Yesterday was officially the last day of the season at the abattoir. It’s rather sad to think that the vast majority of the lambs that were born in the spring time are now processed and ready to be eaten, but that is the end result for almost all animals that are bred for food. My job, as ever, is to ensure that the animal welfare during that process is as high as it can possibly be, and also to check that the quality and cleanliness of the meat produced is up to scratch.
Though the season officially ended yesterday, lots of the season workers flew home (including twelve who had decided to desert early in order to get cheaper flights). A quick change of plan meant that instead of being on the sheep production line, as I had expected, I was suddenly free to make a start on all the work that’s been building up while I’ve been busy. Every year, the season overshadows all the other work we do and I guess it’s the busiest time of the year.
It felt good to be making a start on the backlog. Hilde has given me some new tasks at the abattoir as I will eventually be moving there on a permanent basis. As with any other business, there’s a lot of paperwork to do behind the scenes and with my predecessor having left a year ago, and the other permanent vet (Ann) on sick leave, I am in the sink or swim phase of a new job, where things are thrown at me and I have to work out how they are done before a (fortunately mostly reasonable) deadline. That sort of thing can be somewhat stressful, but I can remember, all those years ago as a brand new vet, being thrown into a consulting room with clients when my knowledge of how to do the job was sadly lacking, and that was way worse! Ultimately, I will swim. I always do. Life experience is a wonderful thing.
John’s Triar fence isn’t quite finished. He and I had measured before we began and had estimated we needed 100m of lamb netting, but it seems we were out by a few metres and will need to buy some more lamb netting. I was amazed by John’s expertise though. One of the beautiful things about having adult children is that they learn to do things you never expected them to. Before I married, I was always impressed with the young farmers I had to work with, who were so wonderfully practical and seemed to be able to turn their hands to anything. I can do lots of things, if taught to do them, but often fear messing up (though obviously, reading my own words higher up the page, that doesn’t apply to things that are thrown at me at work!). John reminds me of those young farmers. He has no fear of taking things apart and putting them back together, or building a fence and sorting out any problems that come up. I am immensely proud of the young man he’s turned into.
Here he is wielding a mallet to put the posts in place, banging them down with a post knocker, sawing a notch for the stay (posts that go in at an angle to stabilise the corner posts) hammering in a stay and finally, tightening up the lamb netting (wider holes at the top, smaller gaps lower down). As you can see, he did it all with snow on the ground. That snow is mostly gone again for now, but winter is definitely here.
After we had been working on the fence, John went inside to have a warm shower, while I did some washing up. The washing machine was also on. While I was standing at the sink, I got something of a shock when I found my feet were suddenly wet. We have a dishwasher, but it isn’t plumbed in yet (it needs a new pipe and, you guessed it, it’s on John’s list of things to tackle). This means that there is an uncovered hole in one of the pipes under the sink. Up until now, the water has drained away normally despite this, but now it wasn’t. John also came out of the shower to say there was water all over the bathroom floor. It’s a wet room, so that wasn’t a disaster, but it certainly wasn’t normal either.
Norwegian insurance companies are great. In the UK, most seem to spend their time trying to get out of paying out, but here in Norway, I phoned mine (Gjensidige) immediately, and within a couple of hours there was a plumbing expert, who ran a self propelling hose up the pipes from the septic tank, then put in a camera to see what was wrong. It seems a previous occupier has thrown a load of solid fat down the drains, which has attached to the pipes and not only blocked them, but has done significant damage. For now they are unblocked, but will need to be replaced.
I’m not sure yet whether this is going to involve digging up huge sections of the garden (there might be a quicker fix under the house as the pipe from the toilet is large and still intact) but either way it’s a big job. It may be that it will have to wait for next year, as when the snow comes and the ground freezes, it will become impossible to dig, or indeed to access the “creep cellar” under the house, which is accessed from outside and will shortly be under a metre of snow. Still, for now it’s all working okay and it will be sorted out eventually. I’m just glad we found it early. The person that sold me the house also bought insurance for unexpected things happening after she’d moved out, so I will, if at all possible, shift the claim from my own insurance onto hers, but either way, I feel confident that this will all be sorted out.
Anyway, I have to go. My car has a major fault which is going to take three days to fix (something called the wire harness has a fault) and there’s nobody nearer than Tromsø with the expertise to fix it. I’ll take it today and collect it next weekend. One thing I can certainly say is that life here is rarely boring!
I wrote, last week, of frost and autumn is following fast on the heels of the drop in temperature. Before moving to the north I would have said that spring was my favourite season, but it’s so brief here as to be almost non-existent. Winter, though I love it, is too long, but autumn is sweet and still and very beautiful.
There’s a sense of battening down the hatches for the winter to come. We were driving home on Saturday last week when we saw a tractor at the side of the road in an area where wood was being crated up. We stopped and ordered two crates. As we were only a few hundred metres away, the farmer agreed to deliver, so later that day, this pile of wood was deposited in our driveway. It took some time to stack. It’s not obvious from the photo, but the stack is four layers deep. Seeing it all safely under cover, ready for the wood stove in the depths of the Arctic winter, brought a real sense of satisfaction.
It’s getting darker. We will shortly be at the Equinox and it struck me that the seasonal foods will soon begin arriving in the supermarket. No mince pies here (though our local Europris has started to stock a few Iceland products, so you never know) but rather there will be mørketids boller, which are doughnuts with vanilla cream, topped with darkish chocolate.
And as the Darkness closes in, I am often out walking with Triar in the twilight. As you can see from the picture below and the one at the top of the page, we live in a very beautiful place.
We still don’t have internet in our new home and that tends to mean I don’t follow the news very closely. It’s quite peaceful, not knowing so much about what’s going on in the wider world, other than things that are so significant that they come into conversation or crop up as a part of my job. This week there was a stark reminder of the ongoing war in Ukraine in the form of emergency readiness instructions from work. As someone performing a critical function in the food chain, I received information about what to do in the case of a radioactive incident with fallout spreading over Norway. Even if the government issues a general warning not to go outside, we will be expected to do so, and the guidance explained how to minimise the risks. I already have some iodine tablets in the cupboard for Andrew and John though, being over 50, I have no need to take them. Hopefully the tablets will gradually go out of date and will never be needed.
