Category Archives: Vet

Always Vet in Norway – A Blog

Murder in the Mountains

Sunrise/sunset: 07:33/ 17:35. Daylength: 10hr01min

It crossed my mind this week that perhaps I should try a change of direction in my writing. I don’t really read enough these days (I have six unread books waiting at the moment in my bedroom) but the family Netflix account is filled with dark drama from all parts of Scandinavia. I have all the elements I need. I could set it in the blue Polar Night, when the morning never comes and have a grisly scene in the slaughter house, with a human cadaver hanging among the carcases. There could be people smuggling, with all the season workers coming in, or perhaps the victim(s) could be working in the laundries, washing all those blood stained clothes. Maybe a hand can emerge from one of those huge piles of snow that gather during the winter months, leaving everyone baffled as to when the murder actually occurred.

It’s actually been a quiet week. Andrew has been away, visiting his dad, who lives near Stavanger. Before he went, I asked him to show me how to use the TV. When I was young, the TV was simple to use. Admittedly, you had to stand up to switch it on, and indeed to change the channel, though back then there were only three to choose from anyway. Our first TV was a tiny black and white portable that, rather bizarrely, my parents won in a competition. They also won a small sailing boat on a trailer. I can vaguely remember it appearing in the drive outside our house. Of course, it had to go because they had no car to tow it with. They sold it and bought a little white mini. Anyway I’ve wandered away from the point, which was that I have spent the week alone and quite enjoyed it. I could indulge my taste for true crime and mashed potato. The candles have been lit every evening. It feels comforting to return to having some darkness at a time that my body feels is appropriate.

I went out walking again with Ann and Konstantin last weekend. We went up Falkefjellet. The peak we reached, though not the highest point, was above the treeline, which meant there was a good view all round.

The best thing about it was that, for the first time in a while, I felt I could have walked further. My springtime Fit for the Summer campaign seems a very long time ago. The summer was marred by sickness and it has felt like every time I began to work again on getting back into shape, I was hit by something that stopped me. As I reached the summit of Falkefjellet, I remembered how much I love the feeling of arriving on the top of the world. The higher mountains are now swathed in snow, but perhaps there will be time to get a few walks in before the winter really sets in.

The photograph at the top of the page is of one of the red markers on the walk, though the shape of the rock and the bloody brightness of the paint was one of the things that prompted my Scandi Noir thoughts. Here it is again, the full photo, rather than the cropped version.

Konstantin was full of facts about the wildlife and the landscape. He is interested in geology and occasionally would point out pieces of marble, or rock formations and tell us how they had been formed. For example, here’s another red marker, this time looking a little like a stone dagger, set into fractured rock.

I asked him how the cracking occurred and he pointed to another section of rock just to the left, where there was more rock in the process of arriving there. This had earth in between the cracks, which of course will hold water. It freezes in winter, driving the stones apart, and then eventually the mud gets washed away, leaving the rather mysterious looking holes in the mountainside.

It was windy on the summit, so here is a picture of Triar, looking windswept and interesting.

Konstantin was in the lead with Triar during the walk. I think they look good together!

And of course, as we descended back to the treeline, there were some wonderful views to enjoy, as well as the smaller details of unexpected plants growing underfoot, in nooks and crannies, and on the trunks of dead but unfallen trees.

Andrew was due to return last night in the evening and the airport is close to the abattoir, so rather than driving over there twice in a day, I decided to take Triar in the car, have dinner with John, and then wait. It was a little hair raising, driving over. Until now, the temperature has been well above zero, but a wind from the north has changed that, and when I left for work at 04.45 there was frost on the car. I still have the summer wheels on as I don’t use the car much and up until now, they have been fine. I will change them over next week, but for now I had to proceed with caution in the darkness. I’d had to stop when driving home on Thursday, as there was a moose that thought about crossing the road, though he looked at all the cars which had stopped to let him, and changed his mind. They’re huge when you see them close up, so I was very wary, but we made it there safely. To fill in the time between work ending and collecting Andrew, I took a quick reprise of the spring fitness project. This is how the landscape looks now, as we head into winter. If you look carefully at the second picture, you can see the white peaks in the distance, though they are rather swathed in clouds.

The plane arrived on time and as we arrived back at the house, Andrew pointed at the sky. There they were, the northern lights, greeting him on his return to the north.

