned the car round so we could all go back and take some pictures.
There was something of an unexpected coda to last week’s post about the dead eagle. Line, who oversees our animal health and welfare team, commented on my Facebook post last week to say “Good job”. I was slightly surprised then, when she called me midweek to talk about it. She sounded a little tentative as she opened up the OK Program instructions for the year and asked me which protocol it was I’d followed. She opened up the familiar sheet with the instructions and polite dissection photos and I told her that yes, that was what I had done.
It turns out that though I had very carefully read and translated the instructions, I hadn’t given the same attention to the explanation at the top, which said that this form was for the use of hunters who found birds when they were out hunting. My eagle had been found by someone out hunting, but apparently the form I should have filled in, as a Mattilsynet vet, was actually to be found on MatCIM, the emergency monitoring channel that we use to track outbreaks and emergencies. Had I found the instructions on MatCIM, I would have discovered that there was no need to take the wing at all, and the swabs alone were enough. Still, she said, probably the Veterinær Institutt down in Ås were pleasantly surprised to have received my carefully packed eagle wing…
She apologised for laughing, but I actually thought it was funny enough to relate it to the three colleagues with whom I sat and ate lunch a few minutes later. They all thought it was hilarious too. So I was laughing for what remained of the day and was still giggling to myself as I drove home. After all, there was no harm done, it had certainly been an adventure and anyway, I love things that are just too ridiculous. The lab haven’t got back to me yet, so I still don’t know whether the poor old eagle died of bird flu, but don’t worry. I’ll keep you posted.
And finally, I’ll leave you with another midnight sun picture. Have a good week!
Regular readers will be glad to know that this week has been better than last. I want to thank the people who reached out to me after reading what I wrote. I’m still a bit short on local friends, but I have spoken online and on the phone to both old and new friends this week, which has really meant a lot. Some of my colleagues have been supportive too, and to them, thank you so much.
It’s been a busy week. I was out on two welfare inspections on Monday and another on Wednesday. The inspections themselves don’t take long, though there can be a fair bit of driving. Writing the reports and dealing with the aftermath often takes longer, though as there was nothing too challenging, the reports themselves were less urgent than checking the animals weren’t suffering. I will be going on holiday in three weeks time and there’s definitely a feeling in my head that my main aim at the moment is just to keep going until I get there. One of the things I learned early in my career was that I can continue to function on the surface, even when there’s turmoil inside, but that’s wearing a bit thin right now. I will ultimately be fine, but I’m not sure it’s good for me.
On top of the welfare visits, I received an e-mail about a dead sea eagle, which needed to be tested for bird flu. There have been a few confirmed cases up here, and most have been in sea eagles, presumably because they are at the top of the food chain. When people report dead birds, we have to go out and swab them. Up until now, I hadn’t done any, so as with any new procedure, before I could go out, I had to find out what equipment I needed, whether we had that equipment, and once that question was resolved, I needed to find out how to do it.
Because it’s a high risk infection, Mattilsynet is monitoring the situation as part of its OK program. The correct protocol, on finding a dead bird, is to leave it where it is and alert us. That hadn’t happened in this case. The bird had already been scooped up and was in the freezer of one of the council offices in our region. Perhaps I should warn you that the rest of this blog is going to be about my (to me) amusing encounter sampling this dead eagle, so if that isn’t your kind of thing, you should probably look away now!
There are a lot of occasions in Mattilsynet where we are asked to do things we haven’t done before. Quite often you will be doing it without being shown how, because we’re all so spread out that there isn’t always someone local to show you. In order to help us cope with this with regard to the OK program, there is a massive word document, updated annually, with descriptions of what samples you need to take, how to take them, how to send them off to the lab and which lab each needs to go to.
In addition to this sheet, which I quickly accessed, I made a point of asking colleagues for any tips or helpful comments. Quite often, these are not colleagues who are sitting beside me, who could come out and show me, but are sitting in an office a few hours drive away, and have their own jobs to do. Thomas was in Svalbard this week, but fortunately, he was able to tell me exactly where the bird flu swabs were. I should have known myself probably, as he and I had discussed this before, but my memory is awful at the best of times, and the best of times probably isn’t a phrase that applies right now.
Anyway, having established the fact that we did, at the very least, have the swabs I needed, I was able to get back to the man who had contacted us about the eagle. I sent him a message saying I would be out on Thursday morning and cc’d Line as she had forwarded the message to me. Line was in Svalbard as well, but fortunately she saw the e-mail and sent me a gentle reminder that I should probably ask Kommune man to take the bird out of the freezer to defrost a little.
I did give some consideration to the defrosting. This week has been quite warm. When the sun is shining in your windows for a large part of the day, it can get very hot inside. If he took the dead bird out of the freezer and put in in a warm room overnight, it would probably be quite grim in the morning. With this thought in mind, I told him to take it out on the Wednesday afternoon, before he went home.
