Time is going by, and the harvest season is almost upon us, here in the far north. Not that there are many crops, but there are berries and fungi now on the forest floors and already there are hints of yellow and red on some of the trees. As you can see at the top of the page, there are flowers in the garden of the apartment we’ve been living in for two years now. I am going to miss the view, even though I can’t wait to move into our own house. It already feels more of a home than the apartment ever has. Today or tomorrow, my bedroom will be fully decorated and I can start to move my clothes into the cupboard and drawers, though my new bed still hasn’t arrived. The boys and I are going to camp out in the new house tonight though. I want Triar to get used to the idea as Andrew will be back at school next week, so when we do move in Triar will be home alone after only a couple of days.
The main harvest here isn’t wheat. Coming from the UK, harvest still brings to mind combine harvesters ploughing through fields of golden cereal crops, but I don’t think I’ve seen a field for growing any kind of vegetable or corn up here, other than grass for silage. The local autumn crop is seasonal lamb. Odd as it seems, I am looking forward to what is referred to at the abattoir as “sesongen” – the season.
For most of the year, the abattoir is fairly quiet. It’s only open three days a week and there are only two or three staff in the Mattilsynet office on any given day. In the season, staff are drafted in to work on the line, many of them from traditionally Eastern European countries. Mattilsynet fields seven people on any given day, and the whole place comes fully alive.
When I moved here first, I was thrown into the season and mostly on the sheep and goat line and I quickly grew to enjoy it. It’s the only time when two Mattilsynet staff work on the line in tandem. I was on the line alone this week (the line speed is much slower until all the extra staff arrive) and was thinking that shortly I will be standing instead with Vaidotas (who has worked the season for the past two years) and Ernestas (who is coming back after a couple of years off). I haven’t met Ernestas yet, but I’m looking forward to it. He keeps popping up on my Facebook page as someone who knows a lot of people I do, so hopefully I will be able to add him shortly. Working with Vaidotas has always been a pleasure. Soon we will be competing to see who can open the door for the other first and he will be picking up things I’ve missed and correcting them with quiet gravitas, while still treating me as if I’ve never put a foot wrong in my life.
I haven’t had the results of my MRI back yet. When I lived in the UK, there were generally good systems in place for doctors to follow up test results, but here it’s much less reliable. I hope they would contact me if they’d found anything serious, but the lack of contact doesn’t absolutely rule anything in or out. I’ve been mostly feeling quite good recently and it crosses my mind often that they may not find anything. Hopefully, by next week there will be an update. In the meantime, I should probably go and pack more boxes. Soon we will have to be out of the flat, beds or no beds, and everything will have to be spotlessly clean. It’s going to be a busy time. Have a pleasant week, all of you.
I’m on holiday from Friday next week, so there is a sense of keeping going until then. I’m very much looking forward to it. The past week has been both busy and interesting though, and has opened up my mind to thoughts of how I might make a difference. It started out with a meeting on Monday of a group of people who want to try to improve animal welfare in our area by improving the lives of those who keep them. There used to be many more small scale farms in Norway. Lots of people followed a traditional way of life where they had a few animals that were out in the summer and housed in a barn near the house in winter time. It became more difficult to make a living from small scale farming, so increasingly people had to work alongside their animal commitments.
But keeping animals is a tie. It will be hard enough to find someone responsible to look after Triar and the guinea pigs when I go on holiday. Harder still to find someone to look after fifty or a hundred sheep, or a few cows, especially if they need milking. So the networks that farmers used to have, where there were neighbours nearby who could help out in a crisis have, to an extent, disappeared.
And it’s not just about the work. By their nature, farms are physically isolated. You need land around you to allow you to feed your flock or herd. There isn’t a pub culture in Norway, like there is in the UK, and even if there was, here in the north of Norway, the distances between towns can be huge. And so the meeting was about trying to build new networks to support those who remain.
The social side of my job is something that I find very interesting. Obviously there are many things that can drive animal welfare up or down, but mental health is definitely there among them. Thomas has told me about his involvement in one such case, where he arrived on a farm to find the owner had almost given up hope, and he was instrumental in helping him find a way through. And Thomas is rightly proud of having done that. But to help more people, we need to reach more of them.
The meeting ended with a plan for more meetings, but I was due to go out on a welfare visit with Gry from Dyrevernsnemda later in the week. Remembering the potential bomtur debacle from two weeks ago, I compiled a list of all the sheep and goat farms in the surrounding area.
