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!