As I said above, I am still (more or less) functional at the moment, but new things are always more challenging when you are tired. Knowing that I was, I had spent quite a lot of time poring over the instructions, trying to make sure I was confident in what I was doing, before heading out. It all seemed straightforward enough. I had to take two swabs, one from the throat and one from the cloaca. In addition, I had to remove the left wing, through the shoulder joint, and send that off too. There was a polite picture of this procedure on the sheet alongside the instructions. It didn’t look too difficult. I gathered together my kit: scalpel, forceps, swabs, gloves, facemask and forms, took them out to the car, and set off.
I always feel, that as a vet, it’s important to look competent and to approach things as if you know what you are doing, even if you don’t. This rule probably applies even more when you’re dealing with potentially deadly diseases. It crossed my mind, that before I arrived, I should stop the car and have one last read of the procedures. As I read through the text again, I realised that though I had the kit for dissecting the wing, I had forgotten to take a plastic bag to pack it into. I’ve been a vet for a long time now, and one thing I have learned is that, even if you don’t have absolutely everything with you, it’s usually possible to work around it or find a substitute that will do. Casting my eyes around the car, I realised that I had packed my disposable gloves into a plastic bag. Better still, it was a ziplock bag, so easily sealed. Thanking the gods of veterinary substitutions, I emptied out the gloves, put a few in my pocket, and continued on my journey.
Kommune man seemed very helpful when I arrived. I thought we should probably fill in the forms before we started. The required details included the GPS co-ordinates of where the eagle had been found, as well as details such as age and sex. Fortunately, someone at head office had realised the realities of the situation, so I was able to tick “don’t know” for the latter two. The dead bird was in a different building he told me, so once the form was mostly filled in, I followed him outside, down some stairs and into a garage, where there was a black bin bag on the floor, sealed with brown tape.
I unwrapped my scalpel, which was of the flimsy, disposable type, with a plastic handle. It crossed my mind for the first time that perhaps I should have brought a spare or better still a sturdy, abattoir-style, sharp knife. The polite picture of the dissection had shown a smallish bird, carefully laid out on its breast, wing effortlessly outspread, with a neat incision over the shoulder, where the cut was to be made. Those doing this gentle procedure had presumably not had to chop through two layers of dustbin bags before they began. Still, it was over an hour’s drive to get back to the office and I had to get this sample taken and sent off by two o’clock. I had arranged with Konstantin that I would send it off from the abattoir. There was no way I could go back now.
As I unwrapped the bag and started to look for the cloaca, I realised that I had perhaps made a second error of judgment. For some reason, I had thought carefully about how bad it would be if the bird was too warm overnight, but hadn’t really considered the possibility that overnight wasn’t really long enough to defrost anything left in a cool place. Any cooks among you who have been faced with a still-frozen turkey on Christmas day, will probably recognise that it takes quite a long time to thaw a large bird. It also struck me, as I contemplated the huge talons and the sheer size of the body, that the small plastic bag I had so gratefully emptied of its gloves, was not going to contain an eagle’s wing. I guess it’s probably a reflection of how tired I was, but I had seen the picture and had been vaguely visualising something with a wing that was a bit bigger than a chicken, but an eagle’s wingspan is huge. Even folded up, it was going to need something more like a bin bag. Looking up from where I was kneeling on the floor, I asked Kommune man if he had anything, and to my relief, he disappeared to get one.
It took me a little while to actually find the cloaca (where both the urine and faeces come out). There was a thick layer of feathers obscuring everything, and because the bird was frozen into a twisted position, I couldn’t stretch it out flat to see where the midline lay. When I finally did locate it, I found that everything was way too stiff to be able to insert a swab. My problems were compounded by the fact that the bird flu swabs had obviously been designed with the possibility of checking out blackbirds or maybe a budgerigar. The stalk was incredibly thin and bendy. When I tried to insert it, it was obvious that any pressure would cause it to break.
Abandoning the cloaca for a moment, I thought I would have a go at the throat and come back to the bottom end later. The instructions about where and how to swab the throat had included another polite picture, this time of a duck, its bill gaping, revealing the clean and tidy structures of the cartilage and the tissues that open and close to protect the trachea.
At least the neck of the eagle was defrosted enough so I could straighten it. It was an impressive bird, close up, and I prised open the hooked beak and looked into the throat, only to find it was filled with gunk. I’m not sure if what I could see was a part of the eagle’s last meal, but it was obscuring my view, and I began to scoop it out. There was a surprising amount of it, and I was aware the entire time that if the bird did actually have anything nasty, all this material could be contaminated. Finally, it was all gone, though it was still a very long way to the back of the throat and what I could see really didn’t look much like the equivalent structures in a duck. At least I could get the swab in though, which was an improvement on the other end, so I took the swab out of its packet, swivelled it inside and outside the tracheal opening, placed it carefully in the liquid transport medium in the tube provided, broke off the tip as instructed, and replaced the lid. Step one complete!
Changing into a new pair of disposable gloves, I decided to tackle the wing next. “Turn the bird over onto its breast and stretch out the wing to find the shoulder,” said the instructions. The obvious trouble now was that nothing here was stretching out. There were also thick feathers in the way. An eagle’s flight feathers are really quite impressive, close up, but as I grasped the weedy scalpel again, I was very much aware that I couldn’t afford to blunt the thin metal of the blade. Assessing anatomy and the position of joints is also quite easy if you can move them all. Trying to do so when the whole thing is frozen stiff and under a thick layer of fathers, not so much. Feeling around with my fingers, I made a cut down over where I thought the shoulder joint probably was, and began not so much to carefully dissect, as to hack away in the hope that I could cut the wing from the body without making a complete tit of myself. Though it took all my feeble strength to prise the wing out from the body far enough to get in underneath it, I did at last manage to slice through the frozen muscle enough to finally remove the wing. Sliding it into the plastic bag, I let out a small sigh of relief and turned my attention to step three.
