Tag Archives: Abattoir

Parties and Preparation

Sunrise/sunset: 08:01/ 17:03. Daylength: 9hr02min

I had a pleasant day yesterday, and indeed an enjoyable week altogether. Friday is often the best day of the week anyway, but I had a good start to mine when Vaidotas told me he thought he, Konstantin and I make a great team. Yesterday was my only day at the abattoir this week. I’ve been there a good deal less this year than last, so it was very pleasant to hear I’m appreciated, even though I’m slightly bemused as to which part of my performance he thinks is most useful.

As a quick update, on any day in the season, there is a team of three on the sheep line. We work in a rota of one hour on, thirty minutes off, so when the line is running, there are two of us working at any time. Vaidotas and Konstantin are there daily, and different people make up the number on different days. You’d think it was all about teamwork. Beyond our smaller team, we’re also part of a much bigger team on the line, with perhaps a hundred people, each doing one or two small tasks. However, despite that teamwork, there’s also a feeling of being on your own. The line is noisy, so headphones (attached to a helmet) are the order of the day. There’s not much chance for chat and the work doesn’t require much thought, so there are times when I retreat into my own head, sometimes quite a distance.

Indeed yesterday, with Vaidotas’ happy praise in my head, I started thinking about what I would tell you about it. As I was wondering what he liked about my performance, it crossed my mind that I spend at least some of my time daydreaming, which can’t be all that helpful. I glanced out of the window for a moment as I considered how I would describe that, and thought perhaps I could say I must spend some time staring into the middle distance like some badly written heroine of romance. I was weaving through a mental maze about whether I could compare myself to Jane Eyre, or Eliza Bennet (not that either of those are badly written and neither are particularly prone to the middle distance gaze) when it struck me that even the worst romance writer would not set her (or his) story in an abattoir.

Modern romance novels often take a particular form, so I began to wander through a few possible titles, Canteen Cakes in the Little Slaughter Kitchen maybe or Snowflakes in Nortura Skies, I found myself grinning, and indeed I did smile at everyone around me because I was feeling rather cheery. So perhaps the reason Vaidotas enjoys working with me is because I stand around all day giggling to myself at the silly thoughts in my head. After all, it is unlikely to be my other habit that he finds praiseworthy, as my other habit is peering quizzically at something unusual on a side of lamb that might be nasty (or maybe not) and pointing it out to him to see what he thinks, at which point he invariably reaches for his knife and cuts it off, while I watch and think that next time, I must remember to be decisive and do that myself. Anyway, regardless of the reasons why, I was very pleased.

The rest of the week has been enjoyable too. I didn’t have too much work pending and I had quite a lot of flexitime, so I’ve been working shorter days than usual. Though we don’t have to be back in the office, and can still work from home, it’s no longer the rule that we ought to do so. For most of the year I’ve been here, social events have largely been on hold. However, with the restrictions lifting, and a few people sitting around the table for coffee first thing in the morning, talk somehow turned to the idea of a party. So on November 12th, everyone is going to get together in the office after work. It might seem a little odd, just how exciting that seems to me, but as I said, I’ve mostly been here during lockdown and my contact with other adult human beings has been very minimal. I need to get out perhaps, and expand my network outside of work colleagues, but for now, getting to know them better sounds great.

There was, of course, discussion about food. I believe there may be some budget for socialising, but like everything in the pubic sector, it’s limited. So I piped up and said I would be happy to bring some traditional UK/Scottish food. Though it’s difficult to get some ingredients, I like making sausage rolls, for example, as you can’t buy them here. And pies and savoury pastries aren’t really a thing in the shops. There is frozen puff pastry, but I’ve no idea what they do with it as savoury pies really don’t seem to be a thing. So if I have time, I might make chicken and mushroom pasties. The recipe is here, and rather unexpectedly, that page is the most popular on my website, so I’m guessing it must be relatively reliable! I will probably also bake some shortbread biscuits. Funny that things that are basic in the UK are really quite exotic here, but I’m hoping other people will bring dishes local to them as well. I love trying different things.

I arrived at the office on Thursday morning to a very beautiful dawn. I had already taken a photo of Senja from the garden before I set out. Looking away from the sun, the blue, polar, pre-dawn light is already kicking in and it’s wonderfully clear. The photo at the top of the page shows a snow cloud over Senja from a few days earlier.

