This week has seen the return of the sun. I had hoped to take a photograph, but with the surrounding mountains and varying cloud cover, I haven’t actually seen it. The increasing daylight is cheering though. Anna and I made the most of the light that we had last weekend, taking Triar out for some wonderful walks on Senja.
This was also the second week of working from home. While there are some advantages to it, there are also frustrations. A large part of my job will be carrying out visits to farms and animal holdings, but for now all non-essential trips are cancelled. The best way for me to learn a new job is getting out there and doing it. I have a jigsaw puzzle brain. Individual facts or pieces have little meaning and are hard to remember. Understand how they fit together and I can build a comprehensive picture. Much easier to remember laws when I can apply them to cases, rather than trying to learn about them in isolation.
That said, I have spent each day this week reading around a different topic. The animal health day was probably the most interesting. I looked through the visits and checks we have been set for this year as part of the OK program and read around the different topics. As regular readers will know, the OK program is set up by Mattilsynet to monitor animal health and food safety in Norway and on my trawl through this years tasks, I discovered we have a few visits scheduled to herds of camelids (llama and alpacas) to check for mite infestations. I have never been to a llama farm before, so that is something to look forward to.
I will leave you with some aurora borealis pictures. We drove to Bardufoss on Monday evening to drop John off for work and on the way, we noticed that the sky was streaked with green. We pulled off the road and for the first time watched the northern lights from a place where there was very little light pollution. It was a show worth watching and we stood for a long time in the darkness, faces lifted to the sky, oblivious to the snow underfoot and the chill in the air.
We had a quiet start to 2021. Anna and Andrew flew off very early on the morning of the 31st to visit Charlie, so John and I saw in the new year with Triar and the guinea pigs. New year in Norway is celebrated with fireworks, so as midnight approached, John and I donned our hats and gloves and took our celebration outside. There was a satisfying throwback to summer and our trip to the north. We bought a folding gas ring back then: one of those neat purchases that are small enough to throw in the car. Now we found a new use for it as a table-top cooker to heat our gløg.
The fireworks over Senja were spectacular. Ten minutes of intense light and sound punctuating the winter darkness.
Other than the fireworks, the last week has been quiet. Though there is still no snow, there is plenty of ice. Though it has been above zero quite frequently, the pond in the middle of Finnsnes is frozen enough for the local children to use it as a skating rink.
Unfortunately, the same thing is true of some of our usual walks.
And so there has been a tendency to huddle indoors. I hope the snow returns soon. When it is so dark outside, having snow on the ground makes everything much brighter.
I will leave you with a couple of pictures of the moon over Senja. Though I haven’t been out much, my life is still filled with beauty.
Anna came home last week. In line with Norwegian quarantine rules, she has been avoiding areas where she would come into contact with people. She could however, go for walks, so on Wednesday I took a day off and she, Triar and I headed out to Ånderdalen National Park.
It has been overcast for most of the week and under the polar skies, the light is grey-blue, but has a rare clarity that I love. With the snow, it looks very different from my last trip, when everything was green. I was fascinated, as before, by the ghost trees – dead but still holding strong on the sturdy roots that have seen them through many arctic winters. These two trees, entwined in death, but giving protection to a few smaller fir trees growing in their shelter were perhaps the most beautiful.
Of course I was busy with my camera throughout.
Yesterday was another of those amazing work days that lift an enjoyable job into something even more special. Way back in September, if you’re a regular reader, you might recall the Finnsnes staff taking a trip out to cook hot dogs at Sørreisa. Back then, the season (the busiest time of year at the abattoir) was just getting started and between then and now, the Mattilsynet staff there have been working every day. But now, with the season past and Christmas fast approaching, there are days when there are no animals coming in and the line is still and silent.
