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?
The feature photograph above is of a message Anna left me on Tuesday, having watched the snow gradually deepen as she sat up into the early hours, knowing I had an early start. She left it propped against the cream in the fridge, correctly surmising I’d see it when I made my coffee before heading out. She knows me so well!
I read an interesting report this week. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have carried out an assessment on Norway’s food safety, which includes an assessment of agricultural practices. I’ve probably mentioned before that when I visit farms in Norway, a lot of attention is paid to biosecurity. There are laws requiring certain measures, including notices placed outside the barn or shed to say that entry is restricted and a “lock” area with some kind of physical barrier or line which requires a change of footwear (and often clothing) to enter.
I don’t know the current situation in the UK. Presumably in some areas, such as poultry production, they employ a similar system and change clothes on the way in and out, but when I went on cattle or sheep farms, I would travel around using the same wellingtons and waterproofs with only a quick wash between each visit. Even during the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001, the only difference was that the wellie wash was a bit more thorough; disinfectant was used and sloshing down the car tyres was added in.
So I was interested to see what the OECD had to say. Unsurprisingly, Norway scored very highly on food security. This is surely a good thing, you would imagine. But the feedback messages were mixed. Despite the high score, the OECD criticised the system for being too expensive. The word “overfulfilling” was used. The rules don’t allow enough potential for increased value, apparently. Of course, that is business bunk for “your food is too expensive and therefore not competitive in our international markets”.
The Norwegian response to this was rather predictable. They know (of course they do) that their food is not competitive. I have been reading a lot around pig farming in Norway and it is specified and fully accepted that almost all the pork produced in Norway goes directly into the Norwegian market for exactly that reason. But they feel it’s a price worth paying to ensure health and welfare are prioritised. Biosecurity in the food industry is the cornerstone of the Norwegian government’s agricultural policy. Meat in Norway is, of course, notoriously expensive, but perhaps it should be. The recent discussions during Brexit about chicken washed in chlorine were an eye opener for many people. There are lots of ways to keep food safe and ensuring your animals are as free of disease as possible is, in my opinion, beyond criticism.
Anyway, enough politics. This week has been noteworthy because after two months of working almost exclusively from home, there has been a big change this week. Birgit, Thomas and I have been visiting our local veterinary practices. Building up links is a useful thing to do. Mattilsynet carry out some routine inspections on farms, but we can’t check everywhere and rely on reports from other people to direct us to places where there are concerns about welfare. There’s a very human side to that, of course. Animal welfare doesn’t always suffer because of intentional negligence. Sometimes animal owners are ill or unable to cope. Sometimes they are uncertain of how to care for their animals too, and part of our job is to step in when there are problems.
So we want the vets who cover our patch to be part of something bigger than Mattilsynet. We need a network of support. During the visits, Birgit explained that there are now two dedicated “animal crime” police officers in Tromsø who form part of a new initiative . This is important when it is potentially unsafe for us to carry out visits, for example, and in the other direction, when police activity leads to the discovery of neglected pets during the course of carrying out their routine duties.
And so, I have been out and about a lot more, and of course here in Northern Norway, that requires assessment of (and allowances for) the weather conditions. After a huge thaw at the beginning of the week, with landslide warnings all over the place, it has now settled back into seemingly perpetual snow showers. The thaw, while rather alarming, was beautiful. Instead of a huge flat expanse of snow, the lakes took on some colour, though the thaw was not long enough for the ice to melt.
But now the snow has returned with a vengeance. One of the veterinary practices we visited was up a narrow track between snow-capped trees. I confess I was rather envious of the vet who had set up her one-woman practice in such a wonderful place.
The Norwegian road agency do a great job keeping the roads clear. On the way to my last visit, I was a little early and I stopped in a layby and took a photograph of the E6 road. This is the main trunk road that stretches down through the whole of Norway and then to the southern tip of Sweden. One day, perhaps I will drive the length of it. But that will be a whole new project.
I started the week in Bardufoss. John was here last weekend and I took him back on Monday night and stayed over until Wednesday. The temperature is much lower inland and it was -24°C when I parked the car.
