Who’s afraid of big, bad wolves?

In a lifetime of accumulating memories there are some that stand out above the rest and which remain with one always. They’re the memories that don’t fade with time and which become richer for it. We all have them. One, for me, is from a quiet, warm night in southern Italy when I was woken by the howling of a pack of wolves. I recall standing in awe at an open window, looking up at the forested hills above Maratea and listening to a sound that evoked wildness and spiritual communion with the natural environment that was, simply put, quite unique. The howling drifted through the otherwise silent darkness for a short while before every dog in the area took the opportunity to join in with a relish and variety heard only in a Disney cartoon.

Wolves are very, very special. We associate them with intelligence, ferocity and mysticism. Mythology frequently makes reference to the special spirit of the wolf and it has inspired literature, poetry and tales of magic. One such author, who remains anonymous, wrote;

Perhaps it was the eyes of the wolf, measured, calm, knowing.
Perhaps it was the intense sense of family.
After all, wolves mate for life, are
loyal partners, create hunting communities
and demonstrate affectionate patience in pup rearing.
Perhaps it was the rigid hierarchy of the packs.
Each wolf had a place in the whole and yet retained his individual personality.
Perhaps it was their great, romping, ridiculous sense of fun.
Perhaps it was some celestial link with the winter night skies
that prompted the wolf to lay his song on the icy air.
For the native people who lived with the wolves,
and the wolves once ranged from the
Arctic to the sub-tropics,
there was much to learn from them.
Is it any wonder that the myths of many tribes characterize the wolves
not as killers but as teachers?

Such sentiments exist in all cultures. In Norse mythology Fenris or Fenrir is the name given to a monstrous wolf and the god Odin was accompanied by wolves. Other representations of wolves such as Varg, Sköll and Hati run through the *Prose Edda, which is said to influence Scandinavian literature up to the present day;

It is two wolves; and he that runs after her is called Sköll; she fears him,

and he shall take her. But he that leaps before her is called Hati Hródvitnisson.

He is eager to seize the moon; and so it must be’.

Yes, Scandinavia has a long and arcane association with the wolf. In Sweden they were hunted to virtual extinction by the 1970s but, ever resourceful, individual animals from Russia and Finland started a slow repopulation towards the end of the decade. The wolf had been declared a protected species in 1965 so an increase in numbers, which generated rejoicing by conservationists, was a good thing, no? Well, no, it wasn’t if you were a hunter and your club, the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management, had a strong political lobby. By 2006 there were indications that the hunting fraternity was avoiding areas where wolves held territories due to worries that hunting dogs might be attacked; there were 43 reported incidents of wolves killing or attacking dogs between 1997 and 2003. It was rumoured that hunters might even go ‘on strike’ if something wasn’t done about the wolves, of which there were then about 100. Forestry is a big deal in Sweden and is credited with easing the country through the global financial crisis. Commercial forestry companies, who own almost half the forests in Sweden, were concerned about a burgeoning elk population and the damage it was doing to their trees and their profits. They also wanted to maximise income from ‘harvesting’ elk so they needed the hunters. The solution was simple – shoot the wolves, bring in the hunters to keep the elk numbers down and profit margins could be maintained. Or even improved.

So last Saturday saw the start of this year’s official wolf hunt in Sweden. It runs for a month from 15 January despite misgivings from scientific bodies and the EU as well as protests from conservationists and the public. Wolves are starting to do well in Sweden although there are some problems associated with inbreeding in an isolated group. The population has gradually increased but the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency [SEPA] has decided that the appropriate wolf population is 210 and therefore a cull of 27 individuals is justified. There appears to be no scientific basis or justification for this number. Last year we experienced the first official hunt for around 45 years and, despite the sensitivity surrounding it, the Swedish hunting fraternity – 12000 registered for the hunt – managed to ‘harvest’ more than SEPA’s allocation; aside from the 27 to be taken out at least seven were shot and escaped into the forest. Just to put these numbers in context it is cautiously estimated that Sweden could support a population of around 5000 wolves.

