FOOC – Sweden’s wolves

My report for FOOC (From Our Own Correspondent) from the forests of central Sweden, on how hunters and conservationists are finding that – when it comes to the return of wolves – they don’t always disagree.

World Service programme page here

Script reproduced below:

It’s close to midnight. Clouds are scudding across the moon. And then, somewhere in the dark, a twig snaps.

Out in the forest, in the middle of Sweden, that is a little unsettling. Not least because the wolf expert with me, Marcus Eldh, has just delivered an eerily realistic howl in order to attract the attention of a roaming wolf pack, which is now circling around us.

Homo sapiens has always had an uneasy relationship with Canis lupus, the grey wolf.

Sweden once had thousands of wolves. But from the mid-19th century, when people began hunting with guns, all the Scandinavian countries saw their wolf populations wiped out.

Between 1966 – when Sweden’s last wolf was shot – and the 1980s – when a few wolves re-entered the country from isolated packs in Arctic Finland and Russia – a generation of Swedes grew up without them. Hunting laws were established, and hunting traditions indulged, at a time when the forest’s apex predator was absent.

Hunting remains big. Each year, 100,000 moose – around a third of the total in Sweden – are despatched for meat, or for sport, by gun-toting hopefuls.

Today Norway and Sweden share a shaky total of around 250 wolves – but they all descend from just five individuals. Genetically, every animal is more closely related to every other than siblings. Inbreeding is embedding congenital abnormalities.

Controversially, in 2010 Sweden lifted its ban on wolf-hunting, granting licences for a set number of kills each year. The decision was made ostensibly to reduce inbreeding levels, but critics say targeting of inbred animals was inadequate. Suspicions persist that it was more of a sop to Sweden’s powerful, royally-backed hunting establishment than anything else. The European Union formally reprimanded Sweden over the policy in 2011 – and earlier this year the wolf-hunt was halted pending a judicial review.

According to conservation scientist Per Ahlqvist, the ideal solution for inbreeding would be to allow Sweden’s wolves to mix with the larger Finnish-Russian packs. But Swedish law forbids the presence of wolves in the country’s north, where farmers – many from the indigenous Sami people – herd reindeer. If any wolves are discovered to have crossed from Finland into the reindeer-breeding grounds, they are usually shot.

The wolf-hunt has exposed divisions running through Swedish society, between hunters and conservationists, rich and poor, rural and urban, south and north, even between the Sami and other Swedes. Ahlqvist identifies “a very contradictory attitude”.

“Wolves are welcome,” he says, “but they are not tolerated.”

Wolf-tracker Marcus Eldh supports the principle of hunting, but decries the excess. “I know one hunter who shot 23 foxes to help ‘save’ the roe deer,” he says. “But then he went and shot the deer as well.”

Outside Skinnskatteberg, a small railway town in the coniferous woods of central Sweden, Allan Andersson farms sheep plumb in the middle of a wolf territory.

“We haven’t had any problems because of good fences,” he tells me, describing the shoulder-height barriers around his fields, electrified with 10,000 volts. The cost of the fences was partly subsidised by the Swedish government – who also pay compensation for any sheep killed by wolves.

“We even benefit from the wolf,” Andersson says. “Half my bed-and-breakfast business comes from tourists.”

Unusually, these are often Swedish tourists, many from the generation that grew up wolf-less in the 1960s and 70s. The day I visited, publisher Mikael Persson had travelled six hours for the chance of a wolf encounter.

Out in the forest that night, the wolves came within thirty metres of our campfire, their howls echoing back and forth in pitch darkness. It was thrilling – but also surprisingly reassuring.

I can see how hunting matters to many Swedes, especially for the close connection to the outdoors it can bring. What’s less easy to understand is the desire, now commonly expressed, to eradicate the wolf altogether.

The last person killed by a wild wolf in Sweden was in 1853. Only around 300 sheep are lost to wolves each year, out of a population approaching a million. By some reckonings, wolves take fewer moose than are hit by drivers on Swedish roads.

Yet a kind of primal hatred is leading poachers to decimate even Sweden’s depleted, inbred packs.

But the tide may yet turn. Per Ahlqvist explained that last winter he managed to dart a pair of Finnish wolves spotted in northern Sweden and fly them south by helicopter before they could be shot.

This Finnish pair has settled – and were recently spotted with young. Those five pups, uniquely, are unrelated to every other wolf in Sweden.

“If these pups breed,” says Ahlqvist, “it will solve our inbreeding problem for years to come.”

What’s less clear is how Sweden’s hunters will respond.