You really find out how good your vehicle is in those conditions. After a few short journeys, my lovely BMW started to tell me that its battery was not very happy (it’s a very chatty car and likes to forewarn me before things get out of hand – though sometimes I wish it wasn’t quite so fussy about seatbelts when I want to shuffle the car on the driveway). A quick check on the internet told me there was probably no real problem, but for the last twenty four hours of my stay, I was worried that I might not make it back without complications. When I returned home (where it was a balmy -4°C) the warning light was still on, so I decided to get it checked out. It was snowing hard and the weather forecast was warning me that it wasn’t going to stop any time soon. The garage Hilde recommended was busy, but they kindly arranged for me to go to the petrol station next door. After a quick trip home to remove the dog cage from the boot (because that’s where the battery is apparently) the mechanic very kindly checked that the battery was indeed fully functional and then waved me on my way without charging anything. He’s definitely gained a new client!
When I’m not in the abattoir, I’m still working from home and for now, I’m concentrating hard on trying to qualify as the Norwegian equivalent of an Official Veterinary Surgeon. This will allow me to work in the abattoir without another (already qualified) vet. The course really does cover a lot of material, mostly to do with welfare, but some of it is very technical. On Friday I found myself learning about stunning chickens with electricity, which actually isn’t a method used here in Norway. Nonetheless, I found myself back at school learning all about Ohm’s Law, current, resistance and voltage, only this time it was all in Norwegian. Life here does sometimes throw up unexpected challenges!
I was, as you can imagine, quite relieved to arrive home safely on Wednesday and I decided that having got there, going back out again should be kept to a minimum. Here’s a summary of the weather forecast from Thursday lunchtime.
By Thursday morning, it looked like this.
It soon clouded over again though. Wave after wave of snow has passed. They come in from the North, slipping in over Gisundet, the sound between the mainland and Senja.
There has been quite some digging of the driveway to be done, though happily my landlord keeps popping over with his snow blower to remove some of it. It’s getting harder to dig out though as the snow at the sides gets higher.
Though of course my driveway has nothing on the public car parks down in the town itself. For reference, the zebra-crossing sign is a good deal taller than me.
But one of the best things about the snow is watching Triar playing. He loves going outside and flolloping through the deep snow, burying his face and emerging cheerfully covered. He will happily play outside for ages and doesn’t seem to feel the cold.
And of course, after all that play, it’s time for Triar to go to bed. Sleep well Triar!
It’s getting lighter very fast now. We have an hour more daylight today than we had last Saturday. We took Triar for a run on the beach last week, and these pictures were taken at around four in the afternoon.
We finally have some snow. It’s been falling on and off throughout the week and it makes the world seem much brighter as well. Back in Scotland, growing up, it generally snowed a couple of times each winter. It was usually around zero when it happened and often the flakes were huge. They landed on the ground and stayed there.
Snow at minus ten is quite different. I have occasionally seen bigger flakes, but they’re mostly much smaller. If there’s any wind at all, it carries them effortlessly. Sometimes they move so fast horizontally that I wonder if they’ll ever hit the ground. Driving at night, the snow skitters and dances across the road in the headlights. When lorries pass, they create clouds of it that seem to go on for miles. Of course, if there’s a lot of snow and some wind, you can get dangerous drifts, but so far it isn’t deep and nor is it windy. It has, though, covered over all that ice, and to enough depth that it is no longer treacherously slippery.
There is, as yet, no obvious heat in the sun. It finally made it over the hill to hit the house on Tuesday. Odd how heartening it was to see it, though it was gone a moment later.
It was rather misty as well that day. I was fascinated to see the bridge to Senja had become a bridge to nowhere. I took two pictures. The first is at the top of the page, when the sun was turning the fog a wonderful pink colour. Moments later, the sun was diminished as the cloud thickened, and then it stopped looking warm and colourful, but was beautiful nonetheless.
And now it’s Saturday morning and John is home for the weekend and wants to take Triar out. It’s half past nine and already light, so who am I to say no! I will leave you with a picture of the cloudberry liqueur I picked up yesterday at the Vinmonopol. We tried it last night and it tastes of honey and late summer warmth. Cheers!
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.
Less that ten days now until the Polar Night (or Mørketid as it’s called here) arrives and the snow has properly arrived. Hilde said on Monday that it looked like the early part of the week would end the mild spell we’d been having (all relative, obviously – it was around 7°C) and the winter would start in earnest and my neighbour said something similar this morning. He has very kindly cleared my driveway twice in the past two days, using his snow-blower. I’ve also cleared it using the more traditional scraper method… which will tell you just how much snow there has been. “Ah yes,” he said when I met him as I took Triar out for a morning walk, “It’s no longer a case of whether there’s snow, but how many metres.” I gulped a little, but smiled and thanked him for his help. He also advised me not to leave my car right at the top of the driveway as it might get damaged by chunks of ice when the road clearers come through at night. So my cunning plan for not having to clear the entire driveway has already gone out of the window.
