I’d like to tell you about a wonderful woman I sometimes work with called Gry. She works as a nurse in the community, as well as running a sheep farm with her husband. She also works with me now and then on animal welfare cases as a member of dyrevernnemnda – people from the area with experience with animals and an understanding of their welfare needs.
We were out together on a visit on Monday. I love having her there as she is very knowledgable and can talk to anybody. She also knows a whole lot more about sheep farming in the Arctic than I do!
The visit had gone well – always a relief, so as we drove away, I asked her if she’d like to go somewhere for coffee. Our options were limited. We wandered into the local hotel, but the bar was empty. We resisted running off with the Peach Schnapps and climbed back into the car.
Gry suggested we could buy a sandwich at the garage and go back to her barn and she would make coffee. Her barn is wonderful. They built it in 2016 and it has a living area that’s almost as big as my flat. They sleep there during lambing time so they can keep an eye out at night.
She took me in and I sat down at a big wooden table with a cosy red table cloth. As she made the coffee, I sat looking around at all the wonderful objects she has collected. This is an old waffle iron.
But there was one object that I didn’t recognise, and so I asked her about it. This, she told me, is an old gadget for separating out the milk from the cream. Those of us who are old enough to remember milk in a bottle on the doorstep will also remember that the cream is lighter than the milk, and so it rises to the top.
Gry told me that she works with dementia patients, and sometimes she brings them back to the barn. They see the old things and respond with pleasure.
She was at a museum with an old man. They had a milk separator there too, which they had taken apart.
It has seventeen separate components inside and they have to be fitted together correctly for it to function. Despite being often confused, the old man’s face lit up. He set to and in minutes had reassembled the separator, with everything in place.
Some days my job can be tough. Few things are more distressing than animal cruelty.
But then there are other days when everything goes right. And just now and then, I discover that alongside the animals, I am also working with some of the most warm-hearted people in the world.
I awoke this morning to see that there was light shining around the edges of my blind. Admittedly it was five past eight, so later than I normally get up for work, but it was cheering nonetheless. Within the next couple of weeks, it will be light every day when I get up. We are gaining more than an hour of daylight each week.
I’ve been trying to kick my hibernation habit as well. John came over last weekend. He’s learning to drive, and so we spent a good few hours of Saturday and Sunday driving around. My car is an automatic and very easy to drive, so I’m not sure how much it benefited him, but it’s lovely to be driven around the area, rather than driving myself. Technically, I’m in charge of the car, so I can’t wholly disengage, but I did see more of the scenery than I usually would.
Before he can sit his test, he has to move through four stages. Some of the stages are theoretical. He went to evening classes in which he learned about how to recognise road signs from their shapes when they are covered in snow and which parts of a moose you should aim for if you can’t avoid hitting it altogether. Later on, he has to sit an ice-driving course and also complete a “long drive” lesson which must be a minimum of two hours. I have no idea how it compares with UK lessons (though presumably British learners don’t hear much about jay-walking moose) but it does seem to be quite thorough.
After you’ve done your test, you are on probationary status for two years. If you are caught breaking the law in any way, you are placed back in the learner category and have to complete the whole thing again. Probably quite a good deterrent against messing around in your first two solo years behind the wheel.
One of the places John drove to was Senja Roasters. I haven’t mentioned it before, but I lost my much-loved, heavy, wool coat a couple of months back, so I was delighted to find it hanging there on a rack. Being reunited with a piece of adequately warm clothing while it’s still three months till spring was a joyful event. They had decorated the place with hearts and flowers, for Valentine’s day, and Norwegian Mother’s day, which was last Sunday. Valentine’s day can be very tacky, but in true Senja Roasters form, the handmade decorations were understated and tasteful.
My working week has been quite cheering. Despite the occasional difficult case, I am generally heartened to find that the majority of people love their animals, and even if they are sometimes a little misguided (aren’t we all?) mostly they want their pets to thrive. I was lucky enough to go out with Berit this week. Berit works with us as a member of Dyrevernnemnda, so she is a knowledgeable member of the public who helps to give balance to my own specifically veterinary point of view.
She’s a very forthright woman. For those old enough to remember Barbara Woodhouse, I’d say Berit has an equally assertive style, though her dog training methods are more up-to-date. Her no-nonsense approach makes my job very much easier. I am also hoping she will meet with me and Triar in a couple of weeks when Triar, Andrew and I are in Tromsø for a few days holiday.
There are other cases in my region which don’t currently involve me, but are interesting. Thomas is dealing with a crisis situation with the “domestic” reindeer in both Troms and Finnmark – the most northerly regions of Norway. All reindeer here are classed as domestic animals, but they generally live a very nomadic life, where they are taken to different areas, depending on the season.
This year, due to cold weather early in the winter, followed by thaws and refreezing, many of the traditional winter pastures are now covered in ice so impenetrable that even the reindeer can’t find enough food. The situation will now have to be monitored until spring comes. In the meantime, it might be necessary to supplement their feed – something that usually doesn’t happen.
In addition, for the first time since I got here, bird flu has been isolated from a dead bird – a sea eagle, no less. It was probably always a matter of time. There have been cases in wild birds in many other areas in Norway and migratory patterns mean there was always a strong possibility it would happen here. We don’t have many domesticated birds in the far north, and almost no big flocks, so that is an advantage. It does mean that people should be cautious though, if they find dead birds.
