I’ve seen the sun! I wasn’t even looking for it, but went outside at work on Monday just after ten o’clock and, to my amazement, there it was!
I don’t think the feeling of joy this gives can be understood until you’ve lived somewhere where there is a significant period when the sun doesn’t come over the horizon at all. Long cloudy spells, even in the south of Norway, were not the same. I had a visceral feeling of joy at this moment. When the sun isn’t out, the light here is still super blue. I will add some other photos later, taken on a couple of different days this week, and you will see what I mean.
This winter has been hard. The snow came early and there has been a lot of it and on top of that, the temperature changes have been crazy. One day it’s minus twenty, the next it can be above zero. We badly needed the wood that Ann brought because this year has demonstrated that our house is not really insulated well enough. At super-cold temperatures, even the lovely new, powerful heat exchanger I bought doesn’t really cut it and the electricity bill last month was heinous. On the coldest days, when we come home, it can be thirteen or fourteen degrees in the house, which isn’t super-freezing, but isn’t comfortable to sit in. The wood stove solves the problem, but it takes a couple of hours to really start warming the place up. Before next winter, I will be getting new insulation in the loft and I hope that will make a significant difference.
As regular readers will know, I am in the process of moving jobs at the moment, though still within the Norwegian Food Safety Authority: Mattilsynet. I have spent most of this week working in the abattoir, where I am rapidly learning how to do new tasks, in particular to do with administration. The two main aims are to ensure that the food produced is safe and to ensure that animal welfare is high and though the first is very important, it is the second that interests me more.
For the first time this week, I have come across a situation where I am going to have to issue a fine. In Norway, it is illegal to send cows to the abattoir within the last month before they are due to calve. As their pregnancy progresses, the ligaments around the pelvis begin to loosen, and obviously as the calf gets bigger, it’s more likely that loading and unloading and travelling in general can result in pain or injury. In an odd coincidence, having not come across a case before, this week there were two.
In one of these, in my opinion, the farmer seems not to have been careful enough, though I believe he does still care about his animals. It’s not entirely up to me and Thomas explained that I will need to involve the animal welfare advisor before I make the decision, but it seems likely he will be fined. The other case was even sadder to deal with. I called the farmer and he told me that he’d had a vet out to check the cow for pregnancy and that the vet had got it wrong. It happens, of course. Mistakes do occur, but for the farmer it was a significant blow. He won’t be charged a fine as he sent me evidence, but his cow was pregnant with twins and he sounded very upset as he told me she was a good cow. Farming has to be one of the toughest professions there is.
Andrew is in his last year at school. He has known for a while that he wanted to go to folk high school for a year (before probably going on to university), but this was the week when many of them started accepting applications for next year, and to his enormous delight, he got into his first choice of school to study film. We had previously looked at ones closer to home, but the courses local t ous didn’t seem as well suited to what he wanted, and so he is going to move back to southwest Norway for a year. It will be strange without him, but I am delighted with how excited he seems. Anna spent a year studying computer game coding near Trondheim and I think she would agree it was one of the best years of her life so far – an uncomplicatedly happy time. As well as studying computing, there was an unexpected sideline at Torshus where they sang sea shanties and the culmination of the year was to sail a tall ship from Bergen to Shetland and back. It will be very interesting to see how Andrew’s school compares.
Last but not least, my mum is eighty years old today. I hope you have something lovely planned and I’m looking forward to celebrating with you in March when we come over. Happy birthday Mum!
This week, I have been working at the abattoir most days. I was working in the lairage where the live animals are kept in pens (and where I inspect them) when I looked out of the window and thought it looked remarkably bright. Glancing at my watch, I could see that it was between eleven and twelve, meaning technically the sun was up and it was daylight. Abandoning my work, I rushed outside and round the corner of the high building, only to find that the sun hadn’t quite heaved itself over the mountain pass and was still hidden. The scene was beautiful though, so I took the photo at the top of the page, to share with you the moment when I ALMOST saw the sun. There is snow forecast now, and clouds and warm (well relatively) weather, so it will probably be at least another week before I get another chance to see it, but it will come eventually. I’ll just have to be patient!