Ann had invited me last week on a day out. I felt quite honoured. Most of the staff who would be hiking together have been working exclusively in the abattoir and for the past couple of weeks I have barely been there. In some ways it’s a rather sad time. While Ann is a permanent member of staff, Konstantin and Vaidotas came for the season and both of them are heading home for Christmas. Vaidotas is going first – driving home all the way to Lithuania this weekend. Konstantin will be there on Monday, but I will only see him for a short time as I will mostly be working at Hjerttind on my long delayed training day in the reindeer abattoir. He will be heading back to Latvia early next week. I feel that both of them have become friends. There’s no doubt I will miss them very much.
Anyway, back to yesterday. Ann and her boyfriend have begun an amazing project to build a smallholding where they will raise Norsk Villsau – an ancient breed of small but hardy Norwegian sheep – all wild eyes, wool and horns. They have bought a plot out in the wilds and the plan was to go out and have a hike around her land.
It truly was a beautiful place, though at the moment it’s too cold to do much work there. We tramped through fluffy snow down to the river, then headed back up to where they are going to build their house. The picture at the top of the page shows Ann in the centre as she explains where the rooms in their new house will be.
And after that, we lit a fire and had warm drinks to heat ourselves up before we drove back to the office to eat together one last time.
A lot to get through this week, but come with me first on a road trip. Thomas and I took off into the darkness on Tuesday morning on a three day mission. With coronavirus, the Mattilsynet team that covers Troms and Svalbard was a little behind on one of the annual campaigns that had been set at the end of last year. The plan was to roll up unannounced at a number of farms to check whether the animals had their full complement of ear tags . In Norway, farm animals are closely tracked from the time they are born until the time they die. All of them should have two tags, one in each ear, and that was what we were going to check.
Being efficient, Thomas had added other parameters onto the list. If we were lucky enough to find some sheep or goat farmers in, we were to check whether the farmer knew the symptoms of scrapie (a disease like BSE that causes neurological problems) and what systems they used to monitor the movements of animals on and off the farm.
It’s a bit of a hit and miss affair rocking up at farms unannounced. Farming is a job with irregular hours and it’s common here, where farms tend to be much smaller than those in the UK, for farmers to have other jobs in addition to their animals. Nonetheless, by the end of a fairly long day, we had managed to get round two herds of cattle and three flocks of sheep. I hadn’t reckoned on it being quite so exhausting. When I worked in the UK, we travelled round farms pulling on the same pair of waterproof trousers and wellington boots at each place. A quick wash at the end and good to go. Here, before entering each barn or byre, we have to enter what’s called the sluse, step over a bench or line of some sort in your stockinged feet, then pull on a papery jumpsuit, big white boot covers and a face mask. For all those who wear glasses and have worn a mask in cold weather, you will appreciate how hard it is to check anything once your glasses are well and truly steamed up. What with that and the freezing air and rough snowy roads, I was very tired by the time we arrived at the hotel where we were to meet Birgit who had been on a similar expedition of her own.
It may have been the best shower I’ve ever had. By the end of it, I could feel my toes again and the aroma of animals had been washed out of my hair. Birgit had retired early, so it was just Thomas and I that met in the hotel restaurant for dinner. After that, we retired as well, having arranged to meet for breakfast to plan the next day’s manoeuvres.
We set out in darkness again on day two. When the light did come it was lacklustre and overcast with the kind of distant, undefined sky that often heralds snow. Though the countryside was beautiful, it was close to monochrome with only the occasional splash of colour of the traditional red-painted barns.
One of the farms we visited was very impressive. As well as some 250 well-kept Norwegian white sheep, there was a brand new barn where they are building a glassed in warm room with leather armchairs for watching the sheep overnight at lambing. You can see the window of it here on the right of the picture.
I had been intrigued on the drive north to see a layby that was designed for lorry drivers to stop and put chains on their lorries, but I was even more fascinated to see that even tractors need them here.
Back at the hotel, more of Mattilsynet’s staff were arriving. There was a departmental meeting in the morning where the work would be planned for next year, but tonight the plan was to enjoy some food together.