The cloaca was still frozen to the point where I couldn’t get my gloved finger through it. I was supposed to put the swab inside and move it around until there were visible bird droppings on it. Even if I could get the swab through, the droppings would be just as frozen as everything else. First though, I had to gain access. It would be easier, I thought, if I could see what I was doing. And so I made a cut at the opening. Fortunately my scalpel was still intact and sharp enough. After only a few moments’ dissection, I was able to insert my finger and the swab. Pressing the swab against the thin wall of the cloaca, I was glad to find that my finger was warm enough to melt some of the bird droppings onto the swab. Withdrawing it with relief, I put the second and final swab into the medium, snapped it off and twisted the lid firmly into place.
Despite all the delays, it was still morning as I flung all the equipment in the boot of the car and set off towards the abattoir. Trude is an expert at sending off samples, and I was sure she would be able to help me with this. She has the codes for the computer and would know how to print me out a label. Doubtless, given time, I could work it out myself, but time was something that was beginning to be in short supply. Donning yet another pair of disposable gloves, I carefully lifted out the swabs and the black binbag containing the wing from the car boot and headed inside.
There were no polystyrene boxes big enough for the wing. Of course there weren’t! It took about two minutes to establish the fact that I was going to have to head back to the Finnsnes office, where I knew we had much bigger polystyrene boxes for sending off fish samples. The packages have to be both sealed so that no liquid can escape, and also insulated enough so that, with a couple of cool packs, the whole thing can remain sufficiently chilled overnight that the sample arrives without being denatured.
As I drove back to Finnsnes, I was wracking my brains about the label. You have to go online to the parcel service and select the specific service you need, which in this case was for bird flu samples to the Veterinary Institute in Ås, to be delivered overnight and arrive in the morning. It’s important that everything is correct, otherwise it’s easy for your samples to go astray. I was still deep in thought when I received a text. It was from Trude, and a quick glance revealed that she had been into the website, ordered the correct service, and sent the label to my e-mail. It struck me, not for the first time, that there were times when having truly competent colleagues on your side can make life a million times easier than it would otherwise be.
I took a photograph of the final package, which was probably the largest thing I’ve ever taken into the post office. As you can see, it takes up most of the back seat of the car and that eagle’s wing took up most of the length of it.
I took yesterday off. Monday is also a bank holiday in Norway, so I am hoping that by next week, I will be rested enough to be back on better form. Despite my eagle experience being something of a comedy of errors, I’m pretty sure the sample itself was taken adequately. I guess I’ll find out in the next few days whether it was positive or not. Anyway, I’ll leave you with some pictures of scenery and flowers. After the long winter, everything is now green leaves and rushing water. Hope to see you next week.
This is going to be a difficult post to write, not least because of all the things I can’t say. It’s been a long week, despite the fact that Thursday was a bank holiday in Norway. The case started last week with a phone call, took up most of my working hours this week, and doubtless will be going on for some time. As regular readers will know, I deal with animal welfare issues, and obviously that can sometimes be harrowing. Very occasionally, Mattilsynet’s employees have to deal with cases that are so tragic that it’s almost unbearable. Back when I started, I read a case so awful that just reading about it made me cry, and it took more than one session before I could read it right through to the end. I found myself hoping it would never happen on my watch, hoping that I could prevent it by listening to everything and acting fast, but despite all those thoughts, it happened anyway.
The police are involved, and so in a lot of ways, the case is currently out of my hands. My task (with others from Mattilsynet and Dyrevernnemda) has mostly been around collecting evidence. Thomas has taken charge, and for that I am eternally grateful. One of the oddest things has been the way the world just keeps going on. Summer is moving in and the world is filled with life and growth. I sat in the car, gazing out at a snow-capped mountain behind lime-green spring trees, as I took a break to drink some water and gather myself together between sessions in the barn. I could hear the birds singing and the gentle summer sound of sheep bells in the fields nearby and the only jarring note in the beautiful scene was the fluorescent yellow of the police car parked on the farm road in front of me.
Yesterday, I drove to Tromsø with some samples in the car and the world looked more beautiful than ever. The whole thing is surreal. Oddly enough, there was a jarring note along the way. As the sun heats up the world, the snow up on the mountains starts to melt. The water rushes down, faster and faster and I saw many swollen waterfalls cascading down the steep slopes that rose up, sometimes almost vertically from the roadside. They sparkled in the sunshine, clear water, rushing down to the sea. So when I saw what was almost a flow of mud flooding down a rock face, it gave me pause. It wasn’t a lot, but it was very different from all the other water I’d seen.