And I woke at 3am last night, as I often do these days, and glanced at my e-mails on my phone. There was a message from WordPress about a blog I follow, and the title of the blog was “The Death of the Queen”. Of course, I went to explore further and found that Queen Elisabeth II had indeed died on Thursday afternoon. While the news was not devastating, nor wholly unexpected, it does very much feel like the end of an era. I remember when growing up, learning a about the Queen and the Prime Minister, who at that time was Jim Callaghan. I recall assuming both were permanent fixtures and feeling shocked when Jim Callaghan was replaced. How long a year was when I was nine years old!
But the Queen has been a permanent feature as a backdrop to my life. I remember the street parties in 1977 for the silver jubilee, and going on a float in a parade. The eighties were punctuated with a pair of royal marriages, the nineties with their sad endings and the awful demise of Diana. Earlier this year, while recovering from Covid, I watched The Crown, and though I know it’s not entirely historically accurate, it gave me a broader overview of the long life and momentous events the Queen has lived through. As I watched the series, I experienced a degree of melancholy. I feel that the optimism and sense of cohesion that pervaded the UK when I was younger has gone and the Queen’s death feels like a link to that past has been removed. It will take some adjustment to having a king, though living over here, I will be one step removed. I won’t see new coins and notes with the head of King Charles (even that sounds wrong). I won’t hear the national anthem sung. Though the UK still feels like home in many ways, I am gradually becoming further and further from the realities of living there.
The Aurora visited last weekend, in spectacular style. I thought I’d share these with you, though my Facebook friends may have already seen them. Andrew called me outside close to midnight last Saturday. I had just gone to bed, but I’m sure you’ll agree it was worth getting up for.
And finally, another death. We lost our adopted guinea pig, Susie, this week. We’d had her for three years or so and she was three years old when we got her. She drove the length of Norway with John and I two years ago when we moved up here. We sadly had to get her put to sleep on Tuesday. It became quickly obvious that Brownie, who regular readers might recall we bought on arrival here in the north, was lonely and so we bought her a new friend. Meet Millie, the latest addition to the McGurk family,
And so the months of perpetual daylight have passed again for this year. There’s a feeling of change in the air as we move towards the autumn. There’s change coming up for me too. On Monday I should get the keys to my new house. I am feeling a mixture of excitement and nervousness. The mortgage payment went out of my bank a couple of days back, and my account, which was replete with the deposit, suddenly looks very much emptier, and the limitations on what I will be able to buy and do with it came into focus. There are a few things I urgently need to fix. There was snow in the loft last winter, so the hole that let it in needs to be fixed. Also the heat exchanger (which most Norwegian houses use as a significant part of their heating in winter) needs fixing or (more likely) replacing. On top of that, we need, as an absolute minimum, beds to sleep in. My kind colleague, Øivind, has offered us some furniture, including sofas, so at least we will have something to sit on.
In addition to the furniture, there are various other things I had to do, including arranging contents and building insurance, and letting the post office and National Population Register know I will be moving. There was a close call yesterday when the estate agent rang me up in the afternoon to say that the insurance for legal problems with the exchange hadn’t been paid, by my bank, with the mortgage. This was apparently serious enough for her to suggest that the exchange might not go ahead on Monday. I presume that might have set me in breach of contract, but fortunately they allowed me to make the payment and send evidence I had done so. Everything to do with the bank is done online here, so barring further problems, hopefully everything will go ahead as planned.
It’s been a mixed week at work. The first half was spent out on the road with Gry. Always a good thing! As usual, she had some very interesting snippets on sheep farming. The most interesting, from my point of view, was that in the past couple of years, she has started breeding her first time ewes with Norwegian Villsau rams. This means that the first time they give birth, they will have relatively small but hardy lambs, which are more likely to thrive with a first time mother. She and her sons are so engaged in making improvements to the farm that it’s inspiring to hear, as well as fascinating.
The downside of going out with Gry is that it means that once the visits are finished, there are reports to write. These are relatively straightforward in uncomplicated cases, but this week, for example, I went to a farm where there were some animals with no eartags. Norwegian law is very strict on traceability, and an animal without tags is much more difficult to track. They can’t go into the food chain, and of course, if there’s an outbreak of infectious disease, it potentially makes tracing which animals were in the area at the time much more difficult.
So if there are animals without tags, and especially if there are other traceability problems, such as not updating the Livestock Register regularly enough, I have to serve notice that those animals that can’t be traced must not be moved off the farm. In addition, I have to set deadlines for the farmer to have the animals properly tagged again, and explain which laws cover the problems I found, and what they mean on the ground.
In addition to the report writing, Line sent me notice that next week, I have to go out and certify a horse which will be travelling to Sweden. I’ve inspected many horses in the past that were travelling from Scotland to Ireland. The inspection itself isn’t complicated. But back then, the paperwork was just that: paperwork. Standard forms would be printed out and filled in. Now all the paperwork has to be produced through a Europe wide system called Traces. Not only is the system itself quite impenetrable, but everything has to be registered and double checked. The importer (who in this case was a private individual) has to be put in the system at both ends, so as the person sending the horse from Norway, and the person receiving it in Sweden. Putting someone in the system in Sweden has to be done by an official vet in Sweden. We can’t do it here.
Because I have barely used Traces, Line had kindly set up a meeting at twelve on Friday to walk me through it. After a long week at work, I had been hoping to get away early to go swimming with John and Andrew. I thought the meeting would take perhaps an hour and hopefully less, but it turned out to be much more complicated than I had realised. Not only did everything have to be put in place in Traces, but there was also information that had to be added in Mattilsynet’s own system MATS. I think Line had not realised just how unfamiliar I am with the sections of MATS that I don’t regularly use, and also perhaps hadn’t realised how difficult it still is for me to work in Norwegian, in any circumstance where the language is complex or unfamiliar. She was very patient, but by the time two hours had gone by, I think we were both pretty tired of the situation. I rushed away at the end of the meeting, hoping we would still be in time for an hour of swimming, but it was at that point I found out that there was a risk of the house sale not going through, which had to be sorted immediately, and by the time that was finished, there was no time left because the pool was shutting.