So far I haven’t been sent out to do any testing, so that’s something I need to find out about. There was some discussion in our departmental meeting yesterday about how to tackle the situation without causing unnecessary panic. It doesn’t pass particularly easily to humans, but if it does, it’s serious. I’ve mentioned all the PPT we would potentially use if we know we are dealing with an outbreak in earlier blogs, but hadn’t particularly considered what would happen before it’s confirmed. If you are collecting a dead bird from a beach where children are playing in the sand, you could start all kinds of panic, were you to stride onto the scene dressed like this! Working as a Norwegian Government vet may be many things, but it certainly isn’t boring.
It’s been another week of changes. I had a busy schedule prepared, with two long-haul visits to hens to test them for salmonella on Monday and Wednesday, plus a trip in between to two sheep farms for routine scrapie inspections. I popped into the office on Sunday to check my e-mails. I’d been out with Birgit all day Friday, so I wanted to make sure nothing else had come in as I was due to set out early on Monday morning, so there would be no chance to check then.
It was bird flu that got in the way. Even though the outbreak is almost four thousand kilometres /two and a half thousand miles away, it had a knock on effect up here. At first I assumed it was some crazy blanket rule. To be fair, they’ve found bird flu in wild birds in other areas of Norway, but all of them a long way south of here. But it turns out that the problem lay in the lab. The same lab that would analyse our salmonella samples was currently working day and night checking for bird flu. So that was that.
Then came the news that one of the Tuesday visits had to be postponed as well. Had I been very organised, I would have found some additional farms to visit in case my one remaining farmer was out, but the rapid changes threw me and I didn’t even think about it until Tuesday morning, just as I was about to set out.
Because we are supposed to do most of our visits without advance warning, so there’s no chance the farmer can rush around tidying away the bodies, there’s always a risk that we can get there and find there’s nobody available. Indeed having a completely wasted journey is common enough to have its own name – Bom tur.
So far, I have never driven a bom tur, but as I set out on Tuesday, it crossed my mind this one could potentially be quite spectacular. My visit wasn’t especially important. Scrapie inspections are part of the annual OK program of routine visits to check for illnesses. We look at the sheep or goats and inform or remind the farmer of the clinical signs of scrapie (effectively the sheep version of BSE) and of the legal requirements around it, such as making sure all animals over a certain age that die on the farm are tested. It’s a useful tool for getting on the farms for a general check, but there’s nothing life or death about it.
The drive was close to two hours on snowy roads. The original day I’d planned actually had three visits, all in the same general direction, and the only one left was actually the furthest away. And I had Gry with me as I’m still green enough to find it really helpful to have someone else there with additional knowledge. Gry is a member of Dyrevernnemnda: experienced people who come out on welfare visits to offer their judgement from a different point of view than that of a vet.
So if I drove a bom tur, Mattilsynet would be paying me and Gry, as well as for the car and fuel, for carrying out a farm visit that wasn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. Still, as I commented to Gry as we drove out, at least the scenery was pretty. In the event, the farmer and her partner were there and I felt very relieved as we sat in their kitchen and drank coffee. The sheep looked in great shape too. It always gives me a lift when I look at well-cared for animals.
Of course, bom turs are not always avoidable. You could visit several farms and find nobody at any of them. But next time I go, I’ll definitely make sure I have a few more options. I also thought that now I am a little more at home with carrying out inspections, I need to get more organised. We’re supposed to visit ten percent of our flocks each year, so that over ten years, we cover every single farm in our area. And to do that efficiently, I need to make a list of all the sheep and goat farms in our area, work out where they all are, and make a plan to ensure I can cover as many of them as I can.
Gry was a revelation as well. It was the first time I had been out with her and she told me so much about sheep farming in the north of Norway. Though they have fences around the property, it’s quite extensive and the sheep can wander off, high into the mountains. Occasionally they can get over or through the fences, and then come down into the wrong valley. When they come back in, the farmers have to go through them, checking all their ear tag numbers to make sure the sheep they’ve brought in belong to them, and also check whether any haven’t come home. It’s quite a big task, collecting them all in and then making sure they are sheared and ready for winter.
Having done the visits on Friday and Tuesday, I had two reports to write. Luckily, as both visits had been good, the reports were straightforward. The second sheep visit had been put off until Friday and that was successful too. For the second time this week, we were offered coffee. Coronavirus has meant that for the last year, there has been little coffee on offer, but as I sat down around the table with Gry and the farmer and his staff, I felt very much at home. Going in for coffee was always one of the high points of being a farm vet.
I took a couple of photographs on the way home on Friday, after I had dropped Gry off. The temperature has dropped suddenly here. It snowed last weekend and then fell away to between minus seven and minus fourteen. As usual when that happens, the sky is clear, and as the polar night approaches, the air becomes very clean and cold. The upper skies are a beautiful pale blue and close to the horizon, there is a pink tinge. It crossed my mind that although technically the polar night hasn’t quite arrived, I haven’t seen the sun for days. It’s probably already below the mountains.
Triar is loving the snow and the cold weather. Sometimes he goes outside and zooms around, simply for the pleasure of running through the snow. Here he is in the garden playing with his ball.
There was one other piece of very good news, and that is that my friend who had been on the front line in diagnosing the bird flu outbreak is now fit and healthy again, and didn’t contract bird flu. I’m very relieved.
And finally, a completely random thing I found in the pet shop yesterday. I had noticed for the past couple of years that there are now advent calendars for pets, but now it seems that there is beer for dogs. Because what we really need is for Triar to be staggering around the house on Christmas day. Cheers!