Everyone was very cheery as we sat down and enjoyed a fairly traditional Norwegian Christmas feast: two different kinds of fish pate, a selection of meats including ribbe (a cut of pork from the flank) pinnekjøtt (salted lamb cutlets and ribs) mutton sausage and various vegetable accompaniments, then rice pudding with raspberry sauce.
It was great to meet up with other staff from the offices in Tromsø and Storslett and I returned after all the visits and the meetings feeling I had a better understanding of how everything works.
And to finish off, let me invite you for a walk on Senja with John, Triar and me. Imagine the still, frosty air and the crunch of snow underfoot. The sky in one direction is a cool duck-egg blue. The other way there’s a wonderful sunrise that melts into sunset without the sun ever making it over the horizon. There is hoar frost on the trees and animal and bird tracks in the snow. And after that, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
I’m sitting in my living room at three in the afternoon and it’s already dark outside, save for the streetlights on the bridge and along the shoreline across the water. The days are fast fading, but for now I am making the most of what daylight there is. It was wonderful to have a couple of days off at the beginning of the week and Charlie and I continued our exploration of local beaches and of Senja, the island that lies over the bridge from Finnsnes. The snow is coming and going, as you will see from the photos. Lots to see this week!
These photographs were taken on Sunday. This is one of our more regular haunts, though once the snow begins to lie, the track will become a ski-track. We won’t be able to walk along it until spring comes.
By Monday the snow was gone, and on Monday and Tuesday, we took Triar to different beaches, the first at Sørreisa (the site where you can light fires under shelter that I have written about before) and the next day on Senja near Vangsvik.
There were more fir trees as we walked down to the tiny beach at the southern end of Senja and it struck me that, twisted and stunted as they are, they remind me of bonsai trees. Not that they are anywhere near so small, but their growth is surely limited by the shallowness of the soil and the long, long winters.
I returned to work on Wednesday and was delighted to be invited out on a farm visit. Both Ammar and Thomas had compiled lists of possible farms to collect samples for the OK Program. The OK Program is an official project, carried out annually, where various samples are taken from different animals or herds to check for contamination. This can be in the form of heavy metals, which can be present in the soil in certain areas, antibiotics which might have entered the food chain, radioactivity, or infections such as MRSA or salmonella. Some of the materials are collected at the slaughterhouse, but we were looking for urine and milk samples. In the end, we visited four farms. One had no milk because the tanker had already collected it (and a herd sample was needed, rather than one from a single animal) and on another, there was no farmer to be found. But the other two were more productive. One had milk in the tank still. The other was the best for me. We had to collect a urine sample, and for that, we had to go and stand behind a row of cows in a byre and wait until one of the cows obliged. They were lovely cows – a little herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle that would have been equally at home in Scotland. They looked healthy and well fed and the farmer very generously let me take a couple of photos (including the sweet little cat at the top of the page).
And so I carried out my first farm visit in the north of Norway. Here’s hoping there will be many, many more!
It’s been an eventful week. As Donald Trump and Joe Biden totter towards a final result in the US presidential election, coronavirus is surging worldwide. On a more personal level, the abattoir season has ended (hooray!) and I had my 2-3 month review.
The review went well. I knew I had done all the online coursework I had been set, but there were one or two tasks I hadn’t really had a chance to get my teeth into. One of my tasks is to find out what my colleagues do. Some of them are involved with aquaculture, others with quality control of drinking water and those in my own small section are involved with animal health and welfare. But with many of us working at the slaughterhouse, there has been limited time for other tasks.
Before my review, therefore, I had a quick look at what my colleagues were up to. Øivind (who works with drinking water) had a trip next Thursday to Husøy, and so I decided I would ask Hilde whether it might be a suitable trip for me. I was unsure where Husøy was. Øy means island and I know that there are some far flung places in our region. If it involved an overnight trip, it was unlikely I could join at this late stage. But Husøy, I discovered, is a small island off the coast of Senja. No ferries required – there’s a bridge across. Hilde told me that Husøy had been the subject of a Norwegian documentary, “Da Damene Dro” back in 2008. All the women on the island were taken off for a ten day holiday in the sun, while the menfolk were left to fend for themselves and their children.