Still, every cloud, as they say. Having missed the pool, we decided to go out and see if we could swim in a lake instead, so this was where we ended up.
We took some wood and had burgers and hotdogs afterwards. Obviously that doesn’t quite fit in with the low fat eating I’ve been doing for the past month or so, and I’m suffering somewhat in the aftermath, but by the end of the evening, I had certainly put the past two days at work firmly behind me.
A couple of pictures to finish up, from a walk last weekend, arranged by Ann. By next week, I should have a new house not too far from here. See you there!
It was hard leaving Yorkshire. I left just after midday last Saturday and the last few hours were melancholy. I travelled to Gatwick on the train: a frustrating journey as I misbooked my tickets on the Trainline App and though I realised my error moments after I had done it, it couldn’t be undone. And so I walked through Leeds station and watched an almost empty train to Kings Cross leave ten minutes after I arrived there, then travelled to York, where two more trains to the same destination left before the one I was booked onto pulled in. Still, I stayed overnight in a Premier Inn near the North Terminal and set off at a civilised time on Sunday morning to fly home.
That day’s journey was somewhat hair-raising. I flew from Gatwick to Bergen, then from Bergen to Tromsø. The original plan was that John was to collect me from the airport, but as he was stuck in the UK due to the SAS strike, I planned on getting a bus from the airport to the fast boat and taking the last boat of the day, which left Tromsø at 8pm. All the connections were a bit tight, but despite a couple of delays and an almost interminable wait, while they unloaded the baggage for four planes onto the two, smallish luggage carousels in Tromsø, I arrived safely at around 10pm. Just as well as I was due in the abattoir at 6am on Monday morning. Had I not made it, I would have been faced with the interesting dilemma of which of my colleagues might be willing to take the two and a half hour drive to Tromsø at an unspecified time on a Sunday evening.
It’s been a fairly typical summer week at work. I was at the abattoir Monday to Wednesday, then on Thursday I set to, tackling the six new cases I’ve been sent. Fortunately, the abattoir is closed next week, so hopefully I will get at least half of the investigations under way then, and keep my fingers crossed that I don’t get another six in the meantime. The good news is that Gry is sacrificing some of the first week of her holiday to come out with me.
I haven’t been out and about too much this week, but Triar and I did take a tour down the pathway at the back of the house and round to the little harbour that lies near the bottom of the hill. I’ve commented before on the fact that most of the small paths are blocked in the winter due to the snow. When it’s a meter deep and regularly added to, they rapidly become impassable. But this is a land of extremes. While the long dark spell brings a blanket of white over the landscape, the light brings so much life that even the floors of dense pine forests are swathed in green. This was the path Triar and I took. The undergrowth is at shoulder height.
And here’s Triar on the harbour wall.
Of course, all that growth means there are lots of insects. In particular, I love watching the bumble bees.
The last two photos are from a trip to collect John from the airport yesterday evening. I set off for Tromsø before his plane left Oslo and before the hour and a half delay was announced, so I took my time (and a small detour) driving up. The tops of the mountains were swathed in clouds, but now and then I would catch sight of a rocky peak.
And as ever, where the mountains are so steep, there are stunning waterfalls along the roadside. Though technically today is the last day of 24 hour daylight, there was a brief period around 1am where it was definitely twilight. Due to the mountains, though the sun is still technically above the horizon, the reality is a little different.
And though it was hard leaving Yorkshire, and Mum and Dad, now I am back, I am not homesick. The week after next, I will get the keys to my new house, and then a whole new chapter will be beginning. Have a lovely week all!
I’m going to start with a couple of photos this week. I need to find a way to stop myself huddling inside through the winters here. Having just lived through my second, I have come out the other side hopelessly unfit again. Still, I have made a start, and Triar and I took our first outing up the track that leads to Kistafjellet, which I discovered at the end of autumn last year: Changing Wheels, Changing Weather
I won’t make it up Kistafjellet before I go on holiday in two week’s time, but hopefully I will when I get back. It’s a long walk, but not technically difficult and there’s a good track all the way up, so it’s a good mountain to start on. I walked for about half an hour, which isn’t that much, but the track is pretty steep. I got as far as this river, before turning to come back.
In other news, I have found an agent who wants to sell my book. Having written the Hope Meadows books with Vicky Holmes, I have been hoping to write something that would be all mine and published under my own name. This is part of the letter I sent the agent last Friday, along with part of the manuscript.
“The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic” is an exploration of the life of a recently widowed veterinary surgeon and how she deals with the consequences of a lifetime of putting her family before herself. I was aiming for a cross between James Herriot and Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax). It is set in rural Scotland and is filled with diverse women and their animal friends, from the partnership between receptionist Gail and her guide dog Beth, to butch lesbian, Mags, who loves her crazy mare, Strumpet, almost more than life itself.
I finished writing a while back and had been looking for an agent, but hadn’t been very active in pursuing it. After something of a break, I looked through The Writers’ and Authors’ Yearbook last Friday and something about this agent caught my eye, so I sent off a submission. Since then everything has happened at high speed. Anyway, I don’t want to say any more right now as we are at the contract stage and it’s not quite complete. Suffice it to say, I think I’ve found someone I can really work with, which feels brilliant!
More pictures now. Thomas, Gry and I were driving back from a case yesterday when we noticed the almost-perfect reflection of mountains in Skøvatnet, the lake we were driving beside. It was so still and so beautiful that Thomas actually turned the car round so we could all go back and take some pictures.
There was something of an unexpected coda to last week’s post about the dead eagle. Line, who oversees our animal health and welfare team, commented on my Facebook post last week to say “Good job”. I was slightly surprised then, when she called me midweek to talk about it. She sounded a little tentative as she opened up the OK Program instructions for the year and asked me which protocol it was I’d followed. She opened up the familiar sheet with the instructions and polite dissection photos and I told her that yes, that was what I had done.
