Autumn is progressing fast, and earlier this week, I saw some early snow dusting the top of the mountains. It was only on the highest peaks, so the (now disappeared again) snow line was probably about a thousand metres above sea level, but it will return and gradually descend. I think there are many areas in the UK where there is no snow from one year to the next. It suddenly struck me as odd to live somewhere where it was inevitable that there will be many months of snow on the ground. It never really crossed my mind, growing up, that I would ever live anywhere other than the UK. I never had a burning desire to do so, yet here I am.
John bought a new car this week. He’s been driving an old banger since he passed his test, but the clutch has been slipping towards oblivion ever since he got it. He’s bought a five year old Ford Mondeo, which will hopefully be more reliable. They don’t use salt on the roads here, so there’s less of a problem with rust. The stunning autumn colours and the new car prompted me to suggest a road trip this weekend. Campsites in Norway often have cabins to rent at very reasonable prices, so I had booked one in Alta, but John called me at work yesterday to say he thought he was coming down with a cold, so we cancelled. Alta is a six hour drive, so doing it after work on a Friday night would ideally only be done with both of us fit and well. We’ll probably go somewhere next weekend instead – perhaps somewhere in Sweden – though as Triar doesn’t have a doggy passport, he’ll probably have to sit that one out.
Projects with the house are ongoing. I’m still waiting for quotations for work to be done by the builder. In the meantime, we are still putting stuff away after the move and trying to get some smaller tasks done. For example, the living room is quite large and only has one overhead light and two small wall lamps. If it was only for use in the evenings, we could probably get away with a standard lamp or a couple of table lamps, but as there are months in the winter when it’s dark almost all day, it’s necessary to provide enough light to mimic daylight, otherwise it is all too easy to go into hibernation mode. We’ve invested in some smart bulbs from Philips. Some provide different shades of white (bright and warm) while others also can be coloured. We finally got internet earlier this week, so we will be able to get Alexa up and running so she can turn the lights on for us. We’ve also found a stand to put firewood into, so hopefully we will be able to get the living room into better shape this week.
I’ve been at the abattoir most of this week. We are already short staffed, but when the call came in from the reindeer abattoir that they wanted to open for a day or two, we realised that we were going have to manage with one person less. Konstantin said he was happy to go, so though it was somewhat chaotic on Thursday and Friday, we managed to get through it. The reindeer abattoir is small and run by a Sami family. I’ve written about it before, but it’s difficult to plan around as the reindeer are often herded there on foot, rather than being transported in lorries.
Something of a hammer blow fell on Thursday afternoon. We were sent an e-mail to say that there was a suspected case of CWD in a reindeer that was slaughtered in Bjørgefjell in Helgeland. CWD (chronic wasting disease) is a prion disease, somewhat similar to Scrapie in sheep and BSE in cattle. There are two possible forms, one of which crops up occasionally in individuals. The other form is infectious and could potentially lead to huge problems and a great deal of suffering, if allowed to spread.
So for now, there are preparatory actions being set in motion. It’s likely that all the meat produce from that herd will have to be traced, but that is minor in comparison to working out all the reindeer that might potentially have been in contact with the affected one. Reindeer are not fenced in, but herded loose on pastures that are traditionally used by various Sami families. In wild reindeer, the infection can be passed on through infected saliva, and prions are very difficult to remove from the environment.
Norway is incredibly strict about disease outbreaks in animals, the consideration being that if a disease becomes endemic, the suffering over time will be worse than that caused by a cull. Back in 2016, infectious CWD was found for the first time in Europe in wild reindeer in Norway. The entire herd of over 2000 reindeer was culled in an attempt to stop it spreading. The devastation that will occur if there is an outbreak in domesticated reindeer will be cataclysmic. Relations between the Sami and the powers that be in Norway are already strained. And so, we wait for answers. Hopefully the wait will not be too long.
I am buying a house! I wanted to get that in there right away as it’s filling my mind. It seems odd that at 53 years old, I am back at the point of going through new and momentous experiences, but I guess that’s true of anyone who has left a long-term marriage and started again. This will be the first house I will have sole ownership of and this is also the first time I have gone through the buying process in Norway.
I went to the viewing last Monday. I guess all the details I am about to give might be boring for my Norwegian friends, so I apologise to them, but for me it was all new. When Charlie and I moved to Norway, he came six months earlier than me and the children, so by the time I moved over, he had gone through this whole process and I wasn’t involved at all.
In the UK, viewings tend to be individual. You call the estate agent, make an appointment, then go to look. Most often, it’s the house owner that shows you round. If you like the house and think you might want to buy it, you will probably get a thorough survey done before going any further. After that, the whole process is bound up with solicitors and takes an age.
Here in Norway, the survey is done by the seller. All the details about what is sound and what isn’t are provided in the listing. A viewing time is arranged with the seller and anybody who is interested in the house attends during that timeslot. The house owner goes out; it’s the estate agent who remains to direct proceedings and they don’t show you round. Rather, you have the freedom to wander through the house at your leisure in the same way you might if you were viewing a new build house in the UK.