We ended up visiting two farmers on the list, in addition to the welfare investigation. We carried “Skrapesjuketilsyn” where we discuss the symptoms of Scrapie and the monitoring systems in place to track it. One of the farmers was obviously very happy to see us. He knew Gry already (Gry is a key member of another farming network) but when I introduced myself and said I was from Scotland, he said how wonderful it was to have someone who wanted to come to the north of Norway and was interested in working with sheep welfare. I confess, I am filled with inspiration. I would love, as a Mattilsynet vet, to be a part of a network helping the local sheep farming community. But I do have to bear in mind the constraints of budget. Next week, or in the new year, I will have to have a chat with Hilde about what I can achieve within the current economic climate.
Tuesday was also one of those rather unusual Mattilsynet days. As regular readers will know, Mattilsynet runs the OK program, where we check food producing animal breeds for various infectious diseases and for foreign or banned substances. Ammar had planned to go out and get a urine sample from a cow, but he was unable to attend himself, so he rang me on Monday afternoon and asked me to step in. And so on Tuesday morning, I drove out to a farm and spent an hour in a byre behind a row of cows, waiting for one of them to oblige.
There were a few false starts involved. Even the tamest cows are wary creatures when strangers come into their space. And of course, I was a stranger wearing a very odd blue overall and huge white boot covers with bows on them, so they were wary to begin with. One or two of them lifted their tails and started to pee, but as soon as I moved towards them, they gave me a very offended look and stopped again. Fortunately, I eventually managed it, but not without some very amused thoughts about the sheer glamour of my job. Since then Konstantin has told me there is a way to get the cows to urinate, so next time, perhaps I will be quicker, but either way, spending time around cows is something I very much enjoy, whatever the task.
This week’s blog is a bit short as I have to go and collect John and bring him home, but I’ll leave you with a couple of pictures of the decorations that have gone up in our office. I hope you’ll join me for more advent pictures tomorrow.
It’s been another week of changes. I had a busy schedule prepared, with two long-haul visits to hens to test them for salmonella on Monday and Wednesday, plus a trip in between to two sheep farms for routine scrapie inspections. I popped into the office on Sunday to check my e-mails. I’d been out with Birgit all day Friday, so I wanted to make sure nothing else had come in as I was due to set out early on Monday morning, so there would be no chance to check then.
It was bird flu that got in the way. Even though the outbreak is almost four thousand kilometres /two and a half thousand miles away, it had a knock on effect up here. At first I assumed it was some crazy blanket rule. To be fair, they’ve found bird flu in wild birds in other areas of Norway, but all of them a long way south of here. But it turns out that the problem lay in the lab. The same lab that would analyse our salmonella samples was currently working day and night checking for bird flu. So that was that.
Then came the news that one of the Tuesday visits had to be postponed as well. Had I been very organised, I would have found some additional farms to visit in case my one remaining farmer was out, but the rapid changes threw me and I didn’t even think about it until Tuesday morning, just as I was about to set out.
Because we are supposed to do most of our visits without advance warning, so there’s no chance the farmer can rush around tidying away the bodies, there’s always a risk that we can get there and find there’s nobody available. Indeed having a completely wasted journey is common enough to have its own name – Bom tur.
So far, I have never driven a bom tur, but as I set out on Tuesday, it crossed my mind this one could potentially be quite spectacular. My visit wasn’t especially important. Scrapie inspections are part of the annual OK program of routine visits to check for illnesses. We look at the sheep or goats and inform or remind the farmer of the clinical signs of scrapie (effectively the sheep version of BSE) and of the legal requirements around it, such as making sure all animals over a certain age that die on the farm are tested. It’s a useful tool for getting on the farms for a general check, but there’s nothing life or death about it.
The drive was close to two hours on snowy roads. The original day I’d planned actually had three visits, all in the same general direction, and the only one left was actually the furthest away. And I had Gry with me as I’m still green enough to find it really helpful to have someone else there with additional knowledge. Gry is a member of Dyrevernnemnda: experienced people who come out on welfare visits to offer their judgement from a different point of view than that of a vet.
So if I drove a bom tur, Mattilsynet would be paying me and Gry, as well as for the car and fuel, for carrying out a farm visit that wasn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. Still, as I commented to Gry as we drove out, at least the scenery was pretty. In the event, the farmer and her partner were there and I felt very relieved as we sat in their kitchen and drank coffee. The sheep looked in great shape too. It always gives me a lift when I look at well-cared for animals.
Of course, bom turs are not always avoidable. You could visit several farms and find nobody at any of them. But next time I go, I’ll definitely make sure I have a few more options. I also thought that now I am a little more at home with carrying out inspections, I need to get more organised. We’re supposed to visit ten percent of our flocks each year, so that over ten years, we cover every single farm in our area. And to do that efficiently, I need to make a list of all the sheep and goat farms in our area, work out where they all are, and make a plan to ensure I can cover as many of them as I can.
