Category Archives: Vet

Always Vet in Norway – A Blog

Hunting High and Low

Sunrise/sunset: Up all day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trouble in Paradise

Sunrise/sunset: Up all day.

This isn’t going to be an easy post to write. I tend to keep these entries upbeat, but sometimes there are issues that go so deep that they shouldn’t be ignored. There has been a great deal of discussion over animal welfare in Norway in recent weeks, especially concerning the welfare of pigs. Back in 2019 NRK (the Norwegian national broadcaster) aired an exposé of problematic practices on pig farms in Norway. Using undercover footage taken over five years, it was revealed that despite Norway’s strong legal rules around animal welfare, there were farmers in the pig industry who were flouting them. Some of them seemed to be taking pleasure in the fact that they were doing so.

Mattilsynet responded by increasing welfare visits in Rogaland, the area highlighted in the program, and this year the Pig Welfare Campaign has been rolled out across Norway. I spent a great deal of time at the beginning of the year learning about the program and about signs to watch out for that might indicate that an investigation should be carried out. It is part of my job to monitor the welfare of pigs coming in through the abattoir. There are certain signs that indicate possible welfare breaches which should trigger further investigation. So far, in my time working there, the general condition of the pigs coming through has been high, but it is an important tool in the chain, particularly for pig farms, which produce meat, reared over a relatively short period, and must therefore send animals through the abattoir with much higher frequency than, for example, dairy farmers.

But of course, monitoring procedures at the abattoir are not sufficient to ensure that good welfare is being practiced. It stands to reason that farmers might not send in animals that show clear signs of abusive practices. And despite the increased inspections carried out by Mattilsynet in Rogaland, there was another report aired recently on NRK regarding animal activists who had broken into pig farms and had taken photographs of animal welfare violations.

I confess I have very mixed feelings regarding animal activists. On the one hand, if there are welfare problems within farming, it is important that those are highlighted. But on the other side of the equation, their practices in breaking in place animals at risk. There is a strong commitment to biosecurity in Norwegian farming, which obviously is ignored by those breaking and entering.

According to a virtual Mattilsynet meeting on Friday, those same activists had held pictures showing evidence of animal welfare breaches from as far back as 2016. They had not reported those breaches to the authorities, which would suggest they are more interested in creating a scandal than in addressing those issues. It is important to remember that the aim of these groups is not to improve welfare by working with the farming industry and the authorities, but to close down the animal farming industry altogether.

Accordingly, these groups always highlight the worst. How many farms did they break into? How many of those were farms with very high welfare standards? It would be much more useful to have a balanced view of the whole picture. Without that, it is impossible to tell whether they have revealed that problems are occurring in a very high percentage of farms, or whether there is huge negativity being created around “a few bad apples”.

Mattilsynet have also come under fire. It is said that we are working too slowly in closing down those farms where animal welfare is chronically poor. Perhaps that is true, in some cases, but in many circumstances there has to be a period of assessment, of attempted education and/or enforcement, before taking the huge step of removing someone’s source of income.

These kinds of scandals are always both depressing and demoralising, not least because they are a reminder that there are some very unpleasant people in the world, and that some of them actually seem to revel in creating animal suffering. It frightens me that as well as those who are careless, lazy and ignorant (which I would say are the main drivers of animal welfare issues) there are also a few who are actively malevolent. I try not to dwell on it, but there has been a case in our region which might have fallen into that category. Those people make me feel sick to my stomach and because they will lie and work hard to conceal what they are doing, I think we will never gain full control over what they do.

However, it is important not to dwell too much on the things we can’t fix. I visited a farm on Friday where there were pigs running around in the open air, digging their snouts in the earth and obviously having a great life. Birgit and I carried out the first of our Pig Welfare Campaign visits on the same farm and it was a wonderful salve to the negativity. Reports like the one above can easily make it seem that we have an uphill and sometimes impossible task in trying to police all matters within the animal welfare sphere. But it’s essential to remember there are a lot of good people in the farming industry in Norway, who are doing their very best to uphold the excellent welfare standards that are required in law.

I drove a long way on Friday to complete the visit with Birgit. Despite the distance, it’s important that we work as a team. When I see the links between the scattered offices and the abattoir and all the knowledge held by veterinarians such as Birgit, Thomas, Ammar and Hilde, all of whom have worked in this area for a long time, I am reminded of how important that web of knowledge can be. I’ve been here almost a year now and I am beginning to build up my own map. I will continue to fight for better conditions for all animals in my own capacity. And though my contribution is small, I am not fighting alone.

