Tag Archives: OK Program

Welfare

Sunrise/sunset: Down all day.

I’m on holiday from Friday next week, so there is a sense of keeping going until then. I’m very much looking forward to it. The past week has been both busy and interesting though, and has opened up my mind to thoughts of how I might make a difference. It started out with a meeting on Monday of a group of people who want to try to improve animal welfare in our area by improving the lives of those who keep them. There used to be many more small scale farms in Norway. Lots of people followed a traditional way of life where they had a few animals that were out in the summer and housed in a barn near the house in winter time. It became more difficult to make a living from small scale farming, so increasingly people had to work alongside their animal commitments.

But keeping animals is a tie. It will be hard enough to find someone responsible to look after Triar and the guinea pigs when I go on holiday. Harder still to find someone to look after fifty or a hundred sheep, or a few cows, especially if they need milking. So the networks that farmers used to have, where there were neighbours nearby who could help out in a crisis have, to an extent, disappeared.

And it’s not just about the work. By their nature, farms are physically isolated. You need land around you to allow you to feed your flock or herd. There isn’t a pub culture in Norway, like there is in the UK, and even if there was, here in the north of Norway, the distances between towns can be huge. And so the meeting was about trying to build new networks to support those who remain.

The social side of my job is something that I find very interesting. Obviously there are many things that can drive animal welfare up or down, but mental health is definitely there among them. Thomas has told me about his involvement in one such case, where he arrived on a farm to find the owner had almost given up hope, and he was instrumental in helping him find a way through. And Thomas is rightly proud of having done that. But to help more people, we need to reach more of them.

The meeting ended with a plan for more meetings, but I was due to go out on a welfare visit with Gry from Dyrevernsnemda later in the week. Remembering the potential bomtur debacle from two weeks ago, I compiled a list of all the sheep and goat farms in the surrounding area.

We ended up visiting two farmers on the list, in addition to the welfare investigation. We carried “Skrapesjuketilsyn” where we discuss the symptoms of Scrapie and the monitoring systems in place to track it. One of the farmers was obviously very happy to see us. He knew Gry already (Gry is a key member of another farming network) but when I introduced myself and said I was from Scotland, he said how wonderful it was to have someone who wanted to come to the north of Norway and was interested in working with sheep welfare. I confess, I am filled with inspiration. I would love, as a Mattilsynet vet, to be a part of a network helping the local sheep farming community. But I do have to bear in mind the constraints of budget. Next week, or in the new year, I will have to have a chat with Hilde about what I can achieve within the current economic climate.

Tuesday was also one of those rather unusual Mattilsynet days. As regular readers will know, Mattilsynet runs the OK program, where we check food producing animal breeds for various infectious diseases and for foreign or banned substances. Ammar had planned to go out and get a urine sample from a cow, but he was unable to attend himself, so he rang me on Monday afternoon and asked me to step in. And so on Tuesday morning, I drove out to a farm and spent an hour in a byre behind a row of cows, waiting for one of them to oblige.

Polar night, snowy mountain under a blue and pink sky – taken on the drive out on Tuesday

There were a few false starts involved. Even the tamest cows are wary creatures when strangers come into their space. And of course, I was a stranger wearing a very odd blue overall and huge white boot covers with bows on them, so they were wary to begin with. One or two of them lifted their tails and started to pee, but as soon as I moved towards them, they gave me a very offended look and stopped again. Fortunately, I eventually managed it, but not without some very amused thoughts about the sheer glamour of my job. Since then Konstantin has told me there is a way to get the cows to urinate, so next time, perhaps I will be quicker, but either way, spending time around cows is something I very much enjoy, whatever the task.

The road to Bardufoss

This week’s blog is a bit short as I have to go and collect John and bring him home, but I’ll leave you with a couple of pictures of the decorations that have gone up in our office. I hope you’ll join me for more advent pictures tomorrow.

The Art of Killing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out and About

Sunrise/sunset: 09:12/ 13:51. Daylength: 4hr 38min

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!