Gry was a revelation as well. It was the first time I had been out with her and she told me so much about sheep farming in the north of Norway. Though they have fences around the property, it’s quite extensive and the sheep can wander off, high into the mountains. Occasionally they can get over or through the fences, and then come down into the wrong valley. When they come back in, the farmers have to go through them, checking all their ear tag numbers to make sure the sheep they’ve brought in belong to them, and also check whether any haven’t come home. It’s quite a big task, collecting them all in and then making sure they are sheared and ready for winter.
Having done the visits on Friday and Tuesday, I had two reports to write. Luckily, as both visits had been good, the reports were straightforward. The second sheep visit had been put off until Friday and that was successful too. For the second time this week, we were offered coffee. Coronavirus has meant that for the last year, there has been little coffee on offer, but as I sat down around the table with Gry and the farmer and his staff, I felt very much at home. Going in for coffee was always one of the high points of being a farm vet.
I took a couple of photographs on the way home on Friday, after I had dropped Gry off. The temperature has dropped suddenly here. It snowed last weekend and then fell away to between minus seven and minus fourteen. As usual when that happens, the sky is clear, and as the polar night approaches, the air becomes very clean and cold. The upper skies are a beautiful pale blue and close to the horizon, there is a pink tinge. It crossed my mind that although technically the polar night hasn’t quite arrived, I haven’t seen the sun for days. It’s probably already below the mountains.
Triar is loving the snow and the cold weather. Sometimes he goes outside and zooms around, simply for the pleasure of running through the snow. Here he is in the garden playing with his ball.
There was one other piece of very good news, and that is that my friend who had been on the front line in diagnosing the bird flu outbreak is now fit and healthy again, and didn’t contract bird flu. I’m very relieved.
And finally, a completely random thing I found in the pet shop yesterday. I had noticed for the past couple of years that there are now advent calendars for pets, but now it seems that there is beer for dogs. Because what we really need is for Triar to be staggering around the house on Christmas day. Cheers!
Time seems to be rushing by again. Last year, when everything was new, it seemed to move a little more slowly, but I feel I am beginning to feel the rhythm of the place and the seasons, if not yet well, at least with a degree of awareness. We are losing an hour of light each week now. At the end of next month, the Polar Night will be with us again. In the meantime, the progression through autumn continues to be so beautiful that I find myself sighing out loud at just how wonderful it is.
My work is seasonal, as all who work (or have worked) with large animals will understand. This years lambs are being brought in to the abattoir and then their meat is beginning to appear in the shops. That sounds very blunt, I guess, but on some level it feels right that I witness the whole cycle. I have seen a few people on social media express the opinion that all who work in abattoirs (and indeed farming) must be sadistic or macabre, but that isn’t my experience at all. Most of the people I encounter are both down to earth and resilient.
As well as the slaughter season (as it’s called here) I am waiting for the sheep and cattle to be brought in from their summer pastures. Part of our job is to check all aspects of the chain that goes ” frå jord og fjord til bord” (from the land and fjords to the table) and one component of that is traceability. All farm animals must be tagged (or tattoo’d for pigs) shortly after birth, and the tags maintained until they die. All the births and deaths and numbers have to be recorded in the “husdyrregisteret” or livestock register. The vets at Mattilsynet have to go out and check that the farmers are carrying this through, so we will go out and do checks on a number of cattle and sheep farms in the autumn and winter.
As well as looking to see whether all the animals have ear tags, we check the farmers are keeping medical records for all the animals. Medication (and specifically antibiotic/antibacterial use) are much more tightly controlled here than in the UK. We also check that they are entering the details of their herd or flock into the livestock register. Failure to do any of these things results initially in warnings, then fines and (where there is a severe breach of the law) in restrictions on the movement of animals on and off the farm until the traceability requirements are fulfilled. Though we ideally check every farm on our patch over the course of a few years, we also try to integrate these visits with our welfare program. So if we receive a concern message from the general public, or for example one from the electricity suppliers (who give us advance notice if any farmer is at risk of being cut off) and we feel the situation does not sound serious enough to require immediate attendance, then we will try to call them to assess the situation, then add that farm to our list of places where we will carry out “routine checks”.