Driving over to Bardufoss has been interesting too, over the past couple of days. Though the roads are regularly cleared, they don’t seem to use any grit. Perhaps when it’s properly cold, it doesn’t make much difference, but right now the road is treacherous. As I drove past the flashing light on the snow-obliterated “Elk crossing – great danger” sign, I could see the light reflecting off the ice that was lurking underneath the tiny swirling snowflakes. Like the southern wuss I am, I didn’t get much over 70km per hour (about 45mph). The locals, however, confident in their spiked winter tyres, were whizzing past me at the normal speed limit of 80.
Though I’ve bought lots of things, including two ice-scrapers (one with a long handle and one attached to a mitten) I realised this week that I was going to have to invest in one of these:
As well as scraping off ice, there’s a brush for taking off the fluffier snow on top. I am very pleased as well, with my purchase of a pair of leather driving gloves with a soft, knitted lining. When your steering wheel is minus ten, it does take a while to heat up.
While we’re on the topic of excellent purchases, I must quickly give a shout out to the rather wonderful Vinmonopolet here in Finnsnes. Though beer and lower alcohol drinks can be bought in the supermarket, anything stronger than 4.7% has to be bought from the state-owned Vinmonopolet shop. Last year I tried to get chocolate Baileys and was disappointed to find they had none in my local store, but this morning, I thought I’d see what they had here. To my delight, I managed not only to buy the original, but also Salted Caramel and Strawberries and Cream varieties. So it looks like, whatever else befalls us, I am now officially ready for Christmas!
Of course it wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t spam you with some snow photos. First up is the view from the garden this morning. When I take a cup of coffee out with the dog first thing before work, it’s very much still dark, but as it’s the weekend, I could wait until the sun was up.
And from a walk with Triar last night, when I felt as if I was strolling through Narnia. It doesn’t get much more magical than that.
The days are getting very short now and in only one month, the sun will go down for the last time on 2020. It won’t come over the horizon again until almost the middle of January.
Monday started well with another elk sighting. This time, since the snow hadn’t yet arrived, I pulled in quickly and managed to take a photograph, though it’s not the clearest. Difficult to capture a moving target in the pre-dawn twilight.
In other news, the snow arrived properly on Thursday. For the past two days, I’ve had to factor in scraping it from the car before I set off in the morning, though so far I haven’t had to clear the driveway. . Even in those two days, I feel I’ve learned a lot. For example, it’s clear that you should never rent or buy a house in the Arctic Circle that doesn’t have a garage. Equally, if you apply for a job where you are expected to use cars daily from a car pool… make sure you don’t choose a workplace without some kind of covered parking. I expect I will get very efficient shortly, doing it at least twice a day. More if it snows while I’m at work!
Today has been rather lovely. Andrew and I set out this afternoon to go to Silsand on Senja Island. We go there some evenings and there’s a pleasant enough walk up to a lake, but to our surprise, the car park, which is usually empty, was full. Rather ominously, there was a sign up which said “Testing Senter”.
Recalling that I had read somewhere that a specialised centre for COVID was being set up in Silsand, we beat a hasty retreat, then drove north for a short way. A sign directed us towards “Woodland Lodge” and we drove down a little track, which to my delight led to a tiny pavilion and a stretch of woodland.
Andrew found some animal tracks. At first I assumed they were a dog’s, but if they were, it had gone for a walk alone. So we began to follow them. When we got down to the waterline, we found the lovely little jetty pictured at the top of the page. And though we never found the Halloween wolf… or whatever it was, all three of us very much enjoyed roaming around in the snow.
The slaughter season for lamb is almost over. I can’t pretend to be unhappy about that. With three technicians out of action and a vet colleague limited to inspection of live animals, I’ve ended up working in the abattoir every day for the past couple of weeks and it will continue for a week and a half more. I’ve decided to write a bit more about what I do… though it will be tongue in cheek. I have the typical dark humour about my job that I think many vets share. The life of a vet has some grim moments alongside the joy that working with animals often brings, and so it pays to laugh about it all now and then. So if you’re squeamish, you could just look at the photos and ignore the text altogether… otherwise, feel free to join me.