I am also having to be patient while waiting for word on my (still unpublished) book. My agent, Ger, has had quite a lot of positive feedback from publishers, but as yet, no definite offers. Just before Christmas, one of them asked whether I would be interested in making some edits, after which they would take another look. I completed the amendments just over a week ago, so now am back in waiting mode, though I am also trying to get going on book two again. Book two will be set in the lead up to Christmas and I would very much like to get some of it done while it’s still wintery. I admit that gives me a lot of leeway, living where I do, but from experience, it feels very odd to be writing about Christmassy things in May.
John and I paid a visit to Ann’s house a couple of weeks ago. Ann’s partner, Stejn, is doing up the house they’ve bought together and John was very interested in some of the practicalities of wood panelling. When I came to view our house, almost the first thing I saw was a horrible area in the hallway, where it appeared there had once been a cupboard, of which the only remaining structure was a piece of white boarding attached to the wall at one end. The previous owner had placed an ugly shelf and some industrial-looking storage baskets in the area, but neither they, nor the neutral paint that had been used to cover the wall, could hide the fact that this area had once been the back of a cupboard and was clad in various different types of textured wallpaper in odd shaped patches.
John took down that board last week and I wish I had taken before and after pictures. The hallway immediately felt twice as big and much brighter. I hadn’t realised how much light that board was blocking. Having seen the wood panelling Stejn has put up in various areas of their house, it struck me that, rather than trying to remove all the wallpaper from the entire hallway, in order to match the small area where the wallpaper is a mess, perhaps we could put up an area of wood panelling and make it a feature. The area that used to be a cupboard is wider than the rest of the hall, so it would be relatively easy to do and would look like quite a natural part of the hallway to pick out. There is another small mystery to solve however. In that area, there was a small, round plastic patch that was obviously covering something. John unscrewed it and we found some kind of electrical wiring point behind it. Whether it needs to have future access, or whether it was installed and the white plastic patch was just to cover the hole is a mystery to us, but obviously one we have to find out before we put any panelling in place.
John also disappeared out to the room next to the garage one evening this week, then came back in to ask for my help. He was building a workbench from the board he’d taken down from the hall and some old wood from the uneven decking that he and Andrew took up from the back garden before the snow came. I’m never sure where John picked up his carpentry skills. Neither I, nor his father, have any talent in that direction, though my dad is quite good. I did ask, but John couldn’t give me any clear answer, only that he’d just picked it up. Either way, I was impressed he’d built a sturdy workbench from scrap material.
Anyway, that’s probably a reasonable summary of my week. There are other people astir in the house. and Triar has just appeared, so I should probably get up and get him some breakfast! Have a good week all!
So here we are, almost half way through January. In theory, the sun heaved its way over the horizon for the first time in a month and a half on Thursday. As there are mountains in the way, I knew it would take a few more days for it to appear, but it’s a moot point since it’s been sleeting and snowing for most of the week. The weather forecast says there will be more of the same for at least the next week. Keep on taking the vitamin D!
Difficult case update: the first of my reports is written and sent. I hoped to have the second done by the end of the week, but Hilde suggested before doing so, that I should write out a timeline of everything that’s happened. This turned out to be a very useful process. There are a couple of things hanging over what happens next and a few things we still need to find out. Writing out the timeline has revealed a couple of things that I had missed the first time round. I guess our memories put things together rather chaotically – at least mine does when I’m going through something stressful. Now I have a much clearer idea of what we are still lacking and a couple of new thoughts crossed my mind regarding what might have actually occurred. I still don’t know whether we’ll ever resolve it completely. Life isn’t like a detective novel with a perfect tidy ending and all the loose ends sorted. I do feel more ready to keep working on it though.