This seemed like the kind of social experiment I could get behind, so a taking a trip there would be fascinating… but it wasn’t to be. When I caught up with Øivind at lunch time, he told me that the trip had been cancelled. With the surge in coronavirus cases, nobody wanted to take any chances and the trip was not urgent.
I left after lunch as Charlie had texted me to let me know he was arriving soon. Charlie is John, Anna and Andrew’s dad and he is here for the weekend. He came up to watch Andrew in a school concert. Andrew has been learning the piano and the music group had put together some songs, which were to be performed in a local café. But that too was disrupted by coronavirus. The venue changed from the café to the school and then the message came through that it would be broadcast online. So Charlie flew all the way up here from Stavanger to sit in the living room and watch the concert on TV. There were advantages though. Charlie and I were going to support Andrew, but with the change in the agenda, both Anna and my parents were able to watch from the UK and Wytske, a friend from the Netherlands also joined us.
The weather this week has been stormy, but despite the forecast, Charlie, Triar and I took a walk this morning in Ånderdalen National Park. It was a wonderful place to explore. There is a trail up into the park which has been made suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs, and beyond that, the tracks are well marked, so even if the weather had taken a turn for the worse, it would have been possible to get back safely.
The park is stunning, even at this time of year, when everything is lowering into winter. Fir trees dominate the landscape and in the distance, snow covered mountain peaks, but the trees are sparse, the landscape shaped by the long winters. There are many dead trees amongst the living, their trunks and branches still rooted deep against the winter winds. The weather was changeable, one moment bright and clear, the next darkening as snow or hail began to descend.
I love trees and found myself as fascinated with these beautiful ghost trees as I am with the living trees that stood alongside them. Lichen caught my eye, and wonderful shapes on the trunks of the bigger trees.
And so, tired and damp we returned home. It was Charlie’s birthday yesterday and there was leftover carrot cake to go with our coffee. And now, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the rest of the day. I’ve taken Monday and Tuesday off and I am looking forward to going back to work fully refreshed.
The days are getting very short now and in only one month, the sun will go down for the last time on 2020. It won’t come over the horizon again until almost the middle of January.
Monday started well with another elk sighting. This time, since the snow hadn’t yet arrived, I pulled in quickly and managed to take a photograph, though it’s not the clearest. Difficult to capture a moving target in the pre-dawn twilight.
In other news, the snow arrived properly on Thursday. For the past two days, I’ve had to factor in scraping it from the car before I set off in the morning, though so far I haven’t had to clear the driveway. . Even in those two days, I feel I’ve learned a lot. For example, it’s clear that you should never rent or buy a house in the Arctic Circle that doesn’t have a garage. Equally, if you apply for a job where you are expected to use cars daily from a car pool… make sure you don’t choose a workplace without some kind of covered parking. I expect I will get very efficient shortly, doing it at least twice a day. More if it snows while I’m at work!
Today has been rather lovely. Andrew and I set out this afternoon to go to Silsand on Senja Island. We go there some evenings and there’s a pleasant enough walk up to a lake, but to our surprise, the car park, which is usually empty, was full. Rather ominously, there was a sign up which said “Testing Senter”.
Recalling that I had read somewhere that a specialised centre for COVID was being set up in Silsand, we beat a hasty retreat, then drove north for a short way. A sign directed us towards “Woodland Lodge” and we drove down a little track, which to my delight led to a tiny pavilion and a stretch of woodland.
Andrew found some animal tracks. At first I assumed they were a dog’s, but if they were, it had gone for a walk alone. So we began to follow them. When we got down to the waterline, we found the lovely little jetty pictured at the top of the page. And though we never found the Halloween wolf… or whatever it was, all three of us very much enjoyed roaming around in the snow.