It’s reported that this year around 6500 hunters signed-up for the hunt, dressed-up in camouflage and headed for the forests. As I write this, five days after the start, the quota has almost been filled. There’s little logic to the hunt if you remove any arguments involving commercial interests. The hunters say that they are preventing a measure of genetic inbreeding by removing some of the inbred wolves to make room for ‘new genes and new wolves’ although specific individuals are not targeted – the cull is based only on the number shot. Given that the original repopulation in the 1970s was generated by wolves from other countries and that recent DNA studies have shown wolves from outside Sweden have supplemented the population the hunters’ argument is both fatuous and dishonest.  Inbreeding could be alleviated by translocation so ‘harvesting’ isn’t absolutely necessary. Of course, if you’re a hunter and you’ve invested in all that macho quasi-uniform stuff then shooting wolves probably beats shooting elk.

A great deal of monitoring has been undertaken and a great deal is known about the Swedish wolf population. With its usual smugness the government insists that this knowledge supports the cull and indeed, a report I’ve read clearly shows that in some cases public opinion would support control through hunting. The question asked in the survey, however, was whether hunting should be used to control wolves that moved into urban areas and threatened humans, livestock and dogs. Well, of course it should – but there are no reports of wolves doing that so why ask that question unless you want to get that answer. One wonders if this would be happening if we were discussing leopards or tigers.

The wolf population in Sweden is red-listed by scientists as critically endangered and Dr. Mikael Karlsson, president of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, says, ‘We ask for support from an international opinion in order to stop the government from continuing the killing’. Well, something is happening. The lethargic behemoth that is the European Union [EU] is threatening to initiate legal proceedings against Sweden. On 17 January, the Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potocnik said in a statement, I regret that Sweden has begun the licensed hunting of wolves. The actions of the Swedish authorities leave me with little choice other than to propose to the Commission that it begin formal proceedings against Sweden for breach of EU environmental law.’ This follows his earlier statement of concern on 7 January and a letter to the Swedish government in December.

Will anything happen? Experience tells me that that when commercial interests are in conflict with conservation the former wins unless there is a political or pecuniary advantage to be gained. Will the EU and Sweden make a deal? It will be interesting to see if anything happens after the outcry has died down, when people’s attention is focused on recycling bins and the cost of energy. All I can do is express to the bureaucrats in Sweden, once again, that richness in life isn’t necessarily dependent upon a 20% increase in timber production by 2050 and that the sound of wolves howling long into the night has an importance and a value, too. Regrettably, you can’t draw a graph showing that and my fear is that the people who decide if 20 or 27 wolves should be ‘harvested’ or that a wolf population of 210 is appropriate respond only to PowerPoint presentations at off-site seminars.

* The Prose Edda is an Icelandic text dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and said to have been written or compiled by a scholar named Snorri Sturluson. It comprises four main parts and encompasses background, history and references to sagas from Old Norse poetry. Strictly speaking, it was a guide to interpreting the language and meanings of mythology so that Icelandic scholars could understand the subtleties of alliterative verse together with the meaning behind the figures of speech [called kennings] that were used in skaldic [royal court] poetry.

Lessons will be learned in 2011

While waiting for publication of the final report I’ve been absorbing all I can of the findings of the presidential commission on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last April. Me along with BP, Transocean and Halliburton, that is. I’m in Florida at some point every year so have an interest of sorts in the outcome and, especially, the measures that will be put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The human and environmental reckoning remains outstanding and I’d like to take comfort in knowing that a recurrence will be avoided. Alas, having heard the utterances from BP this week I won’t hold my breath.

A lot is wrong with the way that powerful companies operate – by powerful I mean those with huge financial and political muscle – as they eventually get to do more or less what they want. The huge financial interests involved allow for the coercion of government and facilitates the bullying of subcontractors so they get their way in the end. According to the commission, which has released a chapter of its report, the root causes of the event were systemic’ and that ‘absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies’ may allow a recurrence. So no specific entity is to blame and all share some responsibility, which is what BP has strived to convince us of from the outset. In simple terms the commission concludes that ‘management and regulatory failure’ led to the disaster, which comes as no surprise and which, all things being considered, is not a bad outcome for BP. This was reflected in the statement they released after the findings were made public when, in cursory and arrogant terms, they again cited ‘multiple causes, involving multiple companies’ and that the company would ensure that the lessons learned from (the) Macondo (well would) lead to improvements in operations and contractor services in deepwater drilling’.