I live in a house in an area where there are obviously concerns about landslides. There are metal monitors sticking up out of the ground all along the road, and very close to the house I live in. I have read about possible warning signs, one of which was when muddy water is coming out of the ground. The problem with reading things online, as I know from working as a vet, is often one of scale and context. I think most people know that if you read about headaches online, you might easily conclude you have a brain tumour, when actually you’re stressed or dehydrated. I called a friend who is a geologist and asked if I could send a video for him to look at, but he advised me it was better to call the police and let them assess it. Better a warning for something not serious, than failing to warn when it was. Being on the other side of that equation, I know that there can sometimes be a danger in too many warnings as they can lead to complacency, but the possibility that there might be houses below was in my mind, and so I called the police and offered to send a video.
I then drove on, dropped off my evidence at the lab and checked my e-mails, only to find that the one I had sent to the police hadn’t gone. I must have taken down the address wrongly. I called my friend back – I had sent the video to him as well, but there was no reply. I had given the police the exact geolocation (thanks to a photo app that I use to record cases at work) but I had realised I had wrongly mentioned the E6, when I had left that and joined the E8. Where does public duty begin and end? Always a difficult question, and at the moment, my mind is unquiet enough to be clouding judgement. I was in Tromsø and it wasn’t far to the police station. Should I go in and correct what I had said and give them the picture and film I had taken?
Fortunately, my friend got back to me quite quickly. From a quick viewing of a four second film, he was able to tell me that the rock face itself had been blasted extensively, and was therefore probably solid, that the soil cover above the rock was thin, that the trees and plants looked young, so perhaps the land had undergone a slip only four or five years earlier and that the undergrowth was thick, which would help with stability. He said it was good to have reported it, as I had no way of knowing what was going on higher up the slope, and that it was better that it could be assessed by someone local, but that the location details I had given were probably good enough. He didn’t think there was a serious risk at the moment. How good it was to speak to someone with genuine knowledge. I was truly grateful and felt the extra weight lift from my mind.
I haven’t many photos, but I did take some driving home yesterday, including this one of a north of Norway traffic jam.
I had thought of using it as the photo at the top of the blog, but it seems unfair to lure people in with a photo of something so cheery in a blog that’s filled with troubled thoughts, so I went with a calm picture of the late evening sun over Senja. I won’t be looking at that view for too much longer, and so it seems precious right now. The dissonant feelings grew as I listened to the news flash on the radio. “Police in are dealing with a case where more than seventy dead animals were found on a farm in Mid-Troms”. My case. My responsibility. Bad enough to make the national news.
I don’t know how to deal with these feelings, other than letting time pass. Bizarrely, I felt a sudden desire to play the piano, which I haven’t really done since I left home, thirty five years ago. There was an old music sheet in the piano stool at home. My parents hadn’t bought it, at least not directly. They bought a piano, with one of those old-fashioned stools where the seat lifted and the previous owners had left some music inside. “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” was one of them and I wanted to play it again. It’s a beautiful song and easily arranged. My sister has the piano now, and though it was a long shot, I e-mailed her and asked if that old sheet music was still there. It was.
And so she scanned it and sent it and I went to the office and printed it out, and so I sat last night on the electric piano I bought for my son after we’d moved up here, and I played music from years ago, and somehow it was a comfort. My sister and I hadn’t spoken for ages, but now we are chatting again, and that’s a comfort too. I have a wonderful family, and in that I’m very lucky.
Anyway, there’s no good way to round this off, so I will leave it here for now. Sometimes life is difficult, but the sun comes out again. All I can do at the moment is gather the best evidence I can and help the police and hope that something good comes of all of this, which it might. There will probably never be a day when there isn’t some bastard who sees animal life as expendable and suffering as irrelevant, but all we can do is keep on fighting it, one case at a time. Thank you for reading.
I am buying a house! I wanted to get that in there right away as it’s filling my mind. It seems odd that at 53 years old, I am back at the point of going through new and momentous experiences, but I guess that’s true of anyone who has left a long-term marriage and started again. This will be the first house I will have sole ownership of and this is also the first time I have gone through the buying process in Norway.
I went to the viewing last Monday. I guess all the details I am about to give might be boring for my Norwegian friends, so I apologise to them, but for me it was all new. When Charlie and I moved to Norway, he came six months earlier than me and the children, so by the time I moved over, he had gone through this whole process and I wasn’t involved at all.
In the UK, viewings tend to be individual. You call the estate agent, make an appointment, then go to look. Most often, it’s the house owner that shows you round. If you like the house and think you might want to buy it, you will probably get a thorough survey done before going any further. After that, the whole process is bound up with solicitors and takes an age.
Here in Norway, the survey is done by the seller. All the details about what is sound and what isn’t are provided in the listing. A viewing time is arranged with the seller and anybody who is interested in the house attends during that timeslot. The house owner goes out; it’s the estate agent who remains to direct proceedings and they don’t show you round. Rather, you have the freedom to wander through the house at your leisure in the same way you might if you were viewing a new build house in the UK.