Counting Sheep

Sunrise/sunset: 07:06/ 18:06. Daylength: 10hr59min

Time seems to be rushing by again. Last year, when everything was new, it seemed to move a little more slowly, but I feel I am beginning to feel the rhythm of the place and the seasons, if not yet well, at least with a degree of awareness. We are losing an hour of light each week now. At the end of next month, the Polar Night will be with us again. In the meantime, the progression through autumn continues to be so beautiful that I find myself sighing out loud at just how wonderful it is.

My work is seasonal, as all who work (or have worked) with large animals will understand. This years lambs are being brought in to the abattoir and then their meat is beginning to appear in the shops. That sounds very blunt, I guess, but on some level it feels right that I witness the whole cycle. I have seen a few people on social media express the opinion that all who work in abattoirs (and indeed farming) must be sadistic or macabre, but that isn’t my experience at all. Most of the people I encounter are both down to earth and resilient.

As well as the slaughter season (as it’s called here) I am waiting for the sheep and cattle to be brought in from their summer pastures. Part of our job is to check all aspects of the chain that goes ” frå jord og fjord til bord” (from the land and fjords to the table) and one component of that is traceability. All farm animals must be tagged (or tattoo’d for pigs) shortly after birth, and the tags maintained until they die. All the births and deaths and numbers have to be recorded in the “husdyrregisteret” or livestock register. The vets at Mattilsynet have to go out and check that the farmers are carrying this through, so we will go out and do checks on a number of cattle and sheep farms in the autumn and winter.

As well as looking to see whether all the animals have ear tags, we check the farmers are keeping medical records for all the animals. Medication (and specifically antibiotic/antibacterial use) are much more tightly controlled here than in the UK. We also check that they are entering the details of their herd or flock into the livestock register. Failure to do any of these things results initially in warnings, then fines and (where there is a severe breach of the law) in restrictions on the movement of animals on and off the farm until the traceability requirements are fulfilled. Though we ideally check every farm on our patch over the course of a few years, we also try to integrate these visits with our welfare program. So if we receive a concern message from the general public, or for example one from the electricity suppliers (who give us advance notice if any farmer is at risk of being cut off) and we feel the situation does not sound serious enough to require immediate attendance, then we will try to call them to assess the situation, then add that farm to our list of places where we will carry out “routine checks”.

Life at Mattilsynet can be unpredictable at times, perhaps predictably so! During the season, there are seven members of staff working in the abattoir on any given day. I’m not due there every day, but as well as having the crew of seven, there is always someone listed as back-up. It was me on Monday this week, and so I was not entirely surprised when a colleague called me on Sunday night to explain that one of their children was sick, and therefore they needed me to go in. Because there are so many staff, engaged in different tasks, and we have to cover the whole day (which can often be longer than the standard seven and three quarter hour working day) the start times are staggered. The first vet there, who has to carry out the live animal checks, comes in at 05:45 in the morning. The next wave comes at 06:45, another at 07.45 and the last at 08:15.

I was due to be in with the second wave, starting at 06:45. It takes me about half an hour to get up, and then close to an hour to drive my car to work, grab the keys to one of the work cars from the office (if I haven’t done it the night before) then finish my journey to the abattoir. Rather than starting work at 08:00 locally, I was now going to have to head out at 05:45 and so I had to head to bed almost immediately after receiving the call. I am always worried that I will forget to set the alarm clock on my phone, which of course has a whole range of times to choose from, and so I quickly set it while I remembered, then went to sleep.

It’s always lovely and cool, first thing in the morning, and I enjoy driving in general, and so as I drove in, I was quite happy. As I said earlier, it’s getting dark very quickly, and I found myself musing on the way on just how much darker it was this week. Only a week earlier, on the same shift, I had seen the moose and the detail of its white breath on the air, and I thought that if the same moose was standing there this week, I would barely be able to see it. I even thought that this would be something to tell you in my blog.

It was only when I arrived at the abattoir, that my mind came up against something I thought was odd. When arriving at 06:45, the car park is perhaps half full. But as I drew in on Monday, it was all but empty. It took only a moment to dawn on me that, in my hurry to get to bed the night before, I had selected the 04:15 alarm, rather than 05:15. In fact, I had even arrived before Thomas, who was working that day in Vet 1 position, doing the live animal checks. Thomas was quite surprised when he did arrive, but at least I had already had time to make coffee, which was gratefully received.