It was a lonely experience. I had hoped that John or Andrew could come with me, but both had other commitments. I also considered asking a colleague, but I had put in my mortgage application late and I hadn’t heard back from the bank, so everything was still up in the air. In Norway the bidding process often happens the day after the viewing. You can’t bid unless you have finances in place and I didn’t want to see the house if I wasn’t sure I could afford it. The bank finally told me at quarter to three on Monday afternoon that I could have a mortgage big enough to cover the house, and the viewing was at five, so I headed out there, feeling underprepared.
I didn’t love it. You often hear about people falling in love with houses, but there were many small things which didn’t show up in the photographs or survey details. The bathroom looked smart and modern in the pictures, but when I walked in, the shower unit was obviously older than I had thought and it will never look sparkling clean again. In the bedrooms, hallway and living room, there are lots of little holes, badly filled ex-holes and lumps in the papered wall panels, which are made of wood and not plaster. There is wallpaper that’s been painted over, and in one random patch, the textured paper was different from that surrounding it. All-in-all the house had an unloved feeling. I can’t blame the person who did this. I did the same in the house I shared with Charlie as I am no expert and had no money to do anything better, but I know that when I get this house, I want gradually to erase all those flaws.
It’s not particularly big, but it has four bedrooms. Perhaps it seems odd to want to make sure John, Anna and Andrew can all still come home at the same time and have their own space, but that is what I want and I’m not going to fight it.
Anyway, having been to the viewing, where the only other people were a young man and (presumably) his father, I had to wait until 18th May for the next steps. As I said above, the bidding on a house often starts the day after the viewing, but the viewing was on 16th May and the day after is a special bank holiday here in Norway – Norway’s national celebration. I haven’t any pictures (the weather was awful this year) but the link above will take you to last year’s, (rather muted) celebrations.
I had an appointment in Tromsø on the 18th and I was staying there for the rest of the week, so Wednesday afternoon found me alone in a hotel room, trying to work, while wondering what I would do about the house. I still wasn’t certain I wanted to go ahead. It seemed too significant a decision to jump into blindly.
Bu then the estate agent sent me a link to sign into the bidding. Having come thus far, I thought I would sign in and see what the thing looked like. I was still kind of terrified. Once you bid, your offer is binding if the seller accepts it. It felt like a monumental decision to be taking on my own in an anonymous hotel room. But what was there to lose if I put in a low bid? If it was accepted, I would be getting a bargain I could easily afford. If it was rejected, or someone else outbid me, then I’d lost nothing. I typed in my bid and the time when then offer would run out. My fingers were shaking as I clicked “send”.
It was at this point it crossed my mind that I could contact Lara Wilson. Many years ago, back in the UK when I was a high flying executive (well technically the Operations Manager at Vets Now) Laura was the head vet in the Belfast clinic and we hit it off immediately. Our friendship has deepened over the years and it was Lara who basically chivvied me into completing my last book manuscript, despite the fact that she was in Glasgow while I was in Norway.
Within minutes we were in conversation on Facebook messenger, and her enthusiasm for life (and buying houses) was seeping in and bypassing my wibblingness. I had set the offer timer for only half an hour. How to do the whole thing, and what the norms were, were outside my range of experience. The form had told me a minimum of thirty minutes and I had followed that as the time had popped up automatically. I watched as the clock ticked down, wondering if there was something else I should be doing. Though I’ve never bought a house in Norway, Charlie and I had recently gone through this process from the other side. If I tell you I missed the actual bidding process that time because I was on a flight from Tromsø to Oslo, you can probably get an idea of how fast the whole thing usually goes.
Would my bid be accepted? Might another come in? If it wasn’t enough, the seller might make a counter offer. Presumably the longer it went, the more likely it was that I’d get it?
I was on tenterhooks as the final minutes ticked down. Then the time came and went, and a sign popped up to say my bid had expired.
What on earth? I admit I felt baffled. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Picking up my phone, I called the estate agent’s number. The woman from the viewing answered and I asked her what had happened. She took a look, then explained that the estate agent was in a meeting. He hadn’t even seen my offer before it expired. I asked her what happened next? Should I bid again? Should I give a longer time? How long was normal? She couldn’t possibly say. Not allowed to advise me. I confess I was a bit frustrated with her. I wasn’t asking for advice, I was asking what was normal. She said she’d get the estate agent to call me when he came out. He probably wouldn’t be long.
I whiled away the time by putting in another bid, this time with a longer expiry. This time, the estate agent saw it and I received a message that it was now live. Yet again, I watched the clock tick down, and yet again there was no response. I was pretty much at the stage of giving up by now. I wasn’t sure how it should go, but this definitely wasn’t it. And then some action came. The owner, I learned, had made a late counter suggestion and from there on in, it was no longer an auction, but a bartering process. It dribbled on a bit. I get the impression that the seller was reluctant because she wasn’t getting as much as she’d hoped for. But by two o’clock the following day, we had agreed on a price and I was committed to buying.
Since then, there has been a parade of links and tasks and forms to fill in. Most of them are in Norwegian obviously, which adds a little piquancy to the whole process. I still feel I’m stumbling through thick woodland undergrowth wearing a pair of steamed up sunglasses, but presumably at some point I’ll come out on the other side. Hopefully it will be sunny.
Anyway, in other news, we visited the farm where John is lambing last weekend. It was a wonderful day. John’s employers were very welcoming and seem very pleased with him. I felt very proud as I saw him handling the animals with assurance. And of course, lambs are very, very cute!