Snow covered mountains on Senja

But as I arrived at the office, the sun was just below the horizon. It was painting the clouds the most wonderful colours and then a group of crows seemed to be enjoying it too, as they performed acrobatics over the fjord. It was too intense to ignore, so I spent a few minutes outside taking photographs before I went in.

And lastly, my preparations for winter are well underway. Until recently, it was quite warm, but the temperatures have suddenly dropped, especially at night. It’s forecast to reach minus ten overnight on Wednesday. So I have thrown the extending shovel back in the car and I’ve bought an extra long implement for clearing snow off the roof of the car, which I didn’t get round to last year. The guinea pigs, after a few nights with a blanket over their outdoor cage, have now moved inside into their winter quarters. They seem very cheery about it all, and indeed have quickly remembered that the sound of the fridge opening sometimes leads to salad if you squeak loudly enough!

Susie and Brownie in their indoor quarters.

The only thing I have failed to do in time, is to change the winter wheels onto the car. They are stored in a local “Tyre hotel” as I don’t have a lot of storage space. When I went in on Monday, they told me I’d missed my slot. It transpired they had sent me an appointment for the change back in September, but as they had the wrong phone number, someone else must have received a random message that their wheel change was due. Anyway, I have a time slot on Monday, and in the meantime, I will just have to drive very carefully, if and when I go out.

Anyway, I will leave you with a photo of Triar, who seems to be enjoying the cosiness created by new blankets on the sofas, along with the return of the warmth from the heated floor. Thanks for reading and have a good week.

Upside-down Triar

The Art of Killing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Light

Sunrise/sunset: 06:18 / 19:02. Daylength: 12hr 44min.

I’m spending more and more time at the abattoir as the season progresses. Next week, I will be there every day. It’s acknowledged that it is a high risk environment. There are big metal hooks overhead, which require helmet use at all times. We wear chain mail to protect our vital organs from errant knives. The knives need to be sterilised as well. This is done by placing them in hot water whenever they are not in use. Despite having read a plethora of H&S documents and watched videos about the risks from the sterilisers, in the first couple of days on the sheep line I managed to lean on the hot metal plating a couple of times. So now I am branded on both hips like an old cow.

I’m working exclusively on the lamb/mutton line for now. Pork and beef inspection are more complicated and there’s no time for me to learn. Though I am starting to feel more confident, at the beginning it felt surreal as I strode up and down, marking the meat that had passed with that all-important EFTA stamp that means it can be sent out into the world for consumption. I was reminded of a chapter in a children’s book: Time Tangle by Frances Eagar. Though it’s an old book, I know it from cover to cover, having read and reread it as a child, then read it aloud to my children every year in the lead up to Christmas. There’s a scene in it where Beth, a girl dealing with some difficult emotions over the yule period, is unwillingly visiting a friend’s house. She is pressed into helping her friend’s mother to make mince pies, and to get through it, she imagines herself in a busy mince pie factory, slapping the pastry lids onto the pies. She also imagines being praised for her prowess and speed. Her bubble bursts when it becomes apparent that the reason for her speed is that she’s forgotten to add the mince filling.

Like Beth, I was rather enjoying working on the sheep line. There had been some doubt over whether I would be ready in time, but the vets I worked with had all been positive, which of course was encouraging. I had my empty mince pie moment though at the end of last week when at the end of my shift, Ronny the Official Veterinary Surgeon (OVS) took me aside and showed me a carcass that I had stamped that I should have condemned. Several of the joints were massively swollen and she was very thin. It was doubly frustrating as I had noticed she was thin and had taken a very brief second look, but instead of stopping the line, or sending her to the side for a better look, I had allowed her to pass.

I was shocked when Ronny showed me. I had known I was rather distracted as it had been a difficult day in other ways, but even so, I ought to have seen it. A short time after that, right at the end of the day, the man in charge of the line called me over and asked me whether the carcass should be placed in the chill room where the emergency slaughter carcasses are placed for inspection. I agreed that it should, then he looked me up and down, then back at the sheep. “I know you missed it,” he said, “but do you see the changes, now they’ve been pointed out?”

Seeing as the joints on both front and hind legs were not cut through clean and straight, as they should be, but instead resembled a pair of seventies bell-bottom jeans in shape, I half wanted to snap back that of course I could see it. Only an idiot wouldn’t. But in the circumstances, that would have been rather churlish, so I muttered, “Yes,” and to my relief, he began to slide the carcass off in the direction of the chill room.