I am going to finish with a few photographs from Friday. As well as all the wonderful flowers that are brightening the verges, I drove along the side of a steep fjord, where the melting snow is creating myriad waterfalls as the twenty four hour sunlight warms the landscape.

Whistle While You Work

Sunrise/sunset: Up all day.

It’s been a busy week, but the days have been warm and sunny. The snow has retreated once again to the mountains and with barely a pause for spring, summer has arrived. I have taken so many photos that this will be an image-filled, whistle-stop tour of my week.

Last weekend, Anna, Triar and I went walking in Ånderdalen National Park. Regular readers will know it’s one of my favourite places. The ground was still brown, but the sturdy fir trees that cling to the shallow soil were bathing in the twenty four hour sunlight. For three or four kilometers, the path is maintained for wheelchair users, but at the end it is possible to go further, up into the hills or down towards a lake. We decided to go down and discovered that the path descended into a peat bog, carefully woven with plank bridges to walk on. As you can see, Triar decided that staying on the planks wasn’t nearly as much fun as taking a peat-pool plunge.

Because of the long winter, and because we were doing limited visits due to coronavirus, there is a lot of catching up to do. I have been blood testing goats with Ammar. We check them for two notifiable diseases: brucellosis and caprine arthritic encephalitis virus (CAEV). Brucella can cause goats to miscarry and can spread to humans and CAEV mostly causes arthritic changes in joints, but can also occasionally cause inflammation of the brain in kids. Ammar works in Tromsø and between us, by next week, we hopefully will have finished this year’s testing in both our areas. We tested two herds on Monday.

Tuesday began early with a trip to the abattoir. As I left the house at about five thirty in the morning, I couldn’t resist taking a picture and I took another of the harbour beside work as I changed cars. As you can see on the top picture, the leaves were beginning to appear, but hadn’t quite opened.

In the afternoon, there were more goats, but when Anna suggested a walk in the evening, I couldn’t resist. We crossed the bridge to Senja and walked down to a little harbour we discovered in winter. How different the little stony beach looked now. The water was so clear and it was so warm that we couldn’t resist going in for a paddle.

On Wednesday, I was back on Senja with Thomas and Håkon, who works with Dyrevernsnemnda. We were following up a welfare report from the public, but when we arrived, everything was fine. It seems to happen that way quite often, but we have to follow everything up. It’s better than missing something bad. There was wildlife on the roadsides, both reindeer and elk, and we stopped at a viewpoint for another photo opportunity.

Thursday was spent in an all day meeting on Teams. I worked from home, learning about the difficult job of dealing with farms and farm-parks who break the law over years. We have many tools at our disposal, ranging from advice at one end, to total bans on animal keeping at the other. Unlike in the UK, where animal welfare cases have to be taken to court, in extreme cases, where animals are suffering, we can remove the right to keep animals. It wasn’t a very cheery day, but important nonetheless. I spent Friday following up on some of the information and on some admin, that was badly in need of sorting out. And then in the evening, Anna, Andrew and I packed the car to go on a camping trip. John was meant to be coming, but in a frustrating twist, having stated at the beginning of last week’s blog that it was easy to get complacent about coronavirus, someone who works in the same office as me has tested positive. Though the risks are tiny (the over-riding rule is still for working from home wherever possible, so there was no contact between me and the affected person) John thought it better not to come this time. I hope my colleague is not too unwell and that nobody else gets it.

We had been planning to camp at Sørvika near the beach, but when we arrived there, several caravans had already taken up residence. We wanted somewhere more private, and so we drove on and found a little track that led up into the hills further around the peninsula. Wild camping is allowed in Norway. So long as you aren’t near houses or on agricultural land, you can pitch your tent anywhere. We found a field, which might be used for hay, and camped on the edge of it, under some trees. It was wonderfully green. We had hoped for a fire, but had to settle for the trusty little gas ring that John and I bought for driving up here last year. Triar particularly enjoyed the hot dogs.

We drove on round to Rossfjord after we’d eaten. Beautiful as it was, the mosquitoes were out in force and being eaten ourselves was not part of the plan. There, we found one of the most beautiful graveyards I have ever seen. On the hillside stretching up from the white wooden church, the gravestones were well tended and new, but in the little corner furthest away from us, there was a much older section, with only a few iron crosses and low grassy mounds marking the graves. It was wonderfully tangled and overgrown, slumbering in the evening sunshine. When I am gone, I hope my resting place is equally peaceful.