On Thursday and Friday I was working in Tromsø. Amongst other things, Line had arranged for me to blood sample two cows. There was some pressure, given that I had been brought up from Finnsnes and had been touted as an expert, but thankfully it went off without a hitch. The cows were fairly quiet and I took the samples from their tails, as I had done thousands of times before, many years ago in Scotland. Indeed, I think I could happily spend my life blood testing cows. If anyone knows of such a job, please do let me know!
Last but not least, we inspected a husky farm. Seeing the lovely, friendly dogs, the brightly coloured sledding gear and the hut, where the ceiling was blackened from woodfire smoke, really made me want to come back in the winter and take part. One day, hopefully I will.
Well as you can see from the picture at the top of the page, I have finally succumbed to the double lines of doom. There were four days between the symptoms starting and testing positive. Despite all my reading about omicron having different clinical signs from the original strain, I have had very classic symptoms of fluctuating temperature and a dry cough. The fatigue is very typical too. Fortunately I’m not quite bed ridden. I can sit on the sofa and watch Netflix (no UK channels up here). I’m quite enjoying The Crown.
So I don’t really have much news. It seems unlikely that Andrew and I will get to Tromsø for our short break, though I haven’t yet cancelled the AirBnB. Perhaps I will make a miraculous recovery and we’ll be able to have a night or two, but I’m not holding my breath. (I could still probably technically do so, if push came to shove.)
Last weekend, before the ‘rona hit, John drove us down to Narvik for the day. He did very well with the driving. I’m very proud of how quickly he’s learning. We met an obstacle in the road. Quite an attractive one really. Here it is.
Narvik was pleasant enough. There’s a railway there, as well as a ski slope, but we mostly wandered around, looking for a decent cup of coffee. Along the way, we found a shop which for the time being had been converted into a Lego exhibition. So since I don’t have much else, I’m going to spam you with Lego photos. Hold on tight, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
The first side was pleasant enough. It always fascinates me how far lego has come from the chunky little blocks I used to play with as a child. There was a busy townscape. Very cosmopolitan.
Lovely transport – trains and boats.
And then I rounded the corner and saw something that made me very happy. My children would all tell you I’m a devoted Potterhead, and this was right up my street.
There was Gringotts Bank and Hogwarts, with Hedwig the owl and Fawkes the phoenix, swooping in from either side.
More, more, more… Which do you prefer?
Dragon or hippogriff?
Wizard Chess or Quidditch?
Hogwarts Express or the Knight Bus?
And for all those who made it this far, here is a picture of Triar looking very heroic! To be fair, he’s risking life and limb by sticking at my side, despite the potential threat of infection. Don’t you just love dogs?
I awoke this morning to see that there was light shining around the edges of my blind. Admittedly it was five past eight, so later than I normally get up for work, but it was cheering nonetheless. Within the next couple of weeks, it will be light every day when I get up. We are gaining more than an hour of daylight each week.
I’ve been trying to kick my hibernation habit as well. John came over last weekend. He’s learning to drive, and so we spent a good few hours of Saturday and Sunday driving around. My car is an automatic and very easy to drive, so I’m not sure how much it benefited him, but it’s lovely to be driven around the area, rather than driving myself. Technically, I’m in charge of the car, so I can’t wholly disengage, but I did see more of the scenery than I usually would.
Before he can sit his test, he has to move through four stages. Some of the stages are theoretical. He went to evening classes in which he learned about how to recognise road signs from their shapes when they are covered in snow and which parts of a moose you should aim for if you can’t avoid hitting it altogether. Later on, he has to sit an ice-driving course and also complete a “long drive” lesson which must be a minimum of two hours. I have no idea how it compares with UK lessons (though presumably British learners don’t hear much about jay-walking moose) but it does seem to be quite thorough.
After you’ve done your test, you are on probationary status for two years. If you are caught breaking the law in any way, you are placed back in the learner category and have to complete the whole thing again. Probably quite a good deterrent against messing around in your first two solo years behind the wheel.
One of the places John drove to was Senja Roasters. I haven’t mentioned it before, but I lost my much-loved, heavy, wool coat a couple of months back, so I was delighted to find it hanging there on a rack. Being reunited with a piece of adequately warm clothing while it’s still three months till spring was a joyful event. They had decorated the place with hearts and flowers, for Valentine’s day, and Norwegian Mother’s day, which was last Sunday. Valentine’s day can be very tacky, but in true Senja Roasters form, the handmade decorations were understated and tasteful.
My working week has been quite cheering. Despite the occasional difficult case, I am generally heartened to find that the majority of people love their animals, and even if they are sometimes a little misguided (aren’t we all?) mostly they want their pets to thrive. I was lucky enough to go out with Berit this week. Berit works with us as a member of Dyrevernnemnda, so she is a knowledgeable member of the public who helps to give balance to my own specifically veterinary point of view.
She’s a very forthright woman. For those old enough to remember Barbara Woodhouse, I’d say Berit has an equally assertive style, though her dog training methods are more up-to-date. Her no-nonsense approach makes my job very much easier. I am also hoping she will meet with me and Triar in a couple of weeks when Triar, Andrew and I are in Tromsø for a few days holiday.