And mortified though I was to miss something so obvious, the good thing, of course, is the comfirmation of something I’ve known for years.. Experienced technicians (and it applies equally to veterinary nurses in practice) know way more about almost everything than vets who are just starting out in any completely new area.

There are some compensations to working in the slaughterhouse. The world around me is turning to gold and the drive there takes about forty minutes. Back in Rogaland, where I spent my first years in Norway, there wasn’t much autumn. The trees would start to turn and then there would be a storm and by the time the wind and rain stopped, the trees would be bare. Up here though, there’s less wind and as I have to drive through miles of forest every day, the changing colours have been wonderful to watch.

And Andrew and I had a wonderful surprise last weekend when we popped out in the garden to “air the dog” as they call it here in Norway. As we stood there, we noticed there was a green tinge to the sky. We weren’t sure at first, but as it brightened and began to dance, we realised that for the first time, we were properly seeing the Northern lights. It was a wonderful moment.

Killing Time

Sunrise/sunset: 04:57 / 20:37. Daylength: 15hr 40min.

On Monday, Hilde drove me over to the abattoir where I will be spending a good chunk of my working days over the next few weeks. With the short summer and long, hard winter, most of the spring lambs will be brought in before it’s time for the remaining animals to be moved into their winter housing. Vets play an essential part in the process. The health of the animals must be checked before they are humanely killed and the welfare and conditions are carefully monitored.

Afterwards, a team of vets and technicians inspect the meat to check whether it is fit for consumption. This is another chance to check health and welfare. All the information from the checks, both ante and post mortem, is recorded. Nobody could claim it’s glamorous work, but as well as ensuring the animals are treated well in the abattoir, the findings are used to assess whether there might be problems on the farms where the animals were raised. If the animals are too thin, have overgrown feet, or show significant signs of illness, then a message is sent back to the local Mattilsynet office, where their vets will contact the farmer and take measures to improve the situation.

On Monday’s visit I was fitted out with a uniform, boots, a locker and a card to open the door. Hilde brought cake again, and I met a few of the staff.

On Tuesday I drove through again with Thomas. I had met him on my first day at work and he seemed friendly, but I hadn’t seen him since. Now he was to give me my first taste in working in an abattoir in northern Norway.

For my part, I was most interested in the inspection of the live animals. It is hard to spend much time on the internet without seeing horror stories, but my impression over the course of the first week has been that most of the animals coming through are very relaxed. Though the pigs all had balls in their pens to play with, most of them were sleeping when we went to see them. Some of the sheep were more skittish than others, but many of them came and were nibbling on my wellington boots. All animals have fresh water in their pens and any cows that are milking are milked if they are in for any length of time. The surroundings are quite similar to those you’d see on the farm and most farms here in Norway are small, so a lot of the animals are used to being handled.

The slaughter process itself was quick and efficient. Thomas showed me how to time the interval between stunning and bleeding. With the cattle, we checked the animal was unconscious before being moved on to the next stage.

It’s a forty minute drive to get to the abattoir and the road is dotted with warning signs for moose. Thomas told me I would see more of them in the winter, though for now they are elusive. The filling station near the E6 has leaflets explaining what to do and who to call if you hit one. I hope it never happens to me, though it is possible I might be called out to do meat inspection on those too if they are injured and have to be shot.

It’s cooling towards autumn now. It was 4°C when I arrived at work yesterday morning. Though the trees are still clinging to their leaves, they are beginning to fade. The ground flora is wonderfully colourful and intensifying as a multitude of berries appear.

There was only one near miss with technology this week. Thomas handed me over to Ammar on Wednesday and he suggested some reading material. The season (as they call it) will begin very soon, and by then I have to be up to speed with meat inspection for lamb. Back in the office, I had chosen a pin code for the printer. You send your file, retrieve it and then put in your number. I assumed the process was the same in the abattoir, and so I went through the retrieval process and began to put in my four figure number. Luckily Ammar stopped me in time, before I set the printer in action printing out *9250 copies of an eight page document on red meat.

Friday afternoon was rounded off with waffles. In Norway they are traditionally eaten with strawberry jam and soured cream. It took me a while to get used to this combination, but now I love it. And what could be more Norwegian than a mountain of waffles to round off the week?

*Not my actual PIN.