As we drove back, the air grew colder and mist began to form over the sound, gathering on the mountains opposite.

It wasn’t very dark in the tent, but somehow I managed to sleep well. I woke a few times and marvelled at the birds singing. Do they sleep in summer at all?

We came home this morning. Someone has to feed the guinea pigs! And as it’s late, I thought I would pop outside to get you a picture of the midnight sun over Senja.

When I’ve clicked on the “Publish” button, I shall go to my bedroom, close the blackout blinds and the curtains and go to sleep. Good night all.

Well Met

Sunrise/sunset: Up all day.

In many ways, living here in the north of Norway, it’s easy to get complacent about coronavirus. The Norwegian government has stipulated that nobody should go to work or school with a cold, or any symptoms of a respiratory illness. Some people take this seriously. Quite a few ignore it. A colleague of John’s announced last week at work that he had a cold. John came over on Saturday to stay for the weekend, but by the evening, he had developed a sore throat. I took him for a test on Sunday, then very sadly took him home. Andrew is entering exam time and the last thing he needs is to have to stay at home because of the coronavirus rules.

It is frustrating when there are rules and people ignore them. And here in Norway, there isn’t anything like the pressure for presenteeism that exists in the UK. I was amazed years ago, when working at Tu Clinic, to find that if one of the vets had a cold, they would stay home and the receptionist would ring round the clients and rearrange the appointments for another day. Back in the UK, it was an unwritten rule in all the practices I worked in that unless you were actively vomiting or unable to get out of bed, you should drag yourself into work. If you did take a sick day, nobody would ring any clients. The other vets were expected to manage.

It wasn’t coronavirus, happily. It is easy to get complacent, living up here in isolation. I no longer feel the fear I did when I was further south and living in an area where many people travelled because of the oil industry. But there is currently a significant outbreak of British variant COVID in Hammerfest, which is about as out-of-the-way as it gets. It’s a reminder that nowhere is completely safe.

Having said all that, it was a pleasure to attend a real-life meeting in Tromsø on Tuesday this week. It was a training session for Dyrevernsnemnda, who are a group of lay people with an interest in and knowledge of animal husbandry. They work alongside the veterinary surgeons on welfare cases, providing a different perspective and improving balance in decision making. For me, it was a very useful meeting. Those working for Dyrevernsnemda come out on inspections with us and so the information was a whizz through of the laws and practices that govern us. It was very well presented.

It was also lovely to travel to Tromsø. Though it’s only two hours away, I have only been once before on an emergency mission to find a companion guinea pig. Another reminder that we are not living in normal times. I drove up with Thomas. Tromsø is on an island and we entered the city over this bridge.

I was glad that Thomas knew his way around. The city is on a hill and he pulled into a car park built into it. I was surprised to find a row of arches cut into the rock and lined with some kind of material. After the meeting, when we returned, I was even more amazed when I discovered the car-park was connected to the tunnel system that runs under the city. Norwegians are very skilled at building tunnels, but it still fascinates me when there are miles of roads underground, with junctions and roundabouts. I was also pleased to find a speed-bump sign in Norwegian. Obviously my sense of humour is very basic!

Wednesday was lovely. I travelled up to Laksvatn with Ammar to blood test some goats and we have arranged to do some more next week. I love going out to farms and doing practical work. There is none of the pressure that exists with the welfare side of the job and it is a lovely reminder of the time when I was working as a farm vet, which was what I always wanted to do. I gave it up after having children because the lifestyle doesn’t fit easily with family life when both parents are vets. I thought about returning to it last year, but didn’t feel certain I could manage calvings and some of the other more physical work now. Odd how life turns out.

Speaking of goats, we received an interesting e-mail this week. A couple from Germany, or perhaps the Netherlands have been travelling in Sweden. They have been hillwalking, which would be all very well, except for the fact that they have taken their pet goat with them. They’ve been seen out and about with the goat on a lead and it is rumoured they might be heading to Norway. I’m not sure what the rules are in Sweden, but in Norway there are very strict rules attached to importing animals. It’s one thing taking your dog with its passport, but the idea of roaming around Europe with a tame goat is something I found amusing.