Lessons will be learned, eh? When I saw that it had me thinking about how often I hear the expression and what it actually means. It’s platitudinous in the extreme but not an admission of wrong-doing; it’s dishonest and means in reality, ‘OK, something went wrong, we understand that you’re pissed, we’re not admitting guilt but we’ve acknowledged it and we’re moving on’. Now, of course, the job in hand for BP is to minimise the fallout from the event and that will be achieved by spreading the blame and the need for ‘lesson learning’ as far and as wide as possible.

BP was about 100 years old in 2010 and there is no questioning the experience and expertise that it will have built up. Halliburton started work on well cementing in 1919 and Transocean commenced well drilling in 1953. How, with all that collective experience, is it really possible that they hadn’t foreseen the possibility of what went wrong and put measures in place that would have managed the risks? The answer is simple – they probably did; someone somewhere took a decision in favour of cost over redundancy of safety systems. Saying that there are ‘lessons to be learned’ implies humbleness brought about by a gap in knowledge and infers contrition, but it doesn’t quite say that. In BP’s case it’s patently not the case and it’s as near as can be to being dishonest.

But it’s not just BP that advocates the learning of lessons; the rhetoric flows from all directions so you’d expect that lessons are being learned in a lot of other places, wouldn’t you?

In February 2009 the then Labour government was trotting out the same old line after snow and ice led to travel chaos on the roads and the closing of both bridges across the river Severn. With motorways blocked, drivers trapped in cars and families separated Lord Adonis, the Transport Minister, vowed that ‘lessons would be learned’ but it snowed again this winter and the chaos reportedly cost £1billion. In response the coalition Transport Secretary Philip Hammond announced in December that the performance of transport operators would be reviewed. He reported that a national strategic salt reserve existed for the first time but went on to say that ‘I share the frustration of the travelling public and we need to be sure that we are doing everything possible to keep Britain moving. Complacency is not an option. There are lessons to be learned……’.

The Commonwealth Games Federation [CGF] is the governing body for the debacle that led up to the games in Delhi last June. They met in Glasgow for a debriefing on issues such as running sewage, human faeces and falling ceilings in the accommodation, packs of wild dogs, poor security and a collapsing bridge that preceded the opening ceremony, where a lack of protection allowed the competition surfaces to be damaged. In a statement issued by CGF they declared that ‘lessons would be learned’ from problems in Delhi. What sort of lesson needs to be learned when a bridge collapses? I’ve walked on bridges built by the Romans, for heaven’s sake.

Just before Christmas some 40000 homes in Northern Ireland were without water after distribution pipes fractured in the cold weather, reservoirs emptied and management ran around like headless leprechauns. Conor Murphy, minister at the Department of Regional Development [DRP], admitted serious failures as he sympathetically explained how he understood the frustration and anger of being without flushing toilets, hot baths, cooking and drinking water over the holidays. He believed that ‘lessons need to be learned’ and put the point very sincerely. I’m sure that people collecting bottled water from car parks on Christmas morning in below-freezing temperatures agreed with him. But wait a moment – back in July four directors of Northern Ireland Water [NIW], which is the state-owned monopoly controlling water supplies, were fired because of irregularities in the award of 73 contracts. Paul Priestly, permanent secretary to the DRP and speaking at the time, said he found the failings ‘absolutely staggering’ so one wonders how Mr Murphy reached the conclusion that there were still lessons to be learned six months later.

On 2 January the coalition government’s Prisons Minister, Crispin Blunt, promised us that ‘lessons would be learnt’ after a riot at Ford Open Prison in West Sussex erupted when prison officers attempted to breathalyse inmates who had been drinking alcohol as part of their New Year celebrations. The ensuing conflagration caused damage to six accommodation blocks, a gym, mail room and snooker and pool rooms and resulted in some buildings being burned to the ground. At the time some 500 inmates were being overseen by six, yes six, prison staff only two of whom were actually trained prison officers. So what was there to learn about six people watching over 500 prisoners with virtually unlimited access to alcohol?