There are other cases in my region which don’t currently involve me, but are interesting. Thomas is dealing with a crisis situation with the “domestic” reindeer in both Troms and Finnmark – the most northerly regions of Norway. All reindeer here are classed as domestic animals, but they generally live a very nomadic life, where they are taken to different areas, depending on the season.
This year, due to cold weather early in the winter, followed by thaws and refreezing, many of the traditional winter pastures are now covered in ice so impenetrable that even the reindeer can’t find enough food. The situation will now have to be monitored until spring comes. In the meantime, it might be necessary to supplement their feed – something that usually doesn’t happen.
In addition, for the first time since I got here, bird flu has been isolated from a dead bird – a sea eagle, no less. It was probably always a matter of time. There have been cases in wild birds in many other areas in Norway and migratory patterns mean there was always a strong possibility it would happen here. We don’t have many domesticated birds in the far north, and almost no big flocks, so that is an advantage. It does mean that people should be cautious though, if they find dead birds.
So far I haven’t been sent out to do any testing, so that’s something I need to find out about. There was some discussion in our departmental meeting yesterday about how to tackle the situation without causing unnecessary panic. It doesn’t pass particularly easily to humans, but if it does, it’s serious. I’ve mentioned all the PPT we would potentially use if we know we are dealing with an outbreak in earlier blogs, but hadn’t particularly considered what would happen before it’s confirmed. If you are collecting a dead bird from a beach where children are playing in the sand, you could start all kinds of panic, were you to stride onto the scene dressed like this! Working as a Norwegian Government vet may be many things, but it certainly isn’t boring.
We’re into July now. Time seems to be passing almost too quickly. In a couple of weeks, the twenty-four hour daylight will be past. In August, I will have been here a full year. I only have one week of holiday booked this summer. Norwegian holiday laws are odd. For some reason, you are paid holiday pay in arrears, the year after you took the holiday. As I only worked from August last year, I’m only entitled to ten days of paid holiday this year. Last year, my only holiday was the ten days I spent driving up here, so it feels like a very long time since I’ve had a break. Anyway, given the continuing COVID restrictions, I thought it would be appropriate to use my week in August to travel up to Nordkapp, right up at the top of Norway. I will then have driven the full length of the country.
I had my COVID vaccination this week on Wednesday. Though Norway is a little behind the UK, everything seems to be moving along now. John had his on Thursday and Anna will have hers when she returns from Rogaland. I’m not sure what is happening with under 18s yet. I hope that Andrew will receive his in due course. The UK seems to be about to head into crazy territory. Allowing the virus to run rampant through the young people, knowing how easy it is for the virus to mutate, seems like a very strange pathway to choose, given that there’s a viable option to vaccinate.
I don’t have much else to report. I saw some moose on the drive to work and yesterday came across a gorgeous reindeer wandering about on Senja, but as usual, photographing wild animals proved more difficult than taking pictures of the scenery!
In the depths of the polar night, the light was bluish and very clear. Now in the height of summer, there’s a haze hanging in the air that lends the distant mountains a sense of magical unreality. And then there are the flowers. They are everywhere. I’ve taken a few photos as usual. Hope you enjoy them.
When I applied for this job last summer, one of the things that attracted me was the very varied workload. Working in remote places where relatively few people live has some (often unconsidered) side-effects, and that is one of them. If you are a (human) GP who lives in a city, you are likely to have many specialist centres available. If you have a complex case, then referring them is the obvious thing to do. But if you are a GP on a remote island, where referral is complex, where a hospital stay might mean that family cannot visit and where sometimes the weather means that nobody can get on or off the island, your workload, and the scope of things you might attempt to deal with locally is likely to be quite different. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they might appeal to different people, and the latter is more like the work I do here. In other areas, those who work in animal welfare in the field are a separate team from those who work in the slaughterhouse. Their teams might be big enough so that their members can specialise. But here, it’s mostly me and Thomas locally, and we cover a very large area and a whole range of different animals.
For large chunks of the summer, I will be working in the abattoir. The staff who work there full time will be on holidays and for now, I am the default stand-in. This is slightly complicated by the fact that the other part of my job seems to be speeding up, rather than slowing down, but most vets will recognise that there is a seasonal pattern to our work. I have accrued several days of flexitime, most it over the past few weeks, but it isn’t looking like I’ll be taking them any time soon.
This week couldn’t have been much more varied. I have been working on a list of places that need follow-up checks. These are farms where there were problems in the past, where Mattilsynet has recorded that the law has been broken. I’ve been creating files showing the timelines of events and the specific areas that needed improvement. The next stage is to follow up with visits, but in order to work on the histories, I’ve had to polish up my Excel skills, which have been sadly neglected in recent years.
Thomas and I also carried out an emergency readiness exercise, which is done twice a year. This is aimed at making sure that if there was a major outbreak that was a serious threat, either to other animals or to people, that we would be prepared. Here’s a picture of me, decked out in protective gear that we might use if there was an outbreak of avian flu.
I hope it never arises. It is incredibly hot inside the double layer of protective clothing. Those who work for the likes of Doctors Without Borders fill me with admiration. And of course, at the present time, there are staff working with COVID who have been spending weeks and months working in protective clothing that perhaps they had never seriously anticipated using. To anyone reading who has been faced with it, you are amazing.