I’ll finish off with a few photographs I took while continuing my walking program this week. More spring flowers are pushing through the ground and this week, cowslips seem to have taken over from the coltsfoot. Now it’s summer, more people are flying flags. It’s quite common for Norwegians to have a flag pole of some sort. There are strict rules around flying the Norwegian flag. If you put it up, you are supposed to take it down again at nightfall. Perhaps the Norwegian flag doesn’t like to be darked on. Presumably up here, in summer, you could leave the flag up all day because it doesn’t actually get dark, but it still seems to be common to fly a wimple, which has the Norwegian colours, but isn’t technically a flag that needs to be taken up and down. And although it’s very spring like, as you can see in the picture at the top of the page, and the one below, there are still lots of places where the trees have no leaves. Have a lovely weekend everybody.

Small Things

Sunrise/sunset: 01:52/ 23:45. Daylength: 21hr 52mins

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.

Mixed

Sunrise/sunset: 02:50/ 22:44. Daylength: 19hr 54mins

Last week, I sent the manuscript of a new book I’ve written to a friend. It’s always a nerve wracking moment, showing something you’ve created to another person. Lara is very well read and I was optimistic that if there was any storyline or character that was completely off key, she would tell me.

It’s been a tough project. I started it a couple of years ago in a lull between the last two Hope Meadows books. It’s about a veterinary practice in Scotland: partly wish fulfilment, I think, but also an exploration the life of older women. In this modern world, where women are supposedly able to have everything, they often end up juggling job and family and find themselves trapped in situations rooted in decisions made years ago when their children were young. I was aiming for a cross between James Herriot and Sally Wainwright (the scriptwriter behind the TV series Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley) and I hope I’ve achieved it.

To my intense joy (and relief) Lara loved it. Practically minded and knowledgeable, she also pointed out one or two technical points about veterinary practice and rules and regulations. Once I’ve ironed those out, I will be faced with the search for an agent.

In the UK, it’s close to impossible to get a novel published without an agent. In this age of computers, so many people write that all the major publishers have inserted a buffer between them and the great writing public. They will only look at fiction sent to them by an author’s agent, so now I have to look for one. Those who have followed my progress for a very long time might know that I was with Peter Buckman at the Ampersand agency (he put me in contact with Victoria Holmes, who led me through all six Hope Meadows books) but he admitted before we set off that Womens’ Commercial Fiction (which is what I write) wasn’t really his thing, and so at the end of Hope Meadows, we parted. He has since contacted me when he got wind of another vet project, so we remain on good terms, but what I really need is someone I can bounce ideas off, so that is what I’m going to look for.

John has been home for the weekend for the past three weeks and as it was lovely weather yesterday morning, I took the afternoon off and we went out with the dog on Senja. Serious walking is out for the moment. The deep snow on the mountains is beginning to melt. Water begins to run underneath it, and so as well as being slushy and almost impossible to walk through, there’s also a risk of avalanches. So for now, we contented ourselves with a stroll near Vangsvik. We found a lovely little harbour where the water was so clear that both John and I thought it would be a lovely place for a scuba dive. Though we have some kit in the flat, it’s so long since I’ve been that I will need to contact a club for retraining if I decide I want to jump back in.

I also stopped on the way back to take some pictures and was delighted to find the start of a hike which I had never noticed before. At four hours (probably five or six at my pace – Norwegians walk everywhere much faster than I do) and with a well marked path, it sounds perfect.

If the view at the beginning is anything to go by, the outlook from the top must be stunning. In a few weeks time, we will have 24 hour daylight, and even though I’ve woken to snow again this morning, it can’t last forever. Though spring is still trying to hide, there are definitely leaf buds on the trees now. Maybe a midnight hike will be in order. Roll on summer!

Wild Rover

Sunrise/sunset: 03:29/ 22:04. Daylength: 18hr 35mins

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.

The Good Life

Sunrise/sunset: 04:05/ 21:30. Daylength: 17hr 24mins

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.

Red barn with fjord and mountains on Jubelen.

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.

The road onwards was closed to traffic.

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.

Reisafjord from Jubelem
Reisafjord from Jubelem

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!

Zoomed in shot – hotel on the left and the surviving pre-war building opposite

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’s fjos.

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.

This is Rein, who is 22 years old

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.

Tigra is three years old.

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.

This beauty is Reisa Virko. Virko is Sami and means lively.

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.

Across the Lyngen Fjord

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.

Learning

Sunrise/sunset: 04:39/ 20:58. Daylength: 16hr 19mins

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.

Have a lovely weekend everybody.