We did get to Nordkjosbotn for our meeting. I took the two pictures above on the way there on Monday morning. I was only there for one day as I was at the abattoir on Tuesday, but I did get my night in a hotel! Some people travel a lot for work, and I guess for them staying in hotels must become routine, but for me it’s always been special because it’s rare. I love Vollan Gjestestue with its clean, comfortable rooms. Norwegian hotel rooms are generally small, but I love them nonetheless.
Hotel rooms aside, the most important thing for me was seeing other people. My social circle remains tiny, but meeting up with colleagues from Storslett and Tromsø is always enjoyable. I left early on the Tuesday morning and Astrid got up to have a cup of coffee with me while I was having breakfast. It was a good end to a pleasant trip.
I had a lovely restful weekend last week. It was snowing for much of Saturday, but in the evening I took Triar out for a stroll around the harbour next to where I work. It’s a small, quiet place. I believe you can buy fresh prawns from one of the fishing boats, but at this time of year, there isn’t much coming and going.
If you want to, you can sit and have lunch overlooking the harbour, but I don’t think many people will be taking advantage for a few months yet.
I returned to a birthday cake Andrew had made for me. It had two layers of sponge cake, one with raisins and the other chocolate chips. It was topped off with chocolate icing and was easily as delicious as it looked.
When the sky is clear, I do try and get out during the brightest part of the day, so last Sunday, I took Triar out to one of our favourite haunts just outside Silsand. The snow was too deep to walk far (once it’s at mid-calf level, it becomes difficult for me to navigate) but we wandered around the areas where the snow had been cleared earlier, where it wasn’t too tough. It was minus fifteen and when Triar first got out, he very quickly looked apprehensive, standing with his back arched and holding up his paws. I scooped him back into the car, where he shivered as I put his little socks on. I wondered whether he would decide he didn’t want to get back out, but he did, then ran around quite happily, so despite not being very thick, the socks give enough protection to make a difference.
From Monday, I’m going to try to cut down on all the Christmas and birthday extravagance, but for now, with the snow outside, it’s still perfect hot chocolate weather. Mum sent me some chocolate balls, filled with marshmallows, for Christmas and I had the first one last night. January should definitely be a month for cosiness. Have a good week all!
I had a phone call this week from a member of the public who had sent a “concern message” and wanted some follow up. In the UK, this is the kind of report someone might send to the RSPCA (SSPCA in Scotland) when they have seen an animal or animals that they are worried about and want someone in authority to do something about it. Here messages are made online via an official form.
One of the challenges in a new job where there is contact with the public is being put on the spot before you are fully genned up on how everything should be managed. Due to coronavirus, the learning process has been slow for me, but I feel I am finally getting a handle on things. Phone calls are rare (I can only remember receiving three or four) and as they can be redirected from a central line, they don’t always go to the person best placed to give an answer.
For me there’s also a language issue. As others who regularly use a language that is not their mother tongue have confirmed, if a topic of conversation arises where the context is unclear, it can take a minute or two to catch up. On one occasion when I was rushing out to a doctor’s appointment, I was called by a man about a visit someone else had made to carry out meat inspection on a wild moose. As I had no context, I thought we were discussing a call Thomas and I had made the day before. Luckily as I was in a hurry, I accidentally redirected them to the appropriate person, but as you can imagine, all the ingredients for creating some kind of Fawlty Towers level farcical misunderstanding are present.
Fortunately there was no such misunderstanding in this case, though having answered the phone without any opportunity to prepare myself, I did manage to forget almost everything I had learned.
I took down what I thought were the salient issues: details of the nature of the report (horses standing in mud with no food) and the name and number of the person who had sent the report.
Running through my head was the knowledge that Thomas would almost certainly know more because the concern messages in our area currently come in to him and he shares the details with or (on one occasion so far) delegates them to me.
I ended the call and thought through my next steps. Obviously I had to call Thomas, but I wanted to work through as much as I could on my own before doing so. There is a shared file within the DyreGo department of all current and ongoing concern messages and so my next step was to look them up. It was at this point, I realised the first of my errors.