On Friday, I had my day planned out. It was going to be a relatively pleasant day in the office. I had a few things that needed to be updated and I needed to check the lists of animals coming in to the abattoir next week. It’s someone’s job to check through the farmers who are sending in their livestock in case there’s anything in particular that we need to follow up. There was also a departmental meeting to attend, which I have only remembered now as I’m writing this!
But instead of a quiet day with an early finish, it turned into one of those wild-card days that end up being the high points of the year. I knew Thomas was going out for the day. I assumed he was blood testing some animals in our area that have recently been diagnosed with a disease that’s being tracked, so I asked him if that was what he was doing, and whether he needed a hand.
It turned out he wasn’t blood testing. Instead, he had been called out to assess the possible welfare implications of moving a group of reindeer from one area of Senja to another, using a helicopter. Reindeer herding is a traditional Sami occupation. There are families who have been using traditional summer and winter pastures for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Back then, the land was presumably not owned by anyone in the way it is now.
But since more modern styles of agriculture have become normal, the rights of each group can come into conflict. If you are feeding your cattle on one pasture and are growing hay in another, the last thing you want is a group of reindeer trekking through. Arguably, this should have been discussed when the land was bought, but that too will be largely historical as farms are often handed down in families and the sale might have occurred generations back. What was done in the past can’t be undone. Fortunately there are some landowners who are happy to have the reindeer on their land. If I was building a holiday home in the wilds, or had land I wasn’t using for farming, I’d love to be in an area where I was likely to wake up to reindeer in the garden.
When conflict arises, sometimes it’s best for everybody if the reindeer are moved, but that isn’t easy. There are times of year when the herd comes together for migration, and that is when they are generally taken to new places. The herders work with the natural behaviour patterns of the animals. Moving them in the middle of summer when there is plenty of good grazing, and perhaps young calves at foot, is not so straightforward. And that is where the potential helicopter comes in.
Anyway, Thomas suggested that if I had time, I would be welcome to come along. It would be useful to have an extra pair of eyes and also helpful if I can start to learn more about the political landscape here in the north of Norway.
Assessing the welfare implications of such a move requires an examination of two separate factors. One is looking at the landscape. We drove round the likely route, looking in particular at fences they might have to bypass or leap. The other factor is the reindeer themselves. Moving a group of adult male reindeer is very different from moving heavily pregnant females, or mothers with calves at foot. Ideally, Thomas wanted to inspect the animals. He wanted to assess whether there were any pre-existing injuries that might make running at speed and jumping over obstacles a high risk.
But of course, it’s not always easy to find groups of animals that have freedom to roam. We hit lucky on our first location. A group of nine reindeer were standing at the top of a sloping pasture. One of the herders had dogs, but as the reindeer flew off at full pelt as soon as they caught sight of the dogs, it was obvious that herding them that way could be almost impossible.
We only saw them from a distance. I assumed what I saw was a buck with a group of females. There was one magnificent male, dark in colour, bigger than the others and with impressive antlers. But I was told that in fact it was a group of nine males. How they could tell, I’m not sure, but I hope in time I will learn a little more about them and it will seem a little less foreign.
I had assumed, from the first stop, that finding the rest would be straightforward. What actually happened was that we spent the rest of the day playing the most spectacularly unsuccessful game of hide and seek I have ever been involved in.
But for an unsuccessful day, it was very satisfying. If you’re going to waste a day in the wilderness looking for elusive creatures, it might as well be done in one of the most beautiful places on earth in the early part of the summer. I was told before I came here, that the summer was intense. That the contrast between the white of winter and the green of summer was extraordinary. But what I hadn’t reckoned with was the flowers. They are everywhere, from roadsides and pastures to the forest floor. Different sizes, different hues, stretching out as far as the eye can see.
We were at the southern end of the island – a part I haven’t really explored before. And as well as trees and pastures, there were beaches and bays with white sand and turquoise water that looked more tropical than arctic to my eyes.
I was very glad I had started my fitness project a few weeks back. Though the general pace of life in Norway is slower than that of the UK, Norwegians walk much faster. When the group were walking, I could mostly keep in touch with them, though at one point everyone set off and scrambled up a steep slope. It was heavily strewn with fallen branches and knee high undergrowth that caught on my bootlaces and clothes. I found it so tough that I had to give up halfway to the top. Had I not, I have the feeling I might have ended up flying headfirst down the hill into one of the alarming looking nests of fire ants.
Still, Thomas offered to take a photo of me at the beach, so here it is. This is me: a typical day at the office!
In the end, we didn’t see any more reindeer in the wilds of Senja. We had to return home having inspected only half the group we had wanted to see. But we were assured the remainder were also all male and that there were no calves. Most of the fences were well constructed as well. It is now illegal to build new barbed wire fences in Norway, so hopefully they will gradually disappear. Thomas gave a cautious go ahead to the move. The owners of the reindeer will be given time to make the attempt themselves, but if that doesn’t work, the helicopter may be needed. Thomas told me that the ownership of the reindeer is also complicated. The herding is very much a family business, so children in the family are likely to own a couple of reindeer alongside their parents’ larger share. All in all, it was a very interesting day and by the end of it, I felt I had learned a few basic facts about how herding works. It’s a very different way of life.