It turns out that though I had very carefully read and translated the instructions, I hadn’t given the same attention to the explanation at the top, which said that this form was for the use of hunters who found birds when they were out hunting. My eagle had been found by someone out hunting, but apparently the form I should have filled in, as a Mattilsynet vet, was actually to be found on MatCIM, the emergency monitoring channel that we use to track outbreaks and emergencies. Had I found the instructions on MatCIM, I would have discovered that there was no need to take the wing at all, and the swabs alone were enough. Still, she said, probably the Veterinær Institutt down in Ås were pleasantly surprised to have received my carefully packed eagle wing…
She apologised for laughing, but I actually thought it was funny enough to relate it to the three colleagues with whom I sat and ate lunch a few minutes later. They all thought it was hilarious too. So I was laughing for what remained of the day and was still giggling to myself as I drove home. After all, there was no harm done, it had certainly been an adventure and anyway, I love things that are just too ridiculous. The lab haven’t got back to me yet, so I still don’t know whether the poor old eagle died of bird flu, but don’t worry. I’ll keep you posted.
And finally, I’ll leave you with another midnight sun picture. Have a good week!
Regular readers will be glad to know that this week has been better than last. I want to thank the people who reached out to me after reading what I wrote. I’m still a bit short on local friends, but I have spoken online and on the phone to both old and new friends this week, which has really meant a lot. Some of my colleagues have been supportive too, and to them, thank you so much.
It’s been a busy week. I was out on two welfare inspections on Monday and another on Wednesday. The inspections themselves don’t take long, though there can be a fair bit of driving. Writing the reports and dealing with the aftermath often takes longer, though as there was nothing too challenging, the reports themselves were less urgent than checking the animals weren’t suffering. I will be going on holiday in three weeks time and there’s definitely a feeling in my head that my main aim at the moment is just to keep going until I get there. One of the things I learned early in my career was that I can continue to function on the surface, even when there’s turmoil inside, but that’s wearing a bit thin right now. I will ultimately be fine, but I’m not sure it’s good for me.
On top of the welfare visits, I received an e-mail about a dead sea eagle, which needed to be tested for bird flu. There have been a few confirmed cases up here, and most have been in sea eagles, presumably because they are at the top of the food chain. When people report dead birds, we have to go out and swab them. Up until now, I hadn’t done any, so as with any new procedure, before I could go out, I had to find out what equipment I needed, whether we had that equipment, and once that question was resolved, I needed to find out how to do it.
Because it’s a high risk infection, Mattilsynet is monitoring the situation as part of its OK program. The correct protocol, on finding a dead bird, is to leave it where it is and alert us. That hadn’t happened in this case. The bird had already been scooped up and was in the freezer of one of the council offices in our region. Perhaps I should warn you that the rest of this blog is going to be about my (to me) amusing encounter sampling this dead eagle, so if that isn’t your kind of thing, you should probably look away now!
There are a lot of occasions in Mattilsynet where we are asked to do things we haven’t done before. Quite often you will be doing it without being shown how, because we’re all so spread out that there isn’t always someone local to show you. In order to help us cope with this with regard to the OK program, there is a massive word document, updated annually, with descriptions of what samples you need to take, how to take them, how to send them off to the lab and which lab each needs to go to.
In addition to this sheet, which I quickly accessed, I made a point of asking colleagues for any tips or helpful comments. Quite often, these are not colleagues who are sitting beside me, who could come out and show me, but are sitting in an office a few hours drive away, and have their own jobs to do. Thomas was in Svalbard this week, but fortunately, he was able to tell me exactly where the bird flu swabs were. I should have known myself probably, as he and I had discussed this before, but my memory is awful at the best of times, and the best of times probably isn’t a phrase that applies right now.
Anyway, having established the fact that we did, at the very least, have the swabs I needed, I was able to get back to the man who had contacted us about the eagle. I sent him a message saying I would be out on Thursday morning and cc’d Line as she had forwarded the message to me. Line was in Svalbard as well, but fortunately she saw the e-mail and sent me a gentle reminder that I should probably ask Kommune man to take the bird out of the freezer to defrost a little.
I did give some consideration to the defrosting. This week has been quite warm. When the sun is shining in your windows for a large part of the day, it can get very hot inside. If he took the dead bird out of the freezer and put in in a warm room overnight, it would probably be quite grim in the morning. With this thought in mind, I told him to take it out on the Wednesday afternoon, before he went home.
As I said above, I am still (more or less) functional at the moment, but new things are always more challenging when you are tired. Knowing that I was, I had spent quite a lot of time poring over the instructions, trying to make sure I was confident in what I was doing, before heading out. It all seemed straightforward enough. I had to take two swabs, one from the throat and one from the cloaca. In addition, I had to remove the left wing, through the shoulder joint, and send that off too. There was a polite picture of this procedure on the sheet alongside the instructions. It didn’t look too difficult. I gathered together my kit: scalpel, forceps, swabs, gloves, facemask and forms, took them out to the car, and set off.
I always feel, that as a vet, it’s important to look competent and to approach things as if you know what you are doing, even if you don’t. This rule probably applies even more when you’re dealing with potentially deadly diseases. It crossed my mind, that before I arrived, I should stop the car and have one last read of the procedures. As I read through the text again, I realised that though I had the kit for dissecting the wing, I had forgotten to take a plastic bag to pack it into. I’ve been a vet for a long time now, and one thing I have learned is that, even if you don’t have absolutely everything with you, it’s usually possible to work around it or find a substitute that will do. Casting my eyes around the car, I realised that I had packed my disposable gloves into a plastic bag. Better still, it was a ziplock bag, so easily sealed. Thanking the gods of veterinary substitutions, I emptied out the gloves, put a few in my pocket, and continued on my journey.
Kommune man seemed very helpful when I arrived. I thought we should probably fill in the forms before we started. The required details included the GPS co-ordinates of where the eagle had been found, as well as details such as age and sex. Fortunately, someone at head office had realised the realities of the situation, so I was able to tick “don’t know” for the latter two. The dead bird was in a different building he told me, so once the form was mostly filled in, I followed him outside, down some stairs and into a garage, where there was a black bin bag on the floor, sealed with brown tape.