Quite often when people make reports, they choose to be anonymous and the online form gives anonymity as a clear option. Ongoing cases are not listed under the details of the person reporting: rather they are recorded under the name and address of the animal owner. None of the cases on the list fitted perfectly. Worse still, I realised that the central bod might not have even redirected the call to our office, but to the wider Troms and Svalbard team. The horses in question could easily be hours away in Tromsø and Thomas might know no more than I did. Still, having done what I could, I went ahead and called him.
Thomas is very patient with me. He told me early on that he wasn’t, but being aware there were many things I couldn’t do, I made an effort to take on the things I could, even if it was something as mundane as coming in early to clean snow off the car we were going to use. Sometimes I get ahead of myself (MATS, the computer system we work with, is very unforgiving if you make an error – it’s designed to work through things in order and going back to correct can be “challenging”) and then he rolls his eyes and tells me not to go so fast, but mostly we laugh together.
We weren’t far into the call when my second error became clear. I had received a request for information from someone who was worried about some animals, and so of course I wanted to help. But as Thomas reminded me, as soon as we begin investigating welfare cases, we are obliged by law to keep all the details secret. Even if I could work out which case it was, I couldn’t tell my enquirer what was happening.
Nevertheless, as he knew no more about this case than I did, he advised me to call one of the members of our team who receive and review all the cases when they first come in. They carry out a preliminary investigation, examine any evidence from previous interactions with the animal owner, assess the severity of any welfare issues highlighted, and then either close the case immediately or pass it on to the nearest office for further assessment.
And so I called Birgit and explained the situation and as well as managing to find and update me on the case, she explained how to deal with the enquiry as well. One of the things the enquirer had asked was whether we’d received the report. I know from dealing with veterinary cases that when calling people, it’s often true that if you haven’t got, or aren’t able to give them the information they want, it’s helpful to have at least one positive point you can emphasise, even if it’s minor in the grand scheme of things. And so I called the enquirer back and explained that I was unable to give details about what was happening, but at least we had received the message and it had been assessed.
I was relieved to have put the enquiry to bed, as it were. I hate having unresolved things hanging over me. But a number of thoughts went through my head following the call about how I could have dealt with it if the caller hadn’t been satisfied with my response. I could have explained more about the processes we have, and perhaps how such a case would be handled.
The initial assessment would look at whether one of our team had investigated similar allegations before and the results. Where there is no history, or where the history indicates the case should be taken further, the case is sent to the local office where the inspectors decide whether it can be handled over the phone – better in these covid times in simple cases where the animal owner can send a picture or video during or shortly after the call to demonstrate whether something is true or untrue – or through a visit.
Some thoughts crossed my mind about that possible visit too. I was called out to a similar case years ago by the SSPCA. They were trying to put together a court case against an owner and I remember going out and looking at all these poor horses, standing up to their knees in mud, and thinking that if it did go to court, I would be happy to stand up for them to try and stop their suffering. But I’m not sure, with hindsight, that I would have done them much good. I can’t remember what examinations I carried out, but I do have vague memories of warnings at vet college that giving evidence in court was something of a specialist activity and we should be wary if we weren’t experienced, which I wasn’t. Perhaps fortunately for me and the horses, it was resolved without reaching court.
It crossed my mind though now, that what Mattilsynet are doing is akin to training me to be the kind of expert witness I needed to be back then. I would no longer go out to such a case and ask for guidance from the SSPCA. I would go out armed with the exact wording of the laws and by-laws that govern animal ownership in Norway.
I also have a better understanding of how you could prove or disprove an allegation. To assess whether a horse or horses were indeed without food, we would start by asking the owner. We would find out through questioning, whether they had enough theoretical knowledge to know how often you should feed a horse and how much. But that would only be the first step.