We returned to the office, where I had to speedily download a link for a website to my phone. There’s work to be done next week that I probably should have prepared for yesterday. With a bit of luck, I might be able to fit most of it in on Monday, assuming nothing else comes up. But I wouldn’t have missed yesterday for anything. Sometimes you have to seize the moment. And if Thomas is reading, he might be pleased and surprised to hear that I actually found two reindeer on my way home. For some unexplained reason, this mother and her calf were lurking in the Co-op. Appropriately, they were standing right beside the Polar Bread. Now that really isn’t something you see every day!
I drove home from Storslett on Friday last week, but not before taking a photograph of fish hanging outside to dry. Birgit and I were inspecting a goat herd and another flock of sheep, and on the way I finally spotted some racks that were in use. Norwegian stockfish is dried cod, usually of the prime seasonal Arctic variety that is called skrei. It hangs outside between February and May and has been a traditional foodstuff and an export since Viking times. It is the main ingredient in the Italian dish Bacalao. John and I saw much bigger drying racks last summer as we drove through Lofoten, but as that was in August, there were no fish back then. So having spotted these on the way, I asked Birgit to stop on the way back and I ran along the road, hopped over the barrier and staggered down a grassy bank to get a picture.
I took a couple of photos of the mountains as well. It is such a beautiful area and the mountain tops were decked with fluffy white clouds.
By the time I got home, the false spring weather had disappeared. Anna and I went for a walk on Senja on Saturday. There were a couple of reindeer standing in a field and we stopped to take a rather distant photo. Though the grass isn’t growing vigorously yet, I have seen other reindeer taking advantage of the temporarily uncovered pastures this week while driving around.
One of our favourite walks starts beside a school and Anna spotted some skis standing in a rack on the side of the building, so I took some pictures of them and the bike rack that is currently not in use. Outdoor living and exercise is very much encouraged and embraced here, whatever the weather.
On Tuesday I worked the early shift at the abattoir. It’s much easier driving over at 5am now it’s light. It was a particularly beautiful sunrise on Tuesday and I paused on the empty road to take a picture.
On Wednesday, with Birgit’s (long distance) help, I finished the course work and the report for the inspections I mentioned in Across the Lyngen Fjord. On Thursday morning there was a summing up meeting. On Thursday afternoon, having finished my homework for the week, I was free to turn my attention to my e-mails. Most of my e-mails contain information about meetings or outbreaks of controlled diseases, but now and then I am sent fascinating updates on the complicated interplay between large predators and domesticated and semi-domesticated animals in Norway.
In the past fifty years, there has been a movement from culling to preservation of species such as bears, wolverine, lynx, wolves and golden eagles. Wonderful as that is, it does have an impact and the Norwegian government have to work with farmers and herders to try to ensure balance.
Most of the domesticated animals such as sheep and cattle, are kept on pastures near to a farm. If they are moved, they go in lorries. Though some sheep (and especially lambs) are taken by predators, in general it is possible to keep the protected predator wildlife areas and farming regions separate. But the situation is much more complicated when it comes to reindeer.
Reindeer herding in Norway is carried out by Sami people using a mixture of traditional and modern methods. The reindeer are semi-domesticated: they are not fenced in, but are moved around to different pastures, depending on the season, food availability and the weather. Unfortunately, some of the important grazing areas, that have been used for thousands of years, overlap with some of the priority areas where there are targets set for these predatory animals.
The political situation is particularly difficult as there continues to be a lot of tension between the Sami and the Norwegian government. Until relatively recently, strong attempts were made to enforce integration into the more modern Norwegian lifestyle, but the creation of a Sami parliament in 1989 and the recognition of the language and way of life has not removed all conflict. Traditional herding methods are not only affected by predators, but by roadbuilding, property development and even wind farms. The grazing areas are mostly in land that is considered to be “state owned” but if that is land that your people have been using for more than a thousand years, I feel it is unreasonable to expect a full acceptance of that claim of ownership.
Anyway, back to the report. Apparently, lynx, wolverine and golden eagles are the biggest predatory threat to reindeer in Norway. Information from NINA, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research shows that the wolverine diet is 95% reindeer and lynx 65%. Some of the herders report many of their calves are taken, sometimes up to 75% of the years progeny. And because of the nomadic lifestyle, it is not only direct predation that can be problematic.
In January this year, a herd of up to two hundred reindeer took fright when they were being moved and it was strongly suspected that this was triggered by predators. Instead of travelling safely to their winter pasture, they headed up into the mountains. The terrain was frozen and largely impassable, and of course there was no grazing. A small group of them returned, but without their calves. Eventually a helicopter was arranged so the herders could get an overview and the herd was recovered, but there’s no doubt that these predators, alongside climate change, have a huge impact on traditional ways of life.
Regular readers might also be interested to hear an update on the female bear with a taste for lamb and mutton that I mentioned in the very first blog post I wrote when I started work here (Piece of Cake). It was too late last year to move the mother bear to a different area where there were no sheep. Now they are waiting to see whether the bear is pregnant and/or whether she will emerge from hibernation with yearling cubs.