I unwrapped my scalpel, which was of the flimsy, disposable type, with a plastic handle. It crossed my mind for the first time that perhaps I should have brought a spare or better still a sturdy, abattoir-style, sharp knife. The polite picture of the dissection had shown a smallish bird, carefully laid out on its breast, wing effortlessly outspread, with a neat incision over the shoulder, where the cut was to be made. Those doing this gentle procedure had presumably not had to chop through two layers of dustbin bags before they began. Still, it was over an hour’s drive to get back to the office and I had to get this sample taken and sent off by two o’clock. I had arranged with Konstantin that I would send it off from the abattoir. There was no way I could go back now.
As I unwrapped the bag and started to look for the cloaca, I realised that I had perhaps made a second error of judgment. For some reason, I had thought carefully about how bad it would be if the bird was too warm overnight, but hadn’t really considered the possibility that overnight wasn’t really long enough to defrost anything left in a cool place. Any cooks among you who have been faced with a still-frozen turkey on Christmas day, will probably recognise that it takes quite a long time to thaw a large bird. It also struck me, as I contemplated the huge talons and the sheer size of the body, that the small plastic bag I had so gratefully emptied of its gloves, was not going to contain an eagle’s wing. I guess it’s probably a reflection of how tired I was, but I had seen the picture and had been vaguely visualising something with a wing that was a bit bigger than a chicken, but an eagle’s wingspan is huge. Even folded up, it was going to need something more like a bin bag. Looking up from where I was kneeling on the floor, I asked Kommune man if he had anything, and to my relief, he disappeared to get one.
It took me a little while to actually find the cloaca (where both the urine and faeces come out). There was a thick layer of feathers obscuring everything, and because the bird was frozen into a twisted position, I couldn’t stretch it out flat to see where the midline lay. When I finally did locate it, I found that everything was way too stiff to be able to insert a swab. My problems were compounded by the fact that the bird flu swabs had obviously been designed with the possibility of checking out blackbirds or maybe a budgerigar. The stalk was incredibly thin and bendy. When I tried to insert it, it was obvious that any pressure would cause it to break.
Abandoning the cloaca for a moment, I thought I would have a go at the throat and come back to the bottom end later. The instructions about where and how to swab the throat had included another polite picture, this time of a duck, its bill gaping, revealing the clean and tidy structures of the cartilage and the tissues that open and close to protect the trachea.
At least the neck of the eagle was defrosted enough so I could straighten it. It was an impressive bird, close up, and I prised open the hooked beak and looked into the throat, only to find it was filled with gunk. I’m not sure if what I could see was a part of the eagle’s last meal, but it was obscuring my view, and I began to scoop it out. There was a surprising amount of it, and I was aware the entire time that if the bird did actually have anything nasty, all this material could be contaminated. Finally, it was all gone, though it was still a very long way to the back of the throat and what I could see really didn’t look much like the equivalent structures in a duck. At least I could get the swab in though, which was an improvement on the other end, so I took the swab out of its packet, swivelled it inside and outside the tracheal opening, placed it carefully in the liquid transport medium in the tube provided, broke off the tip as instructed, and replaced the lid. Step one complete!
Changing into a new pair of disposable gloves, I decided to tackle the wing next. “Turn the bird over onto its breast and stretch out the wing to find the shoulder,” said the instructions. The obvious trouble now was that nothing here was stretching out. There were also thick feathers in the way. An eagle’s flight feathers are really quite impressive, close up, but as I grasped the weedy scalpel again, I was very much aware that I couldn’t afford to blunt the thin metal of the blade. Assessing anatomy and the position of joints is also quite easy if you can move them all. Trying to do so when the whole thing is frozen stiff and under a thick layer of fathers, not so much. Feeling around with my fingers, I made a cut down over where I thought the shoulder joint probably was, and began not so much to carefully dissect, as to hack away in the hope that I could cut the wing from the body without making a complete tit of myself. Though it took all my feeble strength to prise the wing out from the body far enough to get in underneath it, I did at last manage to slice through the frozen muscle enough to finally remove the wing. Sliding it into the plastic bag, I let out a small sigh of relief and turned my attention to step three.
The cloaca was still frozen to the point where I couldn’t get my gloved finger through it. I was supposed to put the swab inside and move it around until there were visible bird droppings on it. Even if I could get the swab through, the droppings would be just as frozen as everything else. First though, I had to gain access. It would be easier, I thought, if I could see what I was doing. And so I made a cut at the opening. Fortunately my scalpel was still intact and sharp enough. After only a few moments’ dissection, I was able to insert my finger and the swab. Pressing the swab against the thin wall of the cloaca, I was glad to find that my finger was warm enough to melt some of the bird droppings onto the swab. Withdrawing it with relief, I put the second and final swab into the medium, snapped it off and twisted the lid firmly into place.
Despite all the delays, it was still morning as I flung all the equipment in the boot of the car and set off towards the abattoir. Trude is an expert at sending off samples, and I was sure she would be able to help me with this. She has the codes for the computer and would know how to print me out a label. Doubtless, given time, I could work it out myself, but time was something that was beginning to be in short supply. Donning yet another pair of disposable gloves, I carefully lifted out the swabs and the black binbag containing the wing from the car boot and headed inside.
There were no polystyrene boxes big enough for the wing. Of course there weren’t! It took about two minutes to establish the fact that I was going to have to head back to the Finnsnes office, where I knew we had much bigger polystyrene boxes for sending off fish samples. The packages have to be both sealed so that no liquid can escape, and also insulated enough so that, with a couple of cool packs, the whole thing can remain sufficiently chilled overnight that the sample arrives without being denatured.
As I drove back to Finnsnes, I was wracking my brains about the label. You have to go online to the parcel service and select the specific service you need, which in this case was for bird flu samples to the Veterinary Institute in Ås, to be delivered overnight and arrive in the morning. It’s important that everything is correct, otherwise it’s easy for your samples to go astray. I was still deep in thought when I received a text. It was from Trude, and a quick glance revealed that she had been into the website, ordered the correct service, and sent the label to my e-mail. It struck me, not for the first time, that there were times when having truly competent colleagues on your side can make life a million times easier than it would otherwise be.
I took a photograph of the final package, which was probably the largest thing I’ve ever taken into the post office. As you can see, it takes up most of the back seat of the car and that eagle’s wing took up most of the length of it.