It was a lonely experience. I had hoped that John or Andrew could come with me, but both had other commitments. I also considered asking a colleague, but I had put in my mortgage application late and I hadn’t heard back from the bank, so everything was still up in the air. In Norway the bidding process often happens the day after the viewing. You can’t bid unless you have finances in place and I didn’t want to see the house if I wasn’t sure I could afford it. The bank finally told me at quarter to three on Monday afternoon that I could have a mortgage big enough to cover the house, and the viewing was at five, so I headed out there, feeling underprepared.
I didn’t love it. You often hear about people falling in love with houses, but there were many small things which didn’t show up in the photographs or survey details. The bathroom looked smart and modern in the pictures, but when I walked in, the shower unit was obviously older than I had thought and it will never look sparkling clean again. In the bedrooms, hallway and living room, there are lots of little holes, badly filled ex-holes and lumps in the papered wall panels, which are made of wood and not plaster. There is wallpaper that’s been painted over, and in one random patch, the textured paper was different from that surrounding it. All-in-all the house had an unloved feeling. I can’t blame the person who did this. I did the same in the house I shared with Charlie as I am no expert and had no money to do anything better, but I know that when I get this house, I want gradually to erase all those flaws.
It’s not particularly big, but it has four bedrooms. Perhaps it seems odd to want to make sure John, Anna and Andrew can all still come home at the same time and have their own space, but that is what I want and I’m not going to fight it.
Anyway, having been to the viewing, where the only other people were a young man and (presumably) his father, I had to wait until 18th May for the next steps. As I said above, the bidding on a house often starts the day after the viewing, but the viewing was on 16th May and the day after is a special bank holiday here in Norway – Norway’s national celebration. I haven’t any pictures (the weather was awful this year) but the link above will take you to last year’s, (rather muted) celebrations.
I had an appointment in Tromsø on the 18th and I was staying there for the rest of the week, so Wednesday afternoon found me alone in a hotel room, trying to work, while wondering what I would do about the house. I still wasn’t certain I wanted to go ahead. It seemed too significant a decision to jump into blindly.
Bu then the estate agent sent me a link to sign into the bidding. Having come thus far, I thought I would sign in and see what the thing looked like. I was still kind of terrified. Once you bid, your offer is binding if the seller accepts it. It felt like a monumental decision to be taking on my own in an anonymous hotel room. But what was there to lose if I put in a low bid? If it was accepted, I would be getting a bargain I could easily afford. If it was rejected, or someone else outbid me, then I’d lost nothing. I typed in my bid and the time when then offer would run out. My fingers were shaking as I clicked “send”.
It was at this point it crossed my mind that I could contact Lara Wilson. Many years ago, back in the UK when I was a high flying executive (well technically the Operations Manager at Vets Now) Laura was the head vet in the Belfast clinic and we hit it off immediately. Our friendship has deepened over the years and it was Lara who basically chivvied me into completing my last book manuscript, despite the fact that she was in Glasgow while I was in Norway.
Within minutes we were in conversation on Facebook messenger, and her enthusiasm for life (and buying houses) was seeping in and bypassing my wibblingness. I had set the offer timer for only half an hour. How to do the whole thing, and what the norms were, were outside my range of experience. The form had told me a minimum of thirty minutes and I had followed that as the time had popped up automatically. I watched as the clock ticked down, wondering if there was something else I should be doing. Though I’ve never bought a house in Norway, Charlie and I had recently gone through this process from the other side. If I tell you I missed the actual bidding process that time because I was on a flight from Tromsø to Oslo, you can probably get an idea of how fast the whole thing usually goes.
Would my bid be accepted? Might another come in? If it wasn’t enough, the seller might make a counter offer. Presumably the longer it went, the more likely it was that I’d get it?
I was on tenterhooks as the final minutes ticked down. Then the time came and went, and a sign popped up to say my bid had expired.
What on earth? I admit I felt baffled. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Picking up my phone, I called the estate agent’s number. The woman from the viewing answered and I asked her what had happened. She took a look, then explained that the estate agent was in a meeting. He hadn’t even seen my offer before it expired. I asked her what happened next? Should I bid again? Should I give a longer time? How long was normal? She couldn’t possibly say. Not allowed to advise me. I confess I was a bit frustrated with her. I wasn’t asking for advice, I was asking what was normal. She said she’d get the estate agent to call me when he came out. He probably wouldn’t be long.
I whiled away the time by putting in another bid, this time with a longer expiry. This time, the estate agent saw it and I received a message that it was now live. Yet again, I watched the clock tick down, and yet again there was no response. I was pretty much at the stage of giving up by now. I wasn’t sure how it should go, but this definitely wasn’t it. And then some action came. The owner, I learned, had made a late counter suggestion and from there on in, it was no longer an auction, but a bartering process. It dribbled on a bit. I get the impression that the seller was reluctant because she wasn’t getting as much as she’d hoped for. But by two o’clock the following day, we had agreed on a price and I was committed to buying.
Since then, there has been a parade of links and tasks and forms to fill in. Most of them are in Norwegian obviously, which adds a little piquancy to the whole process. I still feel I’m stumbling through thick woodland undergrowth wearing a pair of steamed up sunglasses, but presumably at some point I’ll come out on the other side. Hopefully it will be sunny.
Anyway, in other news, we visited the farm where John is lambing last weekend. It was a wonderful day. John’s employers were very welcoming and seem very pleased with him. I felt very proud as I saw him handling the animals with assurance. And of course, lambs are very, very cute!