Though moving her might prove to be a long term (or even impossible) project, other solutions are also sought. One of the farmers who reported the greatest losses has been granted funds to restructure and he will change from farming sheep to beef cattle. The farmers who lose animals are compensated for their losses, but of course the picture isn’t simply one of monetary cost.
One of the focuses of the report was on the animal welfare issues caused by the hunting of domesticated animals by these predators. In general, domesticated animals are kept safe from that type of harm. The idea that living in nature is some kind of idyllic haven for animals is overly simplistic.
I will finish up with a couple of photographs taken yesterday. The days are now very long and light, but after a week or two of rapid melting, the snow has returned. In the middle of the day, when the sun is high, it is so bright as to be almost unbearable. I really must buy some sunglasses! These pictures were taken at seven fifteen in the morning and at eleven forty five in the evening. Twenty four hour sunlight (and hopefully summer) is just around the corner.
So here we are in the last week of 2020. It has been, I believe, the strangest year of my life. Had you told me in January that by the end of it I would be living in the Arctic Circle, and that I wouldn’t have seen my parents or set foot in the UK for a year, I wouldn’t have believed you. In May, I would have told you I was going to move back to the UK. I had applied for a number of jobs there, but coronavirus was holding everything up. But those of you who know me well will know I was never able to resist an adventure. My eye was caught by an advertisement for a veterinary job in the far north and the rest is history.
In turn, this week has been something of a roller coaster. On Monday, Ann and I accompanied Ammar to the little reindeer abattoir at Hjerttind. I am conflicted, showing you this photograph. Reindeer are beautiful animals and bringing them in to an abattoir might not be considered a happy ending. But the other side of that coin is that these animals have led perhaps the most natural life of any of those that come into the food chain. They have spent their lives outside in their natural habitat. And rather than being brought in by lorry, they were brought in on foot, though I understand a helicopter was used in the herding process. There hasn’t been enough snow, apparently, for them to be brought in with snowmobiles! Traditional Sami methods with a modern twist.
The slaughter process and meat preparation at Hjerttind is very traditional too. The only mechanisation in the process is a hoist. Everything else is done by hand. Every part of the reindeer is used. Outside the window, I could see the skins being spread out on the snowy ground in the gathering gloom. But Ann and I didn’t stay long. We were there to learn the process. The plan was that I would return the next day on my own.
But it wasn’t to be. I woke on Tuesday morning with a mild sore throat and a tendency to cough. I was very torn because usually I would ignore the symptoms and carry on. I didn’t feel particularly unwell. But Anna had arrived from the UK only two weeks earlier. The news was filled with stories of a new, highly infectious strain of COVID. The Norwegian borders had been closed and everyone who had arrived recently was to be tested. Anyone with any respiratory symptoms here in Norway should be tested as well, and so on Tuesday instead of heading to Hjerttind, I went to Senja with Anna to be tested for coronavirus.
The process itself was mildly unpleasant. A swab to the throat, then in through the bony nasal turbinates to the nasopharynx. Waiting for the results was infinitely worse. I had begun to feel more unwell and by Wednesday afternoon, though technically I didn’t have a fever, I was definitely warmer than usual and was feeling rough. They had told us one to three days for the results. I thought they might be delayed by the approach of Christmas and the additional testing involved with the new requirement to test incomers from Britain, but late on Wednesday afternoon, I got a message to say my results were in. I was surprisingly tense as I opened the Norwegian health website. I had been feeling lucky that all my children were safely home, and now there was the possibility that I might have to spend Christmas day isolating in my bedroom. But to my enormous relief, the test came back negative, as did Anna’s, and the worry lifted. Better still was the news from my parents that my dad has had the first of his vaccinations against COVID. I hope this means that I will be able to visit them next year.
But back to Christmas. Though I’m sad I couldn’t be with Mum and Dad, this was the first time in years that all my children could be with me. John has come back from the UK and is living in Norway again. It was lucky that Anna also changed her plans to come home early from university. The borders are closed now and some of her Norwegian friends are stuck in the UK. Britain has also gone into lockdown and many people can’t be with their loved ones.
And yet Christmas brought me joy, as it always has. We put up our decorations gradually and on Christmas Eve, Andrew and Anna put up the last of the fairy lights and now I feel as if I am sitting in a Christmas grotto.
Those of you with sharp eyes might have noticed another strange thing. Having moved inside the Arctic Circle, I had thought we would be guaranteed a perfect white Christmas, but most of the snow melted earlier in the week and there isn’t even enough now to cover the grass.
Triar has been the most hyped up member of the family. He loves unwrapping his presents on Christmas morning.
And of course Christmas wouldn’t be complete without a feast. In Norway, it’s normal to have the main meal and presents on Christmas Eve, but in line with British tradition, we still eat on Christmas day. This year John and Anna helped with preparing the food. We have something of a mixture of Norwegian and British cuisine. While we serve the traditional roast potatoes and honey-roast parsnips with stuffing and gravy and bread sauce, they are served alongside pork ribbe and lingonberry sauce. I was very proud of the crackling on my ribbe this year. It was the best I’ve managed: golden brown and wonderfully salty crisp.
And for dessert, there was Christmas pudding (it doesn’t get more British than that) and Norwegian kransekake, a wonderful, chewy almond flavoured extravaganza.