Life at Mattilsynet can be unpredictable at times, perhaps predictably so! During the season, there are seven members of staff working in the abattoir on any given day. I’m not due there every day, but as well as having the crew of seven, there is always someone listed as back-up. It was me on Monday this week, and so I was not entirely surprised when a colleague called me on Sunday night to explain that one of their children was sick, and therefore they needed me to go in. Because there are so many staff, engaged in different tasks, and we have to cover the whole day (which can often be longer than the standard seven and three quarter hour working day) the start times are staggered. The first vet there, who has to carry out the live animal checks, comes in at 05:45 in the morning. The next wave comes at 06:45, another at 07.45 and the last at 08:15.
I was due to be in with the second wave, starting at 06:45. It takes me about half an hour to get up, and then close to an hour to drive my car to work, grab the keys to one of the work cars from the office (if I haven’t done it the night before) then finish my journey to the abattoir. Rather than starting work at 08:00 locally, I was now going to have to head out at 05:45 and so I had to head to bed almost immediately after receiving the call. I am always worried that I will forget to set the alarm clock on my phone, which of course has a whole range of times to choose from, and so I quickly set it while I remembered, then went to sleep.
It’s always lovely and cool, first thing in the morning, and I enjoy driving in general, and so as I drove in, I was quite happy. As I said earlier, it’s getting dark very quickly, and I found myself musing on the way on just how much darker it was this week. Only a week earlier, on the same shift, I had seen the moose and the detail of its white breath on the air, and I thought that if the same moose was standing there this week, I would barely be able to see it. I even thought that this would be something to tell you in my blog.
It was only when I arrived at the abattoir, that my mind came up against something I thought was odd. When arriving at 06:45, the car park is perhaps half full. But as I drew in on Monday, it was all but empty. It took only a moment to dawn on me that, in my hurry to get to bed the night before, I had selected the 04:15 alarm, rather than 05:15. In fact, I had even arrived before Thomas, who was working that day in Vet 1 position, doing the live animal checks. Thomas was quite surprised when he did arrive, but at least I had already had time to make coffee, which was gratefully received.
Anyway, given that I have raved at the top about how beautiful it is here at the moment, I’d better share some photographs. Seeing the sun out in a perfectly blue sky on Wednesday morning, I decided to use some of my precious flexitime and take Triar out for a walk. We headed up to the ski-slope area and took a walk there. The view was truly dazzling.
Triar seemed to be enjoying himself, rushing through the undergrowth and up and down the rocky outcrops, walking (as ever) four or five times further than me.
As you can see, higher on the mountainside, the trees are already bare, but looking down into the valley, there is still a riot of autumn colour in amongst the huddle of houses.
I awoke to another beautiful day on Thursday, and felt suddenly that I might as well use some more of those hours to take time off while it was still wonderfully light outside. Though I didn’t go on any significant walks, I decided I should make the house look a little better. Triar goes on the sofas in the house, and we do quite often eat while sitting on them, and therefore I try to keep them lined with fleecy blankets. The old ones were rather grubby and still look grey now after washing, so I bought some new ones. I had also accumulated some autumn candles, but was in danger of not getting round to deploying them. So now, as I go into winter, the inside of the house is looking as well as I can make it look. As the evenings are drawing in, and I will shortly be spending a lot of time indoors, it’s important that I have a space that lifts me up when I am there.
Setting out for work on Friday morning, I noted it was five degrees Celsius as I drove through Finnsnes. We live close to the sea, and even this far north, the Gulf Stream stops the temperature from going down as far as it does inland. So as I drove east, I was unsurprised to see the temperature dropping, quickly to three degrees and then further, down below zero and I could see there was frost on the undergrowth on the edges of the forest.
The sun was also rising slowly behind the mountains, giving them the most incredible molten gold edges and so I stopped to try and capture it. Unfortunately, by the time I found somewhere I could pull off the road, where there wasn’t forest in the way, the gold had mellowed into a normal sunrise, but it was still beautiful.
I took a couple of photos of the frost as well, not because it was anything out of the ordinary, but simply because it was the first of the year for me and a reminder that winter will very soon be here.
There has been a massive change in the weather this week. Until now, it’s been warm and sunny, on and off, but the forecast this week, courtesy of YR.no looked like this.
Not only has it rained a lot, but those temperature listings aren’t very accurate. I took John to the airport on Tuesday and noticed that the temperature was a rather chilly 5.5°C. I took a picture after dropping him off. The mountains were shrouded in mist and the river was a distant mirage.
When the mountain peaks emerged now and then, they too showed evidence of the chill in the air.
I was reminded of the weather forecasts in October and November last year, where they announced that the snow line was now at 400m, 300m, 200m and you could watch the gradual descent into winter.
I am very much better than I was. My blood pressure has returned to normal, thank goodness and I seem to be generally on the mend. I was back to work yesterday. I was afraid that I would be too tired, but I had a good quiet day in the office catching up and arranging things for next week.