On Thursday and Friday I was working in Tromsø. Amongst other things, Line had arranged for me to blood sample two cows. There was some pressure, given that I had been brought up from Finnsnes and had been touted as an expert, but thankfully it went off without a hitch. The cows were fairly quiet and I took the samples from their tails, as I had done thousands of times before, many years ago in Scotland. Indeed, I think I could happily spend my life blood testing cows. If anyone knows of such a job, please do let me know!
Last but not least, we inspected a husky farm. Seeing the lovely, friendly dogs, the brightly coloured sledding gear and the hut, where the ceiling was blackened from woodfire smoke, really made me want to come back in the winter and take part. One day, hopefully I will.
There are signs that spring is finally arriving here in the far north. Last week, I took this picture from the window of my apartment. It was snowing heavily and wetly enough that even Triar didn’t want to go out and play.
Compare and contrast with this picture from yesterday, where the sun is out, the snow is gone from the roofs, and Gisundet sound is so calm that there’s an almost perfect reflection of the island on the waterline.
The trees in the photo above still look lifeless, but there are signs everywhere that the earth is stirring after the long freeze.
That little flower breaking through the icy snow is amazing. Life on the edge!
Another compare and contrast. Remember the ice bridge?
Nobody is going to be driving across it any time soon!
A few weeks back, Triar lost his favourite ball over the edge of the garden. The snow was so hard packed at that point that it rolled over the edge, bounded across the pathway and on down the hill. I let him run down to try to find it, but he returned empty mouthed and sad. Yesterday the path down the hill was finally passable, and to Triar’s joy (picture at the top of the page) we found his ball at the foot of the steep slope!
In my ongoing campaign to challenge myself at work, I have volunteered to go to Tromsø next week. Someone is coming up from head office on Thursday and Friday and is to be taken out on some welfare visits. Fortunately for me, Line is coming out with us on Friday, but on Thursday, I’m shall be out on my own (with the esteemed visitor) to do the postponed traceability inspection at a hobby goat establishment. Bear in mind that the animal health law still hasn’t been updated on the computer system, that I have never done a traceability visit without Thomas or Birgit, and that all such visits have to be chosen based on risk (we’re supposed to select those we assess as having a higher risk of law breaches) and it seems like the perfect opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge and competence! What could possibly go wrong?
John is out on a farm lambing at the moment. He seems to be enjoying it, and I’m very happy for him and also proud. When he left home a few years ago, I imagined he would spend his life working in an office, but he is embracing the world of farming more and more. I don’t suppose he has any conscious memory of coming out on farm calls in his baby car seat, though perhaps he remembers being allowed to drive a tractor as a small boy. Either way, it’s wonderful to see. I’ve always been drawn to that world, even though as a Mattilsynet vet, I’m peripheral to it at best. Andrew and I are going out to visit later today.
I was also out at a farm earlier this week and saw a stoat. Apologies for the poor quality of the images, but this tiny creature was dragging a rat it had killed across a patch of grass. The rat was definitely more bulky than the stoat itself. What an amazing animal!
Anyway, I think that’s all for this week! Hopefully after today there will be lamb pictures and Tuesday is 17th of May, when Norway will be decked out in red, white and blue to celebrate their national day. Seven hour working days and 24 hour daylight! Tune in shortly for the next exciting update! Have a good week all.
This week marked the official change in Norway from the old Animal Health Law to a new version. The changes stem from changes in the EU’s legal requirements. Norway isn’t in the EU, but we do follow their rules and these particular rules are mostly based around the protection from, and prevention of, infectious diseases in the animal population. The regulations cover everything from wild boar to fish, and even extends to bees.
My own special interest this week was goats. Mattilsynet have designated hobby goats as a particular point of interest this year, following an outbreak of sheep scab (caused by mites) in small herds of pet goats. Movement of pet animals tends to be much less well controlled than with larger, commercial herds, where professional farmers are generally more aware of the law. We had an animal health and welfare team meeting planned for Thursday and Friday at Malangen. The intention was to carry out inspections on traceability and TSE (Scrapie) on the way to the conference centre, have a lunch to lunch meeting, then do more visits on the way home.
Thomas and I were to do these inspections together and Thomas was busy, so on Monday I set to with planning. I started by printing out information sheets about the symptoms of Scrapie and the legal requirements goat owners had to follow if their animals died unexpectedly. There’s a whole lot of official paperwork involved in any visit. It was only when I was halfway through this project, with seven TSE inspection kits underway, when I realised that the law changes had not been updated in MATS, the computer system we use for recording such inspections.
I rang Line, who was arranging the team meeting, and asked her whether there were any contingency plans in place, to which she replied there weren’t. She asked if I had time to look at it, which fortunately I did. So then, my task for the week was to try and work out how to manage the situation, and then explain it all to the rest of the team, so they could do some inspections on the way home, even if they hadn’t been able to do any on the way there.
And so, I spent the early part of the week tracking down the wandering regulations. Norway has tended to be ahead of EU law anyway, in terms of keeping out infectious diseases and in biosecurity on farms, and what I found was that most of the law remained exactly the same, but was now in a different order.