I’ve said before that the abattoir is a dangerous place. We have to wear a lot of PPE ( I no longer have to explain what that means – thanks Covid!). I generally work for an hour, then have half an hour off, but during the break, I have to strip off the outer layers of protective clothing, then put them back on again, which takes five minutes or so off each end.
Everyone in my section wears white trousers and a T-shirt as standard, and as I go into the sluice to get ready, I add a hair net, a white cotton short sleeved shirt, some rather fetching chain mail, a blue plastic apron, a helmet with ear protectors, a Kevlar glove on my left hand, a cotton one on my right, and finally a pair of waterproof latex gloves on top of the first pair. It’s important to put it all on in the right order. It’s hard to get a chain mail shirt over your helmet and harder still to tie your apron behind your back with two pairs of gloves taking away most of the fine sensation. I’ve managed to arrive in the hall missing every single item, including one head-scratching moment* when I reached up a hand to grasp something and realised that although my right hand was fully gloved, on the left I was wearing only the Kevlar glove. Goodness knows how I managed to remember the first and not the second, but there it is.
The line often stops while we are working. There’s a long succession of people, each one playing a small part in the process, and if any stage a problem occurs, then it is possible to stop the line while it is overcome. Most of the time, I have no idea why everything has come to a standstill as much of it is out of sight. I imagine generally, it is something mundane: one of the shearers hasn’t completed the job, or some item of equipment has lost power. But the other day, as I was leaving the hall for my break, I heard loud yelling. When I turned round, someone was running to stop the line. With a sense of shock, I saw one of the engineers was up in the rafters. His shirt was entangled in one of the meathooks and he was being dragged towards the edge of the inspection platform. Luckily the line stopped in time and someone else began to climb up the ladder to free him. Which is fortunate for me as if it had ended differently, I would definitely not be including this part of the story.
As I said earlier, I will be glad when the season is over. There are good things about the work. I could wax lyrical about my wonderful colleagues and the simple pleasure of a really good sharp knife, or even the unexpectedly entrancing swirl of a chainmail shirt as you stride across the floor. But as I walked back into the hall on Wednesday, checked to see that nobody was hanging from the roof, then dodged between a pair of swinging pig carcasses, both decorated with one of the big red tags that means the vet has seen something dodgy that needs attention, it struck me** that you could make the most wonderful platform game based on the production line.
If you’re young, you probably won’t remember Manic Miner, who rushed around underground trying to avoid spiders, slime and at one point being pursued by angry toilets with flapping seats that I could never get past as I was laughing too hard. But for those of us old enough to remember the pleasures of a good platform game, I hope you’ll agree that the slaughterhouse holds loads of possibilities. As well as pork dodging, there could be ladders up to the ceiling with moving hooks to avoid, a run through the flaming hot section where the hair is burned off the pigs, and a section with slippery bits of fat lying on the floor, just waiting for you to put your heel on them and slide into oblivion.
Anyway, enough of that. Back to the real world. It did snow a little, as you can see from the pictures of the frozen pond halfway up the page. But before that there were a few days when the temperature dropped fifteen degrees overnight. The resulting hoar frost was the best I have ever seen. Everything was sparkling, each blade of grass and tree branch wonderfully decorated: white on blue. I stopped half way home to take some pictures, one of which is at the top of the page. The rest I will add below. So while work is less than perfect, I am still marvelling every day about the fact that I get to live somewhere so beautiful. And as the winter arrives in full, I very much hope to share it all with you.
* Head-scratching is neither advisable with gloved hands, nor really possible with a helmet on. ‘Twas only a figure of speech.
**It was the thought that struck me, not a lump of pivoting pork. Just so we’re clear!
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!”
This is one of my favourite short walks along a section of the old King’s Road, or Post Road that runs along the coast. There are many such roads around Norway and until relatively recently, these were the main roads around the country.
I’m not actually on Kongeveien yet. The first thing that comes into view is the tiny church at Varhaug.
It hasn’t been cold for long. The river is still flowing, albeit with some ice around the stones.
It’s such a wonderfully clear day.
If you look at the two photos above, you can see the snow has melted on the south side of the stones and not the north, a reflection of the sun’s low winter path across the sky.
I saw a number of other people out enjoying the sunshine. Below is a typical grouping, two young women, two dogs, one pushchair. When the sun is shining, it’s time to be outside.
It can be difficult to photograph all the things I love to look at. I am always fascinated with the rugged outlines of the stone walls, so different from those in the UK. I also love the clean lines of the branches against that vast sky, but it can be difficult to capture.