The slaughter season for lamb is almost over. I can’t pretend to be unhappy about that. With three technicians out of action and a vet colleague limited to inspection of live animals, I’ve ended up working in the abattoir every day for the past couple of weeks and it will continue for a week and a half more. I’ve decided to write a bit more about what I do… though it will be tongue in cheek. I have the typical dark humour about my job that I think many vets share. The life of a vet has some grim moments alongside the joy that working with animals often brings, and so it pays to laugh about it all now and then. So if you’re squeamish, you could just look at the photos and ignore the text altogether… otherwise, feel free to join me.
I’ve said before that the abattoir is a dangerous place. We have to wear a lot of PPE ( I no longer have to explain what that means – thanks Covid!). I generally work for an hour, then have half an hour off, but during the break, I have to strip off the outer layers of protective clothing, then put them back on again, which takes five minutes or so off each end.
Everyone in my section wears white trousers and a T-shirt as standard, and as I go into the sluice to get ready, I add a hair net, a white cotton short sleeved shirt, some rather fetching chain mail, a blue plastic apron, a helmet with ear protectors, a Kevlar glove on my left hand, a cotton one on my right, and finally a pair of waterproof latex gloves on top of the first pair. It’s important to put it all on in the right order. It’s hard to get a chain mail shirt over your helmet and harder still to tie your apron behind your back with two pairs of gloves taking away most of the fine sensation. I’ve managed to arrive in the hall missing every single item, including one head-scratching moment* when I reached up a hand to grasp something and realised that although my right hand was fully gloved, on the left I was wearing only the Kevlar glove. Goodness knows how I managed to remember the first and not the second, but there it is.
The line often stops while we are working. There’s a long succession of people, each one playing a small part in the process, and if any stage a problem occurs, then it is possible to stop the line while it is overcome. Most of the time, I have no idea why everything has come to a standstill as much of it is out of sight. I imagine generally, it is something mundane: one of the shearers hasn’t completed the job, or some item of equipment has lost power. But the other day, as I was leaving the hall for my break, I heard loud yelling. When I turned round, someone was running to stop the line. With a sense of shock, I saw one of the engineers was up in the rafters. His shirt was entangled in one of the meathooks and he was being dragged towards the edge of the inspection platform. Luckily the line stopped in time and someone else began to climb up the ladder to free him. Which is fortunate for me as if it had ended differently, I would definitely not be including this part of the story.
As I said earlier, I will be glad when the season is over. There are good things about the work. I could wax lyrical about my wonderful colleagues and the simple pleasure of a really good sharp knife, or even the unexpectedly entrancing swirl of a chainmail shirt as you stride across the floor. But as I walked back into the hall on Wednesday, checked to see that nobody was hanging from the roof, then dodged between a pair of swinging pig carcasses, both decorated with one of the big red tags that means the vet has seen something dodgy that needs attention, it struck me** that you could make the most wonderful platform game based on the production line.
If you’re young, you probably won’t remember Manic Miner, who rushed around underground trying to avoid spiders, slime and at one point being pursued by angry toilets with flapping seats that I could never get past as I was laughing too hard. But for those of us old enough to remember the pleasures of a good platform game, I hope you’ll agree that the slaughterhouse holds loads of possibilities. As well as pork dodging, there could be ladders up to the ceiling with moving hooks to avoid, a run through the flaming hot section where the hair is burned off the pigs, and a section with slippery bits of fat lying on the floor, just waiting for you to put your heel on them and slide into oblivion.
Anyway, enough of that. Back to the real world. It did snow a little, as you can see from the pictures of the frozen pond halfway up the page. But before that there were a few days when the temperature dropped fifteen degrees overnight. The resulting hoar frost was the best I have ever seen. Everything was sparkling, each blade of grass and tree branch wonderfully decorated: white on blue. I stopped half way home to take some pictures, one of which is at the top of the page. The rest I will add below. So while work is less than perfect, I am still marvelling every day about the fact that I get to live somewhere so beautiful. And as the winter arrives in full, I very much hope to share it all with you.
* Head-scratching is neither advisable with gloved hands, nor really possible with a helmet on. ‘Twas only a figure of speech.