Though I spent much of the week resting, Anna and Andrew offered to take me out for a Senja Roasters brunch on Thursday. How could I resist? I’ve been wanting to try the French Toast ever since I read the description and it didn’t disappoint. It was wonderful, filled with caramel flavours.
Our trip did lead to one of those truly embarrassing British moments, however. Thomas is always telling me off for thanking him and I probably still apologise way too often, but this was one of those more toe curling examples. The lovely waitress was explaining to us that there was no cured ham for the Banger Toasts. Instead, they were substituting chorizo. I’m not sure where she was from, but I didn’t quite catch what she said at first. When it dawned on me, I said, in a rather loud voice, “Oh, chorizo!” About one second later, my brain caught up and I remembered that, of course, her pronunciation was almost certainly the genuine article. It was more an announcement of realisation from me than any attempt to correct, but it was one of those wonderfully cringeworthy moments I love to share with you all!
We walked down the track to my favourite beach afterwards. Happily it was between rain showers. Though summer is passing and the green has passed its vibrant zenith, Senja is still stunning. There are orchids and harebells, sandy beaches and misty mountains. And sheep with bells on. What could be more Norwegian than that?
I said earlier in the week that if I didn’t post, I’d be swimming in photos by the weekend. Despite doing so, I still have so many things I want to share with you that this will be a whistle stop tour of Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.
There are lots of tunnels in Norway. Many roads which used to go through mountain passes, or clung to cliff edges around insane bends, have been rerouted to go through or under. Sometimes, the old road stays open, either because there is a village or walking area, or otherwise to provide an alternative route in the event that the tunnel is closed.
There is a tunnel on the E6 just south of Sørkjosen and Birgit recommended, on Tuesday evening, that I explore the road it replaced. The first section was flat and of the clinging to the cliff face variety. There were road signs reminding drivers not to forget to go round the bends and I wondered how many unwary tourists, distracted by the scenery, had gone over the edge before they decided they really ought to put up notices. The view really was worth looking at. One of the first things I saw was this classic red barn, built into the mountainside above the fjord.
The road itself is called Jubelen and Birgit told me that like “Rest and Be Thankful” in Scotland, it was probably named by people who were heartily glad to reach the top of a stiff climb. Shortly after the barn, the road began twisting its way up the fellside. There was a car park at the top, where a frozen lake was surrounded by warnings that it was drinking water and shouldn’t be polluted. The way onwards was blocked for cars and impassable without skis, so I climbed out of the car and decided to take a walk back down the road to take some pictures.
I walked quite a way down the road. It was a bright day and the sunshine warmed my back as I tramped down the hill. I have been noticing, for the past week or so, that there are patches of green appearing through the snow, particularly on banks that face the sunlight. Often when snow disappears, there can be weeks where everything looks brown and dead, but some of the ground cover here is so hardy that in places it is pushing its way through the snow. After months of white, these intense patches of colour are very cheering, as is the wonderful chatter of newly flowing streams that fills the air.
Further down the road, there were beautiful views across Reisafjord to the mountains beyond.
There was also this wonderful frozen waterfall. I guess it doesn’t get much sunlight, being on the north side of the mountain. A mixed blessing for me as it was hard to photograph with the bright sky above and behind, but I hope you can get some idea of the blue, icy beauty.
It was slower, walking back up the hill. I noticed a few things I thought I’d like to share with those of you who live in warmer places. The roads in Norway are kept remarkably clear, even when there is heavy snow. Gradually the snow builds up on the verges until there are piles so high that in places, you can’t see over them. A friend commented on Facebook that if she was driving here, she’d never get anywhere as she would stop so often, but once the snow arrives, there are very few places you can pull off the road. The laybys and passing places all have to be cleared and side-roads and entrances become narrow and hemmed in.
As the snow has begun to melt, I have noticed that it happens unevenly. Quite often the piled up snow has begun to resemble castle ramparts with regularly spaced clumps of ice perched along the top of the wall.
Winter is obviously hard on asphalt. Lots of the newly-revealed roads have deep holes. During winter, they were filled and masked by the hard packed snow and are only becoming apparent as it melts. Long cracks also appear, many of which look like they were patched up last summer, only to have widened again.
For now, the roads are dry, but when it rains, or the snow melts, there is nowhere for the water to escape. And so as we begin to approach spring, those clearing the roads have begun to create gaps in the ramparts so that some of the water can escape into the ground.
One last picture. As I drove back down and reached the bottom of the hill, I stopped to take another photo, looking back towards Sørkjosen. If you zoom in to the bottom right (thank you Lara!) corner of this picture, you can see the hotel where I was staying!