I took yesterday off. Monday is also a bank holiday in Norway, so I am hoping that by next week, I will be rested enough to be back on better form. Despite my eagle experience being something of a comedy of errors, I’m pretty sure the sample itself was taken adequately. I guess I’ll find out in the next few days whether it was positive or not. Anyway, I’ll leave you with some pictures of scenery and flowers. After the long winter, everything is now green leaves and rushing water. Hope to see you next week.
This is going to be a difficult post to write, not least because of all the things I can’t say. It’s been a long week, despite the fact that Thursday was a bank holiday in Norway. The case started last week with a phone call, took up most of my working hours this week, and doubtless will be going on for some time. As regular readers will know, I deal with animal welfare issues, and obviously that can sometimes be harrowing. Very occasionally, Mattilsynet’s employees have to deal with cases that are so tragic that it’s almost unbearable. Back when I started, I read a case so awful that just reading about it made me cry, and it took more than one session before I could read it right through to the end. I found myself hoping it would never happen on my watch, hoping that I could prevent it by listening to everything and acting fast, but despite all those thoughts, it happened anyway.
The police are involved, and so in a lot of ways, the case is currently out of my hands. My task (with others from Mattilsynet and Dyrevernnemda) has mostly been around collecting evidence. Thomas has taken charge, and for that I am eternally grateful. One of the oddest things has been the way the world just keeps going on. Summer is moving in and the world is filled with life and growth. I sat in the car, gazing out at a snow-capped mountain behind lime-green spring trees, as I took a break to drink some water and gather myself together between sessions in the barn. I could hear the birds singing and the gentle summer sound of sheep bells in the fields nearby and the only jarring note in the beautiful scene was the fluorescent yellow of the police car parked on the farm road in front of me.
Yesterday, I drove to Tromsø with some samples in the car and the world looked more beautiful than ever. The whole thing is surreal. Oddly enough, there was a jarring note along the way. As the sun heats up the world, the snow up on the mountains starts to melt. The water rushes down, faster and faster and I saw many swollen waterfalls cascading down the steep slopes that rose up, sometimes almost vertically from the roadside. They sparkled in the sunshine, clear water, rushing down to the sea. So when I saw what was almost a flow of mud flooding down a rock face, it gave me pause. It wasn’t a lot, but it was very different from all the other water I’d seen.
I live in a house in an area where there are obviously concerns about landslides. There are metal monitors sticking up out of the ground all along the road, and very close to the house I live in. I have read about possible warning signs, one of which was when muddy water is coming out of the ground. The problem with reading things online, as I know from working as a vet, is often one of scale and context. I think most people know that if you read about headaches online, you might easily conclude you have a brain tumour, when actually you’re stressed or dehydrated. I called a friend who is a geologist and asked if I could send a video for him to look at, but he advised me it was better to call the police and let them assess it. Better a warning for something not serious, than failing to warn when it was. Being on the other side of that equation, I know that there can sometimes be a danger in too many warnings as they can lead to complacency, but the possibility that there might be houses below was in my mind, and so I called the police and offered to send a video.
I then drove on, dropped off my evidence at the lab and checked my e-mails, only to find that the one I had sent to the police hadn’t gone. I must have taken down the address wrongly. I called my friend back – I had sent the video to him as well, but there was no reply. I had given the police the exact geolocation (thanks to a photo app that I use to record cases at work) but I had realised I had wrongly mentioned the E6, when I had left that and joined the E8. Where does public duty begin and end? Always a difficult question, and at the moment, my mind is unquiet enough to be clouding judgement. I was in Tromsø and it wasn’t far to the police station. Should I go in and correct what I had said and give them the picture and film I had taken?
Fortunately, my friend got back to me quite quickly. From a quick viewing of a four second film, he was able to tell me that the rock face itself had been blasted extensively, and was therefore probably solid, that the soil cover above the rock was thin, that the trees and plants looked young, so perhaps the land had undergone a slip only four or five years earlier and that the undergrowth was thick, which would help with stability. He said it was good to have reported it, as I had no way of knowing what was going on higher up the slope, and that it was better that it could be assessed by someone local, but that the location details I had given were probably good enough. He didn’t think there was a serious risk at the moment. How good it was to speak to someone with genuine knowledge. I was truly grateful and felt the extra weight lift from my mind.
I haven’t many photos, but I did take some driving home yesterday, including this one of a north of Norway traffic jam.
I had thought of using it as the photo at the top of the blog, but it seems unfair to lure people in with a photo of something so cheery in a blog that’s filled with troubled thoughts, so I went with a calm picture of the late evening sun over Senja. I won’t be looking at that view for too much longer, and so it seems precious right now. The dissonant feelings grew as I listened to the news flash on the radio. “Police in are dealing with a case where more than seventy dead animals were found on a farm in Mid-Troms”. My case. My responsibility. Bad enough to make the national news.
I don’t know how to deal with these feelings, other than letting time pass. Bizarrely, I felt a sudden desire to play the piano, which I haven’t really done since I left home, thirty five years ago. There was an old music sheet in the piano stool at home. My parents hadn’t bought it, at least not directly. They bought a piano, with one of those old-fashioned stools where the seat lifted and the previous owners had left some music inside. “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” was one of them and I wanted to play it again. It’s a beautiful song and easily arranged. My sister has the piano now, and though it was a long shot, I e-mailed her and asked if that old sheet music was still there. It was.
And so she scanned it and sent it and I went to the office and printed it out, and so I sat last night on the electric piano I bought for my son after we’d moved up here, and I played music from years ago, and somehow it was a comfort. My sister and I hadn’t spoken for ages, but now we are chatting again, and that’s a comfort too. I have a wonderful family, and in that I’m very lucky.
Anyway, there’s no good way to round this off, so I will leave it here for now. Sometimes life is difficult, but the sun comes out again. All I can do at the moment is gather the best evidence I can and help the police and hope that something good comes of all of this, which it might. There will probably never be a day when there isn’t some bastard who sees animal life as expendable and suffering as irrelevant, but all we can do is keep on fighting it, one case at a time. Thank you for reading.
There are signs that spring is finally arriving here in the far north. Last week, I took this picture from the window of my apartment. It was snowing heavily and wetly enough that even Triar didn’t want to go out and play.