Anyway, given that I have raved at the top about how beautiful it is here at the moment, I’d better share some photographs. Seeing the sun out in a perfectly blue sky on Wednesday morning, I decided to use some of my precious flexitime and take Triar out for a walk. We headed up to the ski-slope area and took a walk there. The view was truly dazzling.

Triar seemed to be enjoying himself, rushing through the undergrowth and up and down the rocky outcrops, walking (as ever) four or five times further than me.

As you can see, higher on the mountainside, the trees are already bare, but looking down into the valley, there is still a riot of autumn colour in amongst the huddle of houses.

I awoke to another beautiful day on Thursday, and felt suddenly that I might as well use some more of those hours to take time off while it was still wonderfully light outside. Though I didn’t go on any significant walks, I decided I should make the house look a little better. Triar goes on the sofas in the house, and we do quite often eat while sitting on them, and therefore I try to keep them lined with fleecy blankets. The old ones were rather grubby and still look grey now after washing, so I bought some new ones. I had also accumulated some autumn candles, but was in danger of not getting round to deploying them. So now, as I go into winter, the inside of the house is looking as well as I can make it look. As the evenings are drawing in, and I will shortly be spending a lot of time indoors, it’s important that I have a space that lifts me up when I am there.

Setting out for work on Friday morning, I noted it was five degrees Celsius as I drove through Finnsnes. We live close to the sea, and even this far north, the Gulf Stream stops the temperature from going down as far as it does inland. So as I drove east, I was unsurprised to see the temperature dropping, quickly to three degrees and then further, down below zero and I could see there was frost on the undergrowth on the edges of the forest.

The sun was also rising slowly behind the mountains, giving them the most incredible molten gold edges and so I stopped to try and capture it. Unfortunately, by the time I found somewhere I could pull off the road, where there wasn’t forest in the way, the gold had mellowed into a normal sunrise, but it was still beautiful.

I took a couple of photos of the frost as well, not because it was anything out of the ordinary, but simply because it was the first of the year for me and a reminder that winter will very soon be here.

The Gathering Darkness

Sunrise/sunset: 06:13/ 19:08. Daylength: 12hr54min

I mentioned a couple of weeks back that it was not yet entirely dark, but from Thursday this week there has been full darkness for a short time each night. It’s hard to believe we’re already well into September. The sun is low in the sky for much of the day and the autumn equinox will soon be here.

I took that photo when I was out with Triar, and he very kindly posed for me on an upturned boat, that lies beside the narrow path we walked down.

I’m not sure what the boat is doing here, halfway up a rather steep hill, but I suspect it might be a remnant left over from a children’s play park. They quite often use old boats in playgrounds, when they are no longer any use for fishing.

Though it’s coming up for two years since I’ve been in the UK, I do like to follow what’s happening on social media. So I was interested to see, in the past couple of weeks, that the first mince pies have started to appear in shops over there. Mince pies are one of the Christmas foods I miss most. Of course I could make my own, but it’s nearly impossible to recreate the wonderful cool pastry and spiced mincemeat that you get in the shop bought version.

That said, I was pleased to see the return of mørketids boller to the shop I was in yesterday. Mørketid is Norwegian for polar night, which will not arrive until 30th November, so like the mince pies, they are a little early. But I love the seasonality of the foods in the shops here, and this one is specific to the north of Norway. They aren’t as good as mince pies. It’s really a doughnut with dark chocolate and vanilla filling (I have seen pictures with chocolate fillings, but have never located one). Very pleasant with a cup of coffee.

The shorter days at work also ended this week. For a few months in the summer, we work seven hour days, whereas in winter, we work seven and three quarter hours. The difference doesn’t sound much, but I was pleasantly surprised when it began, how much faster the working day passed. It’s a great perk to have shorter working days when the summer is so brief.

There are also some odd quirks in the working hours over Christmas and New Year and there was some discussion about this over morning coffee this week, when there was only me and two Norwegian colleagues present. For example, on New Year’s Eve, our official working day is only two hours. So if you have built up some time off in lieu (TOIL) then that is a good day to use it. If you take the day as holiday, it counts as a whole day off, regardless of how long or short the day is. So if you do that, you took off two hours when you could have taken almost eight if you’d chosen a different day.