Wednesday night was quite the contrast. As Birgit had warned me on Tuesday, the weather closed in and by Wednesday evening the skies were heavy and there was snow in the air. Birgit had invited me to eat with her at home and so after work, I followed her on the road that led north from Storslett and out to her house.
I have posted about the wonderful red barns here before, and to my delight, Birgit has one of her own.
Birgit has a small herd of Lyngshest that she and her partner use for breeding and riding. She tells me that once a week, a group of local pensioners come and ride out with her partner, Geirmund. I have often thought Norway is a good place to grow old (often the ski slopes are free for over 70s) and this sounds like one more wonderful discovery of active retirement. She led me into the barn where we found the farrier working.
We went in the house and were greeted by the lovely aroma of food in the oven, and by Birgit’s seven year old Bouvier de Flandres , I Mo. He was as warm and friendly as Birgit herself and very soon, as we stood in the kitchen, he lay down on my feet to keep them warm.
Birgit’s house was wonderfully cosy and filled with photographs of horses and Birgit and Geirmund’s family. Her children, like mine, are mostly grown up, but as we walked into the living room, we were greeted by one of her two cats.
Once the farrier was finished, Geirmund came in and we ate together. After that, Birgit took me on a proper tour of the barn, or fjos, as it is called here.
It felt like a slice of heaven to me. As well as the older of the Lyngehest tied up in stalls there were chicken and sheep. Lead ropes and sheep-bells hung on the walls and there was the sweet smell of horses and hay.
The younger horses are outside. Despite the patches of snow and the dampness of the ground as it melts, they too seemed to be thriving. Birgit tells me they are very even tempered and cheerful, even when faced with injury or difficulties.
Despite the mud and the snow, we went for a short walk afterwards down towards the fjord. I stopped to take the photograph of the tractor and floats. I saw them on top of a bank as we walked past and I couldn’t resist. Farming and fishing, thrown together, old, but probably still working. Note also the boat with the green deck in the background. The far side is filled with holes, but perhaps there are parts that can be used. And you can also see the ubiquitous wires that spread over so much of the landscape in Norway. Often I try to photograph round them, but here I felt they were very fitting.
As we passed the tractor again on the way back, Birgit told me that in winter, there was an otter slide on the bank beside it. Presumably the otters will head into the fjord shortly for the summer, if they haven’t already gone. As for me, I hope that I will be back here very soon. Thank you Birgit for a lovely evening.
A lot to get through this week, but come with me first on a road trip. Thomas and I took off into the darkness on Tuesday morning on a three day mission. With coronavirus, the Mattilsynet team that covers Troms and Svalbard was a little behind on one of the annual campaigns that had been set at the end of last year. The plan was to roll up unannounced at a number of farms to check whether the animals had their full complement of ear tags . In Norway, farm animals are closely tracked from the time they are born until the time they die. All of them should have two tags, one in each ear, and that was what we were going to check.
Being efficient, Thomas had added other parameters onto the list. If we were lucky enough to find some sheep or goat farmers in, we were to check whether the farmer knew the symptoms of scrapie (a disease like BSE that causes neurological problems) and what systems they used to monitor the movements of animals on and off the farm.
It’s a bit of a hit and miss affair rocking up at farms unannounced. Farming is a job with irregular hours and it’s common here, where farms tend to be much smaller than those in the UK, for farmers to have other jobs in addition to their animals. Nonetheless, by the end of a fairly long day, we had managed to get round two herds of cattle and three flocks of sheep. I hadn’t reckoned on it being quite so exhausting. When I worked in the UK, we travelled round farms pulling on the same pair of waterproof trousers and wellington boots at each place. A quick wash at the end and good to go. Here, before entering each barn or byre, we have to enter what’s called the sluse, step over a bench or line of some sort in your stockinged feet, then pull on a papery jumpsuit, big white boot covers and a face mask. For all those who wear glasses and have worn a mask in cold weather, you will appreciate how hard it is to check anything once your glasses are well and truly steamed up. What with that and the freezing air and rough snowy roads, I was very tired by the time we arrived at the hotel where we were to meet Birgit who had been on a similar expedition of her own.
It may have been the best shower I’ve ever had. By the end of it, I could feel my toes again and the aroma of animals had been washed out of my hair. Birgit had retired early, so it was just Thomas and I that met in the hotel restaurant for dinner. After that, we retired as well, having arranged to meet for breakfast to plan the next day’s manoeuvres.
We set out in darkness again on day two. When the light did come it was lacklustre and overcast with the kind of distant, undefined sky that often heralds snow. Though the countryside was beautiful, it was close to monochrome with only the occasional splash of colour of the traditional red-painted barns.