Compare and contrast with this picture from yesterday, where the sun is out, the snow is gone from the roofs, and Gisundet sound is so calm that there’s an almost perfect reflection of the island on the waterline.
The trees in the photo above still look lifeless, but there are signs everywhere that the earth is stirring after the long freeze.
That little flower breaking through the icy snow is amazing. Life on the edge!
Another compare and contrast. Remember the ice bridge?
Nobody is going to be driving across it any time soon!
A few weeks back, Triar lost his favourite ball over the edge of the garden. The snow was so hard packed at that point that it rolled over the edge, bounded across the pathway and on down the hill. I let him run down to try to find it, but he returned empty mouthed and sad. Yesterday the path down the hill was finally passable, and to Triar’s joy (picture at the top of the page) we found his ball at the foot of the steep slope!
In my ongoing campaign to challenge myself at work, I have volunteered to go to Tromsø next week. Someone is coming up from head office on Thursday and Friday and is to be taken out on some welfare visits. Fortunately for me, Line is coming out with us on Friday, but on Thursday, I’m shall be out on my own (with the esteemed visitor) to do the postponed traceability inspection at a hobby goat establishment. Bear in mind that the animal health law still hasn’t been updated on the computer system, that I have never done a traceability visit without Thomas or Birgit, and that all such visits have to be chosen based on risk (we’re supposed to select those we assess as having a higher risk of law breaches) and it seems like the perfect opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge and competence! What could possibly go wrong?
John is out on a farm lambing at the moment. He seems to be enjoying it, and I’m very happy for him and also proud. When he left home a few years ago, I imagined he would spend his life working in an office, but he is embracing the world of farming more and more. I don’t suppose he has any conscious memory of coming out on farm calls in his baby car seat, though perhaps he remembers being allowed to drive a tractor as a small boy. Either way, it’s wonderful to see. I’ve always been drawn to that world, even though as a Mattilsynet vet, I’m peripheral to it at best. Andrew and I are going out to visit later today.
I was also out at a farm earlier this week and saw a stoat. Apologies for the poor quality of the images, but this tiny creature was dragging a rat it had killed across a patch of grass. The rat was definitely more bulky than the stoat itself. What an amazing animal!
Anyway, I think that’s all for this week! Hopefully after today there will be lamb pictures and Tuesday is 17th of May, when Norway will be decked out in red, white and blue to celebrate their national day. Seven hour working days and 24 hour daylight! Tune in shortly for the next exciting update! Have a good week all.
This week marked the official change in Norway from the old Animal Health Law to a new version. The changes stem from changes in the EU’s legal requirements. Norway isn’t in the EU, but we do follow their rules and these particular rules are mostly based around the protection from, and prevention of, infectious diseases in the animal population. The regulations cover everything from wild boar to fish, and even extends to bees.
My own special interest this week was goats. Mattilsynet have designated hobby goats as a particular point of interest this year, following an outbreak of sheep scab (caused by mites) in small herds of pet goats. Movement of pet animals tends to be much less well controlled than with larger, commercial herds, where professional farmers are generally more aware of the law. We had an animal health and welfare team meeting planned for Thursday and Friday at Malangen. The intention was to carry out inspections on traceability and TSE (Scrapie) on the way to the conference centre, have a lunch to lunch meeting, then do more visits on the way home.
Thomas and I were to do these inspections together and Thomas was busy, so on Monday I set to with planning. I started by printing out information sheets about the symptoms of Scrapie and the legal requirements goat owners had to follow if their animals died unexpectedly. There’s a whole lot of official paperwork involved in any visit. It was only when I was halfway through this project, with seven TSE inspection kits underway, when I realised that the law changes had not been updated in MATS, the computer system we use for recording such inspections.
I rang Line, who was arranging the team meeting, and asked her whether there were any contingency plans in place, to which she replied there weren’t. She asked if I had time to look at it, which fortunately I did. So then, my task for the week was to try and work out how to manage the situation, and then explain it all to the rest of the team, so they could do some inspections on the way home, even if they hadn’t been able to do any on the way there.
And so, I spent the early part of the week tracking down the wandering regulations. Norway has tended to be ahead of EU law anyway, in terms of keeping out infectious diseases and in biosecurity on farms, and what I found was that most of the law remained exactly the same, but was now in a different order.
Whenever we carry out an inspection, we have to relate it to one law or another: we can’t just go out and give our opinion on whether things are being done right. If the animal owners are complying with the law, then we don’t give much detail on which laws we checked in the reports we send. If we do observe something illegal, we have to quote the section of law which covers it, explain what it was that we saw that we consider breaks the law, and lay out what the animal owner has to remedy. In some instances that’s quite straightforward. If the law says that all goats have to have ear tags by the time they are a week old, and there are adult goats without ear tags, then the solution isn’t difficult. But the finer details of those laws are currently covered by the Animal Health Law and all its supporting regulations, and now I was unable to use those laws because the system was out of date.
Assuming there must be a back-up plan, I fired off an e-mail to our local advisor on such topics and then carried on setting up the packs I had begun. I was hoping that someone else had started to put something together and I could be pointed in the right direction. If I dived in blind, it seemed likely that I would end up duplicating work someone else had already carried out. I got a reply back quite quickly, pointing me not to the specific situation I was dealing with, but on some more general considerations about what to do if you found something that broke the law while the new law was not yet in the system.
The general instruction was, that in the absence of specific Animal Health Laws, we should use Matloven – the Food Act. This is a more reasonable suggestion than it might appear on first sight. Much of our law around animal health is governed by the fact that many animals end up in the food chain: in order to produce safe food, you need to deliver healthy animals.
The downside was that compared with the animal health law, the Food Act is very non-specific in terms of animal health. I spent a lot of time reading through, and though it gave overarching instructions, it was low on detail. I was still tempted to go ahead with the inspections. After all, it wouldn’t really matter too much… but then I realised I was assuming that all the visits would go well. If we discovered a significant problem, we would find ourselves trying to to bend a law designed to safeguard the consumer by ensuring the traceability of a pack of hot dogs to the specifics regarding the ages of animals when their ear tags should be in place.