Whenever we carry out an inspection, we have to relate it to one law or another: we can’t just go out and give our opinion on whether things are being done right. If the animal owners are complying with the law, then we don’t give much detail on which laws we checked in the reports we send. If we do observe something illegal, we have to quote the section of law which covers it, explain what it was that we saw that we consider breaks the law, and lay out what the animal owner has to remedy. In some instances that’s quite straightforward. If the law says that all goats have to have ear tags by the time they are a week old, and there are adult goats without ear tags, then the solution isn’t difficult. But the finer details of those laws are currently covered by the Animal Health Law and all its supporting regulations, and now I was unable to use those laws because the system was out of date.
Assuming there must be a back-up plan, I fired off an e-mail to our local advisor on such topics and then carried on setting up the packs I had begun. I was hoping that someone else had started to put something together and I could be pointed in the right direction. If I dived in blind, it seemed likely that I would end up duplicating work someone else had already carried out. I got a reply back quite quickly, pointing me not to the specific situation I was dealing with, but on some more general considerations about what to do if you found something that broke the law while the new law was not yet in the system.
The general instruction was, that in the absence of specific Animal Health Laws, we should use Matloven – the Food Act. This is a more reasonable suggestion than it might appear on first sight. Much of our law around animal health is governed by the fact that many animals end up in the food chain: in order to produce safe food, you need to deliver healthy animals.
The downside was that compared with the animal health law, the Food Act is very non-specific in terms of animal health. I spent a lot of time reading through, and though it gave overarching instructions, it was low on detail. I was still tempted to go ahead with the inspections. After all, it wouldn’t really matter too much… but then I realised I was assuming that all the visits would go well. If we discovered a significant problem, we would find ourselves trying to to bend a law designed to safeguard the consumer by ensuring the traceability of a pack of hot dogs to the specifics regarding the ages of animals when their ear tags should be in place.
Further complications were brought to my attention when it was pointed out that, to be covered by the Food Act, the animal owners had to be from registered premises where they were sending their produce into the food chain. That doesn’t cover people who are keeping their goats as pets! And so, after three days trying to find ways and means, I concluded that the health of the hobby goats of mid-Troms would be better left uninspected until our systems are updated.
I was of course, slightly concerned. Line had confidently written in the meeting plan that I was going to update everyone on the checking, and now my update was that there was to be none, at least for now. I needn’t have worried. As I am gradually realising, the one constant when working for Mattilsynet is that any plan you make is likely to change from one moment to the next. In a minor twist, I had discovered that though Norway’s law had changed, Svalbard’s has not. My suggestion in the meeting, that we should simply relocate to Svalbard and do all our routine testing there was greeted with smiles. Our region is, after all, Troms AND Svalbard. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to know if there are any hobby goats on Svalbard. Moreover, we had the sauna and jacuzzi at Malangen booked for Thursday evening. So, with everything considered, we reluctantly concluded we would just have to do the inspections later.
Malangen Resort was lovely. Now that the Covid restrictions are lifted and we are able to meet in person again, I am discovering that there’s a definite advantage in working in a location where there are so few of us covering such a large area. In smaller regions, everyone would drive to a central office and meet there. Here, because of the distances involved, we tend to meet in conference centres or hotels, and some of them are in stunning locations.
So this was my hotel room overnight, and the view outside. Just wonderful, although in true Norwegian style, there was no decaffeinated coffee or milk with the beautifully arranged coffee cups.
Of course, I could have asked for milk, but I was too busy enjoying myself in the jacuzzi and sauna. Thanks to Line for arranging it all. I should say, we paid for those ourselves – my job is stressful, but even in Norway, there are limits!
There may not have been milk for the coffee in the bedroom, but the food was modern, with a definite flavour of Norway. Reindeer stew, reindeer carpaccio, cod and mushy peas, and lemon cake.
Much as I loved the hotel and the views and the jacuzzi, the best thing about the lifting of the Covid restrictions is getting to meet people again. Always difficult to say at what point colleagues become friends, but even with the wonderful surroundings, the best part for me was the conversation and companionship. In a tough job, those things are beyond price.
I didn’t update last week. I was too busy wallowing in the nostalgia of my UK visit. The past two weeks have also been filled with movement and travel, some further afield, but others involving more local discoveries.
Ten days ago, I travelled back down to Rogaland, where I used to live. I was bound for a Mattilsynet meeting about the important communication on welfare between abattoirs and the vets out in the field that I talked about in this post: The Ever Changing Sky
I emerged into the 11pm darkness at Sola Airport to be greeted by the ever present smell of slurry. It’s a very famous phenomenon. Jo Nesbø even mentions it in one of his books. Anyway, I had completely forgotten until I stepped outside into the warmish night air.
Knowing I would arrive so late, I had toyed with the idea of staying in an airport hotel and travelling onwards on the morning of the meeting, which didn’t start until eleven. But I had found a bus that would take me to Sandnes – the number 42 – and so I thought I’d risk it. I remembered the airport buses from when I used to live there, so I assumed I would be able to pay on board, but when the driver only opened the doors in the centre of the bus, it was obvious I wasn’t going to be able to buy one. Scrabbling online, I found I had the Kolumbus App already. Crossing my fingers that there would be no inspectors at that time of night, I finally bought a ticket for what I thought was the correct area, just as we pulled into Sandnes.