**It was the thought that struck me, not a lump of pivoting pork. Just so we’re clear!
I have been adding the changing daylength at the top of each post for a while now. Those who have noticed might have calculated that over the course of each week, we are losing an hour of light and gaining an hour of darkness. The rate of change is not exactly disconcerting, but it is a little disorienting. I look at the clock expecting it to be late evening and find it is only seven o’clock.
Sometime last week, I noticed two of the trees beside the little pond in the town centre had been decorated with lights. In the UK and in the more southerly part of Norway where I used to live, there were tasteful lights draped in the branches of the trees around Christmas, but this was something different. The whole tree, trunk and branches, seemed to be swathed in lights, and it seemed odd that there were only two. I drove home yesterday and to my delight, saw that now there were lots more trees lit up. I don’t know whether they are finished, or whether there are more to come, but Andrew, Triar and I went for a wander around the pond and it was beautiful.
As well as the changing daylength, there has been another change this week. John has started to do seasonal work at the abattoir. He is working with the sheep shearing squad. There is a technique, of course, to sheep shearing. He tells me it’s important to remove the wool in a smooth manner, ensuring that the length doesn’t get disrupted. If they don’t get it right first time, they are encouraged not to take another cut as the shortness of those segments would degrade the quality and mean the price would be lower. For my part, I’m glad that the wool is used. I remember being told at university that wool was considered so worthless that it was often thrown away. If we breed animals for food, I can’t help feeling that we should do what we can to use every one of the products that creates. Anyway, for now, John has moved out and is living in a house with other members of the team and seems to be enjoying it, which is wonderful.
Andrew has also been away this week, visiting his dad and the orthodontist. He flew back yesterday evening, and as the airport is near to where I was working, I decided I would find something to do there instead of coming home and having to drive back. Rather than leaving Triar at home all day on his own, he came with me in the car. The airport is at Bardufoss, and as Foss is Norwegian for waterfall, I decided to go and look for it. It didn’t take too long to find. I’m sure it was beautiful once… but it was now empty. Norway is famous for its renewable energy. 98% of electricity production comes from renewable sources, and though the number of wind farms is increasing year on year, the majority still comes from hydroelectric.
But of course, where there are mountains, you are never too far from a waterfall. As I was driving, I noticed signs for Målselvfossen and so I followed them. It was well worth the effort. As Triar and I walked down into the valley, sunlight stippled the hills in the distance.
Down beside the river, the roar filled our ears. There was a salmon ladder, currently closed, but well worth a revisit next year as the summer comes round again. We’ll definitely be coming back!
I saw a post on Twitter bemoaning the appearance of Christmas items in the shops in the UK yesterday, or more accurately someone posted that as they were on COVID lockdown, they were deprived of the pleasure of complaining about it this year. As someone who loves Christmas, the gathering signs that it is on its way are always something I have enjoyed, though I am glad that in Norway, it’s rather low key compared to the UK. I rather smugly commented on the post, saying that I hadn’t seen anything here yet, then went into my local supermarket and saw that the Julebrus had appeared. Julebrus is a Norwegian fizzy drink, only available around Christmas time and much beloved by my children. It has a kind of fruity flavour and comes in red and brown varieties. But enough about that for now!
Back at the start of the pandemic, I was careful to take all possible precautions. I shopped once a week or less and took my breaks at work sitting out in my car. Now I shop more or less daily again and though I use the hand-gel that is liberally available in all public spaces, and try to ensure I keep a metre away from people, it isn’t having much impact on my day-to-day life, though I recognise that could change rapidly. Mattilsynet has its own set of rules, which we are to read at least once a week. Those here in springtime all have home offices set up and it seems likely that at some point, home working might become the norm again.
The main effect on me is that, for the first time since I’ve moved to Norway, I haven’t been to the UK during this calendar year. My daughter is a student there and my parents are in Yorkshire and I miss having the chance to visit them. Strange times we are living through.