Further complications were brought to my attention when it was pointed out that, to be covered by the Food Act, the animal owners had to be from registered premises where they were sending their produce into the food chain. That doesn’t cover people who are keeping their goats as pets! And so, after three days trying to find ways and means, I concluded that the health of the hobby goats of mid-Troms would be better left uninspected until our systems are updated.
I was of course, slightly concerned. Line had confidently written in the meeting plan that I was going to update everyone on the checking, and now my update was that there was to be none, at least for now. I needn’t have worried. As I am gradually realising, the one constant when working for Mattilsynet is that any plan you make is likely to change from one moment to the next. In a minor twist, I had discovered that though Norway’s law had changed, Svalbard’s has not. My suggestion in the meeting, that we should simply relocate to Svalbard and do all our routine testing there was greeted with smiles. Our region is, after all, Troms AND Svalbard. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to know if there are any hobby goats on Svalbard. Moreover, we had the sauna and jacuzzi at Malangen booked for Thursday evening. So, with everything considered, we reluctantly concluded we would just have to do the inspections later.
Malangen Resort was lovely. Now that the Covid restrictions are lifted and we are able to meet in person again, I am discovering that there’s a definite advantage in working in a location where there are so few of us covering such a large area. In smaller regions, everyone would drive to a central office and meet there. Here, because of the distances involved, we tend to meet in conference centres or hotels, and some of them are in stunning locations.
So this was my hotel room overnight, and the view outside. Just wonderful, although in true Norwegian style, there was no decaffeinated coffee or milk with the beautifully arranged coffee cups.
Of course, I could have asked for milk, but I was too busy enjoying myself in the jacuzzi and sauna. Thanks to Line for arranging it all. I should say, we paid for those ourselves – my job is stressful, but even in Norway, there are limits!
There may not have been milk for the coffee in the bedroom, but the food was modern, with a definite flavour of Norway. Reindeer stew, reindeer carpaccio, cod and mushy peas, and lemon cake.
Much as I loved the hotel and the views and the jacuzzi, the best thing about the lifting of the Covid restrictions is getting to meet people again. Always difficult to say at what point colleagues become friends, but even with the wonderful surroundings, the best part for me was the conversation and companionship. In a tough job, those things are beyond price.
I thought I would dedicate this post to the wonderful skyline over Gisundet and Senja (Gisundet being the sound between the mainland and Senja, which is the second biggest island on the Norwegian coastline). I am incredibly fortunate to have such a wonderful view from my garden. With the changing lights and the boats that come and go, it never gets old. In the past week, I’ve taken three photographs on three separate evenings. The first was the one at the top of the page, where I caught the very last glow of the sunset, a new moon rising, and the aurora borealis in the same picture. I don’t think I’ve ever seen all three at once before. Here’s the full version.
Next up was the last rays of the sun as it dipped behind the mountains.
And the last was taken last night, as the sun dropped behind the mountains, lighting up the clouds and the water with its burnt orange glow.
It’s been a good week. There’s been a case hanging over me from since before I was ill with covid. The general rule is that we have a month, from receiving a report from the public, in which to take action. I missed the deadline, but the visit has been done now, and the report will hopefully be sent out on Monday. I’ve another two cases pending, both fairly serious, but having taken advice from Birgit, Hilde, Thomas and Line (as well as a discussion during our weekly meeting) I feel ready to tackle both. The process, as a whole, is daunting, but I am learning to break it down into steps, and I can get advice at any stage, which is reassuring.
Having not travelled anywhere in nearly two years, I now have two more trips booked in quick succession. This coming week, I will be taking a flying visit to the UK to visit my daughter Anna at university. I’ll only be there a couple of days, but Anna said she’d love to get out and about, so we are planning a trip to a castle, and will stay at a Premier Inn overnight nearby. Those two things are filled with nostalgia for me. When the children were young, we lived in central Scotland, where there were many castles within reasonable driving distance. We joined Historic Scotland and over the course of a year or two, we visited lots of them, staying overnight at various Premier Inns nearby. I have wonderful sunny memories of those times, when the children were young to hare off around the castle grounds while Charlie and I explored more quietly.
The second trip is the week after Easter and is an unexpected treat. I say treat – it’s actually a work meeting, but it’s also in the area of Norway where I used to live, so when it popped up last week, I jumped at the chance, and fortunately was selected to go.
The area isn’t the only attraction, however. I have felt for a while that building up the links between the welfare vets out in the offices and the staff who work in the abattoir would be very helpful in dealing with farm animal cases. I have been working for a while on a project where we at Mattilsynet are trying to tackle the chronic cases out on farms, where welfare isn’t good enough, and no real progress is being made. Having worked closely with Ann and Trude at the abattoir, I’ve come to appreciate how much of an oversight they have built up over the farmers that send their animals in.
The live animals are checked when they come in, and then the meat is inspected, so picking up signs that might indicate poor welfare (animals which are very dirty or very thin, for example) are picked up. The same names come up again and again throughout the years, and so those working at the abattoir come to build up a mental map of which farmers treat their animals well, and which are, perhaps, not so good.
The meeting down in Rogaland is about honing the process by which the abattoir staff report signs of poor welfare to the vets out in the field. We will try to address whether there are areas that are currently difficult to report. There are categories, for example, for reporting overgrown feet and dirty cattle, but no category for reporting eye injuries or inflammation in sheep, which might indicate a farmer hasn’t been keeping a close enough eye on the flock.
I understand we will also be discussing where the lines should be drawn. For example one sheep that’s just been brought in from pasture with a sore eye might be less than ideal but is probably just one of those things, whereas several affected sheep, that appear to have longer term damage, might be an indicator of a welfare issue. It feels odd to have found something that interests me so much. Up until recently, I have been scrabbling to find my feet, which might seem strange after eighteen months in a job, but is the reality as my job specification is so broad. Suddenly I feel really fired up about an issue, where I really want to make a difference. I have only a short time to collect in the information, but I am trying to gather evidence from every colleague with an opinion or with an experience to share, and I hope to carry all that collective knowledge with me to a meeting where I am determined to have some input.
Next weekend I will be in England, but hopefully I will find time to pop in with some very different photographs. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some snowy trees from this morning. Have a good week!