One of the farms we visited was very impressive. As well as some 250 well-kept Norwegian white sheep, there was a brand new barn where they are building a glassed in warm room with leather armchairs for watching the sheep overnight at lambing. You can see the window of it here on the right of the picture.
I had been intrigued on the drive north to see a layby that was designed for lorry drivers to stop and put chains on their lorries, but I was even more fascinated to see that even tractors need them here.
Back at the hotel, more of Mattilsynet’s staff were arriving. There was a departmental meeting in the morning where the work would be planned for next year, but tonight the plan was to enjoy some food together.
Everyone was very cheery as we sat down and enjoyed a fairly traditional Norwegian Christmas feast: two different kinds of fish pate, a selection of meats including ribbe (a cut of pork from the flank) pinnekjøtt (salted lamb cutlets and ribs) mutton sausage and various vegetable accompaniments, then rice pudding with raspberry sauce.
It was great to meet up with other staff from the offices in Tromsø and Storslett and I returned after all the visits and the meetings feeling I had a better understanding of how everything works.
And to finish off, let me invite you for a walk on Senja with John, Triar and me. Imagine the still, frosty air and the crunch of snow underfoot. The sky in one direction is a cool duck-egg blue. The other way there’s a wonderful sunrise that melts into sunset without the sun ever making it over the horizon. There is hoar frost on the trees and animal and bird tracks in the snow. And after that, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
On Monday, Hilde drove me over to the abattoir where I will be spending a good chunk of my working days over the next few weeks. With the short summer and long, hard winter, most of the spring lambs will be brought in before it’s time for the remaining animals to be moved into their winter housing. Vets play an essential part in the process. The health of the animals must be checked before they are humanely killed and the welfare and conditions are carefully monitored.
Afterwards, a team of vets and technicians inspect the meat to check whether it is fit for consumption. This is another chance to check health and welfare. All the information from the checks, both ante and post mortem, is recorded. Nobody could claim it’s glamorous work, but as well as ensuring the animals are treated well in the abattoir, the findings are used to assess whether there might be problems on the farms where the animals were raised. If the animals are too thin, have overgrown feet, or show significant signs of illness, then a message is sent back to the local Mattilsynet office, where their vets will contact the farmer and take measures to improve the situation.
On Monday’s visit I was fitted out with a uniform, boots, a locker and a card to open the door. Hilde brought cake again, and I met a few of the staff.
On Tuesday I drove through again with Thomas. I had met him on my first day at work and he seemed friendly, but I hadn’t seen him since. Now he was to give me my first taste in working in an abattoir in northern Norway.
For my part, I was most interested in the inspection of the live animals. It is hard to spend much time on the internet without seeing horror stories, but my impression over the course of the first week has been that most of the animals coming through are very relaxed. Though the pigs all had balls in their pens to play with, most of them were sleeping when we went to see them. Some of the sheep were more skittish than others, but many of them came and were nibbling on my wellington boots. All animals have fresh water in their pens and any cows that are milking are milked if they are in for any length of time. The surroundings are quite similar to those you’d see on the farm and most farms here in Norway are small, so a lot of the animals are used to being handled.
The slaughter process itself was quick and efficient. Thomas showed me how to time the interval between stunning and bleeding. With the cattle, we checked the animal was unconscious before being moved on to the next stage.
It’s a forty minute drive to get to the abattoir and the road is dotted with warning signs for moose. Thomas told me I would see more of them in the winter, though for now they are elusive. The filling station near the E6 has leaflets explaining what to do and who to call if you hit one. I hope it never happens to me, though it is possible I might be called out to do meat inspection on those too if they are injured and have to be shot.
It’s cooling towards autumn now. It was 4°C when I arrived at work yesterday morning. Though the trees are still clinging to their leaves, they are beginning to fade. The ground flora is wonderfully colourful and intensifying as a multitude of berries appear.
There was only one near miss with technology this week. Thomas handed me over to Ammar on Wednesday and he suggested some reading material. The season (as they call it) will begin very soon, and by then I have to be up to speed with meat inspection for lamb. Back in the office, I had chosen a pin code for the printer. You send your file, retrieve it and then put in your number. I assumed the process was the same in the abattoir, and so I went through the retrieval process and began to put in my four figure number. Luckily Ammar stopped me in time, before I set the printer in action printing out *9250 copies of an eight page document on red meat.
Friday afternoon was rounded off with waffles. In Norway they are traditionally eaten with strawberry jam and soured cream. It took me a while to get used to this combination, but now I love it. And what could be more Norwegian than a mountain of waffles to round off the week?