I had been thinking about trying to take my one remaining holiday week between Christmas and New Year, but as most of the days then are only five hours, it is worth looking into taking them as TOIL instead. The only downside being that agreed holiday can’t be removed at the last minute, whereas agreed TOIL can.

There are a lot of differences from the UK in the Norwegian way of working, and it can be difficult to find all of them out. I should imagine it’s the same for anyone who lives in a culture they weren’t brought up in, but there are times when I have the feeling I am living in some kind of twilight zone, where all kinds of things are obscure. Nobody tells you about them as they assume everyone knows and of course, as you don’t know they exist, you don’t ask about them.

One thing that I do know about, that is definitely worse in Norway than the UK for permanent employees (and is illegal in EU countries) is that in your first year in any new job, you are not entitled to holiday pay. Last year I worked for Mattilsynet from August and so I was not entitled to any paid holiday at all from them. Technically, I received holiday pay from my last job when I left, but that was eaten up in the expenses of moving up here. This year, I only have ten days paid holiday. I can take unpaid holiday, but three weeks without pay would be quite a hit and I don’t really want to do it unless it’s unavoidable.

I’m not really sure why this rule persists. I believe it has been challenged in Denmark, which is in the EU, while Norway is technically not. But Norway does adhere to most of the other EU rules, as expected under the EEA agreement, so I am unsure why they have not implemented this one. For my part, it’s a bad rule. Given that the only “holiday” I had last year was taken up with driving up here, it feels like a long time since I’ve had a proper rest. It’s not as easy to bounce back at fifty two as it was when I was younger either. Roll on next year, when I will be back up to five weeks plus bank holidays again. I guess anyone from the US reading this might think I’m a wuss, but there it is!

Fungi are odd things. A rather cute looking mushroom appeared one day under the hedge beside my driveaway. I took a few photos over several days. It looked tasty, and at the same time rather demure, with its closed head, all neat and dry. This was taken on the tenth of September and I think it had been there a few days. I assumed this was its final form. I rather liked it.

So I was bemused to come home on Wednesday to find it had seemingly doubled in height. The cup was now opened and its edge had a grim wet look to it! I guess it had to open as its spores must be inside, but any feelings I had that it might taste good disappeared instantly!

I will leave you with a couple of pictures from my drive home yesterday. There’s a falling down barn that I have been passing every time I drive to the abattoir. I decided I wanted to photograph it in the autumn of last year, but it was difficult to find anywhere to park, and then winter came and the parking possibilities reduced even further. It’s impossible to pull off the road when there’s a wall of scraped snow on either side. I drove past yesterday morning, when I didn’t have time, and thought that by the time I drove home again, the sun would have moved. But I had forgotten that the sun is now permanently in the south and doesn’t move so much from east to west as from south-east to south-west. So here it is in the autumn sun, in all its dilapidated glory. And I’ll throw in one of trees and snow topped mountains for good measure. Hope you enjoy them!

Season

Sunrise/sunset: 05:47/ 19:39. Daylength: 13hr52min

Autumn is in full swing now and there is a chill in the air. Every year in Norway, there comes a time when winter is approaching and bright red snow poles suddenly appear along the sides of the roads. I have often wondered how they are put up and as I was driving John home from his evening class this week, we saw a brightly lit lorry in front of us. It was stopping and starting, and it was on our side and we ended up stuck behind it for a couple of minutes.

It had an arm on the side, overhanging the edge of the road. There was the sound of a jack hammer as it created holes and then it moved on and the poles were dropped into them. I would happily have watched for a bit longer, but the cars coming the opposite way had passed and there was no excuse to linger. If you look in the photo at the top of the page, you can see one of the poles. I also wanted to photograph that section of the road as I love the two tone effect of the taller pine trees, which are still green, and the smaller silver birch and undergrowth, which are autumn yellow.

I mentioned the Covid roller-coaster last week, but hadn’t expected the drop to be so steep. There’s an outbreak at Andrew’s school, which seems to have spread through the students who board. The school runs an international baccalaureate program which attracts pupils from overseas. Additionally the school covers a huge area, some of which has no public transport that would allow daily access, so those students board too. Information seems difficult to come by, but last weekend there were nine confirmed cases out of one hundred and fifty students, all in different classes and streams.