After that, we would examine the food they had available and how it was stored. We might take pictures of that. More importantly, we would examine and photograph the animal and compare it to a prescriptive scale based on anatomical features. If you can see various bony structures, you can assess where the animal falls on the scale where 1 is way too thin and 9 is very much too fat. We would look at other details as well to assess more general health and welfare. I’m not sure yet about how it would work if we ended up in court (or indeed whether that happens) but all these processes allow us to be very specific in being able to back up our claim that “the animal looks like it is suffering” with verifiable and objective facts to demonstrate that it is.
The great thing is though, that having worked through all that, the next time I get a similar phone call, I will deal with it easily. Even if the enquirer is difficult to work with, I will have a raft of background information to help me deal with it. That is the nature of being a vet. When you start out, almost everything is a challenge, but as you deal with challenges every day, managing them becomes routine.
In my current role, with coronavirus and working from home, I’ve received so much intensive theoretical training that it’s nearly coming out of my ears. This phone call and last week’s practical training with Thomas has led to all that information clicking into context. I am finally beginning to believe I will one day be good at this job. On Monday, I am going on my long-delayed week-long trip to Troms and Svalbard’s most northerly office in Storslett. I hope Birgit is prepared for the onslaught of the three million questions that have become apparent with my increasing knowledge. It’s very true that the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know.
To finish up, I wanted to talk a little about daylight and about spring. The quality of the light here continues to surprise me. As you can see at the top of the page, we have full daylight for over sixteen hours each day. By the end of the month, there will be just over half an hour of what is called civil twilight around midnight. Civil twilight is the brightest form of twilight where the sun is just below the horizon: the same kind of light we had during the polar night.
The speed with which the changes occur probably shouldn’t surprise me. After all, we had it in the opposite direction only a few months back, but the daylength changes are so fast that the weather doesn’t really keep up. Though there have been a lot of days where the temperature has made it above zero, when rivers of melt water have run down the middle of roads and rushed down newly visible mountain streams, there is still a thick layer of snow on the ground.
Back in Scotland, it wasn’t impossible to have the odd day of snow in April, but it was a rare occurrence. I tend to associate snow with short winter days and near permanent twilight. But now I look out on all this wonderful light and the snow is still on the ground and it’s almost magically white. The picture at the top of the page shows the wonderful warm twilight as the moon rises over Gisundet Sound and the island of Senja. But the day time is equally rare and magical, and I hope that I caught something of that in this second picture.
This week has seen the return of the sun. I had hoped to take a photograph, but with the surrounding mountains and varying cloud cover, I haven’t actually seen it. The increasing daylight is cheering though. Anna and I made the most of the light that we had last weekend, taking Triar out for some wonderful walks on Senja.
This was also the second week of working from home. While there are some advantages to it, there are also frustrations. A large part of my job will be carrying out visits to farms and animal holdings, but for now all non-essential trips are cancelled. The best way for me to learn a new job is getting out there and doing it. I have a jigsaw puzzle brain. Individual facts or pieces have little meaning and are hard to remember. Understand how they fit together and I can build a comprehensive picture. Much easier to remember laws when I can apply them to cases, rather than trying to learn about them in isolation.
That said, I have spent each day this week reading around a different topic. The animal health day was probably the most interesting. I looked through the visits and checks we have been set for this year as part of the OK program and read around the different topics. As regular readers will know, the OK program is set up by Mattilsynet to monitor animal health and food safety in Norway and on my trawl through this years tasks, I discovered we have a few visits scheduled to herds of camelids (llama and alpacas) to check for mite infestations. I have never been to a llama farm before, so that is something to look forward to.
I will leave you with some aurora borealis pictures. We drove to Bardufoss on Monday evening to drop John off for work and on the way, we noticed that the sky was streaked with green. We pulled off the road and for the first time watched the northern lights from a place where there was very little light pollution. It was a show worth watching and we stood for a long time in the darkness, faces lifted to the sky, oblivious to the snow underfoot and the chill in the air.