And now the year is almost done. Thank you to all those who have been following my adventures. I wish you well for 2021.
I mentioned last week that I would be working at the abattoir all this week and that one of the compensations of working there was the beautiful autumn scenery on the journey there. As you can see in the featured image at the top of the page and the picture below, this weeks addition has been a sprinkling of snow on the mountains.
Alongside the chilly mountains, there have been some wonderful sunsets. In the depths of winter, when the sun doesn’t make it over the horizon for weeks on end, one tends to imagine impenetrable darkness, but I am told there is still twilight. Obviously there will be more snow, but as I watched the sun going down a few days ago, I found myself wondering whether it might sometimes look like this.
I am getting better at meat inspection, in sheep at least. My colleagues have been very patient as I have asked them to check when I am unsure of something. Next week there’s a chance I will try my hand instead at a different animal. Our region covers an abattoir that is exclusively used for reindeer. It is owned by a Sami family who are also herders and run shops to sell their produce. It will be interesting to find out more about the way this much smaller enterprise is run.
One of my favourite comedies in recent years was W1A. It was a send up of corporate newspeak and ineffectual pomposity at the BBC and featured Hugh Bonneville as “Head of Values”. Sarah Parish starts series one as “Head of Output”, but during series two is promoted to the newly created position “Director of Better”. To give a taste, this is the job description for that role:
“The Establishment of a Director of Better represents a turning point for the BBC by placing the idea of betterness at its core going forward and beyond.”
“Working with a range of internal placeholders at a senior level, this is an opportunity to re-set the dial for the Corporation either by shining a new light on that dial or by shining the old light but with a new bulb so that no-one can be in any doubt about where the dial is or can have any excuse for not being able to read what it says.”
Imagine my delight then, when the announcement came this week that Mattilsynet’s new health and safety incident recording system has been optimistically named “Better”. Most of the computer programs we use are named using very workmanlike initials, so this is quite the departure. We can only hope that the new, confident branding of health and safety will ensure that we all strive for improvement in this area. Or as Siobhan Sharpe, the BBC’s Brand Consultant in W1A might have said, with commendable exuberance, “Lets nail this puppy to the floor!”
We arrived at our new apartment late last Saturday. Arriving without Kiwi was a sad blow, but we set to and unpacked first the car and then began on the boxes, which had arrived several days earlier. We hadn’t seen the flat before. Due to coronavirus and lack of time, we had only seen pictures and a film that Jørn Inge and Ann Helen (our new landlords) had made for us. It turned out to be everything we hoped for and more. This is a picture taken from the back garden – a view we can see from the dining table and the sofa.
Of course, as we’re in Norway, we couldn’t do any shopping on Sunday. There are strict laws here about Sunday opening. John had suggested that we should make life as easy as possible by having washing baskets in everyone’s room (does anyone else have a sock monster that unpairs all their socks and eats half of them?) and of course, as Susie was now alone, we had to think about a new companion for her.
We managed to find a television on Finn. Finn is the go-to website in Norway. Finn literally means find, and you can find almost anything there from jobs to houses, travel tickets to stuffed animals, and even a date, if you feel that way inclined. We drove out to the house of the people who were selling the television and noticed again, as we drove, that there was still quite a lot of snow on the mountainside on the shaded side of the valley. In spite of the summer greenery, the thought leapt into my head that winter never really goes away here. Instead it temporarily retreats into the mountains with the summer sun.
Sunday passed and Monday came round and all the shops were open again. With thoughts of a new guinea pig, we careered round the necessary tasks with a happy end goal in mind. Though I am reluctant to buy pets from a pet shop, there had been an absolute dearth of local guinea pigs on Finn, and so we had decided to buy a baby.
We were aware that it might be hard to find things in Finnsnes. The population is under 5000 – though it is quite spread out. What hadn’t entered our heads was that the rather lovely pet shop would have quite so few animals. There were fish in aquariums, but the small furries section seemed to be filled exclusively with dwarf rats. When we asked after guinea pigs, we were told it was likely they might not have a female guinea pig for a long time.
We retreated home, feeling a little bruised. We had been looking forward to choosing a new friend for Susie, but what now? I rechecked Finn. There were no guinea pigs in the area. Not for hundreds of miles. In desperation, we searched for pet shops a little further afield. Tromsø is a little over two hours away. I didn’t particularly want to start driving again, but Susie seemed sad, so finding her a new friend was a priority.
The pet shop in Tromsø looked good online, but with our recent experience high in my thoughts, I decided to call the shop before we drove all that way. I was glad I did. They had three female guinea pigs… and two of them were already reserved. Feeling breathless, I put a reservation on the last female guinea pig in Tromsø and then headed off to walk Triar.
And so, on Tuesday, we drove to Tromsø and brought home a new addition to our family. This gorgeous little critter is Brownie and she’s a real livewire.
My younger son, Andrew, arrived on Wednesday. He’ll be going to school here in Finnsnes, but that doesn’t start until next week. I began work on the same day and so far, everything bodes well, but more on that in my next post. For now, I will leave you with some pictures from the Polar Park, which as well as being the home of the Worcester Red Socks (as I discovered when I did an online search) is the world’s most northern animal park. Well worth a visit!