I half expected to hear the school would close, but discovered instead that even close contacts of the infected students would be in school, and would be tested three times over six days instead of quarantining. Within class groups there is no social distancing or mask wearing and vaccination of sixteen and seventeen year olds had only really started a week earlier, which seemed rather rash. Why not take stronger precautions, at least until the first vaccine dose starts to have an effect? After more than a year of disruption, would two more weeks be a big deal?

Half way through the week I was still assuming there might be a change of course, and I spoke about it to a friend who lives in Rogaland, where I used to live before we moved here. She has a daughter in the same school year as Andrew. I told her about the nine confirmed cases and the lack of precautions, hoping to hear what she thought would happen. She told me instead that in her daughter’s class there are four students off with Covid and even there, they are taking no precautions other than frequent testing.

There’s a definite irony to all this. The government website is firm in that they feel that Norway’s young people have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic and that from now on, they want things to be as normal as possible for them. But having sold the idea that vaccines are the answer to protect people, then having given the first dose of vaccine to those between 12 and 17, why would you then not wait until that dose at least had a chance to give some protection? My friend tells me her daughter’s year feel instead, after more than a year of lockdowns and quarantine, that the government are abandoning them to their fate because the older people are now protected, and who can blame them? Of course logically that age-group are at low risk from Covid, but it’s the ultimate in mixed messages to a group the government claims they want to protect.

Anna will return to the UK tomorrow for university. She had to brave the local Covid test station, with its potential queue for sick people, but fortunately it was very quiet (which I hope is a good sign for the more general situation). I’ve printed out her vaccine certificate, and now hope that everything goes smoothly for her.

As well as the changes in the weather, it is now also “season” in the abattoir, or in other words, the time when the spring lambs come in for slaughter before the adult sheep are taken inside for the long, hard winter. It’s a busy time, with all kinds of people coming in from different countries to work on the line. For the rest of the year, Mattilsynet provides two or three staff on days when the line is running, but from next week, when the season is in full swing, there will be seven.

So I’m likely to be a little more at the abattoir in the coming weeks. Konstantin and Vaidotas, who were here last year during the season, have returned. Already the office has a busier feeling and better still, there might be a bit more social life on offer. Having spent a year social distancing and having a general rule that the office should be avoided unless going there is essential, that is definitely something to look forward to.

Strange Days

Sunrise/sunset: 02:31/ 23:11. Daylength: 20hr40min

It was on this day last year, that John and I set off to drive To The North. In a week’s time, I will have been here a year.

It’s been a strange time, all in all. Not that it hasn’t been wonderful in many ways; it has. But coronavirus has had an effect on all our lives that would have been difficult to imagine only a few years ago. In the past year, I have lost an uncle: a wonderful man, larger than life, of whom I have many wonderful and cheering memories, and also an aunt – not technically mine, but an aunt by marriage who was one of the kindest people I have ever met. I could never have imagined that I would be unable to attend their funerals. Nor that I would have been unable to visit my mum and dad for a year and a half, with no definite sign of an end to restrictions amid continuing reports from around the world that the virus is continuing to spread and mutate, despite (or perhaps even because of) the vaccine.

So here I am. Logically coming was the right decision. John has settled nearby and has a permanent job and friends with whom he goes climbing and walking. Andrew has settled into school and has taken up the piano. Anna has been with us since she came home for Christmas and wasn’t able to return to university in the UK. We have a lot of freedom to go out locally. The Norwegian government have done a sterling job in limiting the spread of the virus and we are so remote that often it’s hard to remember during everyday life that we are in the middle of a pandemic.

But it’s odd to think that I have been here a year, in an area I had never visited before I drove up here in a few chaotic days one year ago. I haven’t been home to Yorkshire or Scotland. I am hoping to see my parents at Christmas, but everything seems so unstable that it is impossible to make firm plans.