By this time it was midnight. Technically, I was still working, still on the clock, which I had switched on in the office when I arrived in the morning. Logging onto my computer to clock out, I thought I would check tomorrow’s meeting, so I opened up the Teams app to check the calendar. There was no venue listed. In fact, it was listed as a Teams Meeting. For a long, sweaty moment, I thought I had just travelled 2000km for a Teams meeting. A check of the e-mails confirmed that I had not. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had!
But the meeting was a success and I’m very glad I went. One of the tasks I struggle with at work is speaking up in meetings, but I had some valid points to make, based on both experience and reading around the topic. It was also great to meet some of the other Mattilsynet staff from other areas of Norway.
I flew back on Thursday afternoon and arrived home almost as late as I’d arrived in Sandnes. There was no rest though, as I had arranged an inspection with Gry on the Friday (post about Gry). The tour took me on an exploration of a part of Senja that I had never visited. Indeed it’s a small corner of the island that I had missed in all my driving around. We stopped in Gryllefjord for a surprisingly tasty chunk of pizza from the local shop. *
Gryllefjord is an amazing place. It’s ramshackle collection of houses, clustered on the edge of the fjord, under a brooding overhang of mountains, with a small harbour. It was a cloudy day, and the tops of the mountains reached up into the mist.
We also drove to a nearby village, reached through a tunnel in the mountainside. The old road, which went over an exposed ridge, was often blocked in winter.
It’s always a joy finding new places near to where I live. There was also a restaurant in Gryllefjord, which was closed at the time of our visit. I had heard from others that it was a good restaurant, and when I checked online, it appeared that there was fish and chips on the menu.
For anyone living in the UK, that probably seems like a non-event. Fish and chips is the original British fast food. I can remember before Chinese and Indian takeaways became common, and well before the invasion of the US burger craze, that fish and chips was a staple. But in Norway, fish in batter is rare. So when John came over the next day, which was also his birthday, I suggested that we should take a tour out to Gryllefjord to try out the Skreien Spiseri and he jumped at the chance.
It was a much brighter day and we stopped along the way at Hamn to take a few photos. There were also some reindeer by the road, looking surprisingly defenceless without their antlers.
The fish and chips was delectable. We will definitely be back.
As you can see from the photos of John’s birthday, the weather was almost spring-like. I was hoping for a smooth segue from winter to summer, but it wasn’t to be. It started to snow again a couple of days later. I went to Tromsø on Thursday this week to go on an inspection with Line, who works there. Arriving back on the fast boat at five thirty in the afternoon, I walked back through Finnsnes centre and paused to take a couple of photos.
Still, I enjoyed the walk, even if it was a little more “refreshing” than I would have predicted a couple of weeks ago.
And as you know, there’s one member of our household, who always welcomes the snow! Hope you have a great week everyone.
*I forgot to say that I also drank a cup of black coffee from the shop, when I was out with Gry. Perhaps, in time, I will indeed be truly integrated into Norwegian society. Maybe if I tell the authorities that I managed it without milk, they will give me a Norwegian passport faster.
I’d like to tell you about a wonderful woman I sometimes work with called Gry. She works as a nurse in the community, as well as running a sheep farm with her husband. She also works with me now and then on animal welfare cases as a member of dyrevernnemnda – people from the area with experience with animals and an understanding of their welfare needs.
We were out together on a visit on Monday. I love having her there as she is very knowledgable and can talk to anybody. She also knows a whole lot more about sheep farming in the Arctic than I do!
The visit had gone well – always a relief, so as we drove away, I asked her if she’d like to go somewhere for coffee. Our options were limited. We wandered into the local hotel, but the bar was empty. We resisted running off with the Peach Schnapps and climbed back into the car.
Gry suggested we could buy a sandwich at the garage and go back to her barn and she would make coffee. Her barn is wonderful. They built it in 2016 and it has a living area that’s almost as big as my flat. They sleep there during lambing time so they can keep an eye out at night.
She took me in and I sat down at a big wooden table with a cosy red table cloth. As she made the coffee, I sat looking around at all the wonderful objects she has collected. This is an old waffle iron.
But there was one object that I didn’t recognise, and so I asked her about it. This, she told me, is an old gadget for separating out the milk from the cream. Those of us who are old enough to remember milk in a bottle on the doorstep will also remember that the cream is lighter than the milk, and so it rises to the top.
Gry told me that she works with dementia patients, and sometimes she brings them back to the barn. They see the old things and respond with pleasure.
She was at a museum with an old man. They had a milk separator there too, which they had taken apart.
It has seventeen separate components inside and they have to be fitted together correctly for it to function. Despite being often confused, the old man’s face lit up. He set to and in minutes had reassembled the separator, with everything in place.
Some days my job can be tough. Few things are more distressing than animal cruelty.
But then there are other days when everything goes right. And just now and then, I discover that alongside the animals, I am also working with some of the most warm-hearted people in the world.