Sunday this week: a lovely day, and the day I had arranged to go out and “see practice” with Jan-Arne. I had been hoping to do this for a while, but it had proved difficult to arrange. In the event I ended up seeing only one patient, though Jan-Arne did all that he could to drum up some additional business, first by telephoning the previous days clients to see if they needed a follow-up call, and secondly by driving me around the entire district in a vain attempt to run over an animal (or cyclist).
The single call was to a cow with mastitis. I walked into the barn and as with the small animal clinic, had an immediate feeling of coming home. I miss farm work so much. I love the sense of peace that I experience when I am in the presence of dairy cows. These large animals are so docile; they allow us to stand so close and rarely object to being handled, except now and then when they need to protect their calves and even that is mostly done with a doe-eyed gentleness. But there is also a sense of community in farming that is so very different from city life. Years ago in Scotland, working in a dairy practice, I felt almost (only almost) as if I belonged. I wasn’t born to it, and yet as a vet there was a sense of integration. I was wanted and needed within their society, and it is that feeling of belonging that appealed to me, almost as much as the animals themselves.
There were some interesting differences. Norwegian farms are strict on biosecurity. I was fascinated to see the gigantic pair of wellington boots that the farmer’s wife brought out from a cupboard. They fitted right over Jan-Arne’s trainers and he clomped around with feet like those of a yellow elephant. I had to make do with special plastic wellington boot covers. I had the tremendous feeling that I could just walk back into that lifestyle. It all felt so similar to the old days that I could almost see myself there.
Any delusions about that were shattered later when we visited a farm where Jan-Arne was friendly with the family. We looked at a couple of their bottle-fed lambs and all the time the conversation was rattling on around me. I couldn’t follow a word and the farmer couldn’t speak any English. They had a lovely young daughter though, who kept grinning at me conspiratorially. She wanted to show us her pet lambs and tried various methods to capture them, including an attempt to entice them with some food. Afterwards, she raced around the field chasing them, a streak of pink in a pair of purple wellingtons, childish hair flying everywhere. Finally she managed to catch one, a sturdy black lamb of a traditional Norwegian breed. My biggest regret of the day was that in my haste to leave the house I managed to forget my camera. Jan-Arne very kindly offered to take some shots of the field and the child and the sheep and here they are…
Always difficult to get a good action shot, but it was a beautiful setting on a wonderful day.
The biggest revelation occurred when we got back to the practice where I had left my car. Jan-Arne pointed to the house next door.
‘I wonder if Magne and Gerd are in there, enjoying their day off,’ he said. ‘Did you know they lived there?’
Did I know they lived there? My mind was screaming.’Magne and Gerd are married?’ I managed to croak it out at last.
‘Didn’t you know?’ He was laughing at me.
Amazing the things I fail to register. Everyone else knows presumably and maybe they just forgot to tell me, but more likely I missed it. Perhaps they stand and chat at the desk about what they are going to have for dinner. I have no idea because after so long in Norway, my brain just switches off when other people are chatting to one another. They could be talking about me, and I would remain in a happy state of oblivion.
I realised recently that this was, in many ways, a blessing. When I return to Scotland, it always comes as a shock to overhear conversations which my mind automatically processes. There are so many preconceptions based around accent and word use, instant frustration at the banalities of life. Here I escape all of that. I wouldn’t change it, even if it means that occasionally things pass me by. I wondered recently whether this must be like for a young child, having a mind that passes over incomprehensible things that don’t really matter.
When I discovered Magne and Gerd were married, it leaped into my head that I should be worried about whether I had ever said anything reprehensible about one to the other, but of course I was able to dismiss that in an instant. I just don’t have those kinds of conversations. I would love to say I have never said anything offensive about anyone, but of course, there is Scary Boss Lady. Apparently the other staff found “All Change” so amusing that they had to tell her and she read it. Since then, she has tried to convince me she isn’t scary. She even appeared one day in a poncho with the words “Love Me” woven into it. I left no doubt, she told me over a mammary tumour, that it was her I referred to. In case there was any confusion, I had clearly stated “Dagny, the scary boss lady”. She tells me that it will follow her now. Even at the Christmas party, she is in no doubt that her name-tag will read “Scary Boss Lady”. Still, she can’t have been too offended. Apparently she told her friends in the cycling club about me on a train journey. I can imagine their wide-eyed shock as they asked her, “Did she know you would read it?” Of course, I didn’t know. But I was aware it was possible, because I had already friended some of the others on Facebook. Ah well, it’s always a good idea when starting in a new job to begin on good terms with your boss!