Still, life goes on. While on a grand scale, everything is filled with uncertainty, on a small scale, I am thriving. This week at work has been special. When I started work a year ago, I was given a list of tasks to complete. One of them was to engage with colleagues who worked in other sectors within Mattilsynet. We cover everything from drinking water to cosmetics as well as food safety on all levels between farm and plate. It had been discussed occasionally, but due to the strict coronavirus rules, where nobody was meant to go anywhere that wasn’t essential, it was always put on hold. But last Friday, alone in the office with Randi and Øivind, I decided it was time to seize the opportunity and I asked whether they had anything planned for this week.

The result was that I went out with Randi on Wednesday for some Smilefjes tilsyn and Friday with Øivind to inspect some waterworks.

Smilefjes is Mattilsynets system for inspection of restaurants and food outlets. When you enter an eatery, there’s generally a certificate on the door showing a happy Smiley. If the inspection didn’t go so well, the Smiley might be less cheerful, but the kitchen we inspected was well organised and clean. I was shown around the restaurant and communal areas of the guesthouse as well, while Randi wrote her report. It was a lovely place: an old building in an area where few old buildings exist. There was a huge fireplace in the restaurant and comfortable couches in front of a large television, which the owner proudly told me was the only one in the building. There were photographs too, black and white pictures of years gone by. I felt nostalgic for the times when staying in hotels was a casual weekend activity and I wanted so much to stay overnight. I took a photograph out of the window as Randi was finishing up her report. The book in the foreground is to record the weight of the fish you catch in the river outside.

On Thursday, quietly melded between the restaurant and water inspections, I carried out my first solo animal welfare inspection. I say solo as I had no other inspectors with me and the responsibility for the case lay with me, but I had support from a fabulous member of Dyervernsnemnda (a little about Dyrevernsnemnda here) called Berit. Berit drove down from Tromsø and she was wonderfully helpful and reassuring. Thanks must also go to Birgit, who made sure I followed the correct procedures beforehand.

Afterwards, I went out for some fish and chips with Ann to celebrate in the cafe that serves the ski slope at Fellandsby.

Yesterday, Øivind took me out to inspect some waterworks. If that word conjures up an image of a huge building with pipes and filtration, then like me, you will have to think again. We drove out onto Senja and headed south to a remote village, where we met the group of men who organise the water supply for the few houses in that area. We sat outside in the sun, as Øivind asked a series of questions about cubic metres of water per year and how many people are supplied. It was an interesting discussion, partly because of the logistics. In summer, there might be fifty people there, whereas there are only four permanent residents. But for me, it was a stark reminder of social changes and history. The four permanent residents are all over 80. The rest are a mix of tourists and very likely people whose parents used to live there, who have moved away, but return at weekends and for the summer. I found myself wondering about those still living there: all of them are in their eighties and nineties. It’s a very long way to the hospital if anything goes wrong.They likely still have families on Senja who look after them. But when they are gone, will the village only exist as a holiday place? There was an old schoolhouse, which is now used for social events. But once upon a time, there must have been families and people who worked the land and/or lived from the sea. Did the four people still living there attend the school, all those years ago? It was a reminder of how much things can change within a lifetime.

After the conversation, we walked up to see the water source. No filtration in sight and the small pipe that carries the water to the village was underground. The water comes from a river. I found myself surprised that it doesn’t freeze in winter, but the water must continue to run underneath all the snow and ice.

This was where we walked to. It was perhaps a kilometer up a grassy track from the village.

Such a peaceful place. I could have passed a happy few hours, listening to the water rushing over the rocks.

And here is the “waterworks” we inspected!

So the village is supplied from the water that runs down from the mountain. It’s not filtered or cleaned and technically, it is a water supply and not a drinking water supply. Øivind made some recommendations. The water source cover should be locked with a padlock, just in case. And the quality should be checked at least once a year. Likely times for the check would be after heavy rain, or when the snow is melting, preferably at a time of year when more people are arriving.

But those who run the system assured us that nobody had ever been unwell from the water in the fifty years since the pipes were installed. It was another reminder of the differences in the lives people in Norway lead. The idea that everyone in Norway should be treated exactly the same (one of Mattilsynet’s aims) is challenging, to say the least. There has to be flexibility when dealing with a country where the ways of life are so very diverse.

And to finish up, here’s are some pictures from Tuesday, when we met one of Anna’s old teachers, who was up for a holiday in the north. We took Triar for a walk in Ånderdalen afterwards. It really has been a very good week.

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.