And just to prove what a piece of absolute nonsense it is last Sunday in The Independent it was stated that the success of the England cricket team in winning the Ashes as well as the rescuing of the Chilean miners represented opportunities for ‘lessons to be learned’ in how we manage our personal finances. Excuse me? In all honesty I struggled to make the connection but I certainly learned two lessons from the essay; first, the expression is trite and reeled off so frequently as to be meaningless and, second, I was reminded why I don’t read the Independent.

So now when I hear ‘lessons will be learned’ I tend to be more than a little cynical about the sincerity and the honesty of the person delivering the message as well as the organisation it’s coming from. After all, will BP double the number of safety systems as a result of Deepwater Horizon? Will ill-prepared Commonwealth Games hosts be excluded from consideration? Will we see more snow-clearing equipment or salt reserves even if we don’t need them for years? A realistic ratio of prison officers to detainees? Transparency in Northern Ireland? We all know the answer. And as for learning lessons about managing personal finance – doh!

Just another year – but forward or backward?

2010 ended with a whimper; it’s been foggy and very damp outside my office window and mild; very different to the snow and sub-zero temperatures prevailing when we returned from Sweden for the holidays. The trip that usually takes a few hours took two days, involved cancelled trains, cancelled planes, a fitful but greatly-appreciated sleep in Copenhagen before a forced change of airport and some dodgy moments in the taxi that brought us here. We’d read about the chaos at Heathrow and how the country had come to a standstill following the first flurry of snow so we expected something much worse than we found. By the time we landed both runways were open and planes were moving the backlog of red-eyed and dishevelled travellers but there were still huge stacks of baggage lying around and a lot of despondent expressions. Beyond the airport boundary the roads were clear of marooned drivers, who had apparently survived the previous few days through a combination of soup from the Salvation Army and messages of moral support from the tabloid press. BAA’s completely inept management and arrogant disregard for its customers generated justifiable outrage but gave us plenty to moan about so things were more or less normal in pre-Christmas Blighty.

In all honesty though, I was pleased to be out of Sweden for a while because it wasn’t quite so cosy over there, either. It’s usually pretty well organised but, believe it or not, the snow was causing some travel problems although the weather wasn’t all that was troubling the Viking spirit; it was just one of the issues combining to depress an already glum population that was battening down for a long, cold winter. Sweden prides itself on maintaining a smug homeostasis and is rarely disturbed by anything more significant than the issue of the new Ikea catalogue; 2010 wasn’t to be the same.

Remember Julian Assange? In August Sweden issued an arrest warrant for him only to revoke it next day. Was the Swedish special prosecutor’s office misbehaving or just maladroit in the manner in which charges against him were dealt with? First the allegations were dismissed and then resurrected after appeal by the two girls involved. Then another arrest warrant was issued, allowing barmy left-wing itinerant intellects the opportunity to tell us that free speech is being stifled. Maybe it is but someone needs to un-muddy the waters for us as I seriously wonder whether the guy can now get a fair hearing after so much speculation and, this is the ironic part, leaking of information to the media. Back in June it had been so much easier to put our faith in something less tangible than the course of due process; true love.

The collective euphoria of Crown Princess Victoria’s fairy-tale wedding was short-lived and with Julian looking like he wouldn’t be back for his day in court the country was dealt another body-blow when it was dished-up a dose of reality at the September general election. Life took on a different perspective as the ruling coalition lost ground to the Sweden Democrats, a party that leans a fair bit to the right and has strong views on immigration. Immigrants represent nearly one in seven of the population but this issue is usually grumbled about in hushed tones. Although this was only the second time that a Conservative government had been re-elected it was returned without an overall majority and the Sweden Democrats entered parliament for the first time. The previously ever-popular Social Democrats – these guys have ruled for 65 of the past 78 years and are largely responsible for the sumptuous welfare benefits that are enjoyed – were given the finger. Thrown into turmoil at election results that were the worst since 1914, they forced their cold-eyed leader, Mona Sahlin, to walk the plank. The turmoil left the government reeling from the political uncertainty and it had to spend as much time managing its allegiances, alliances and negotiating margins as it did addressing the economy, energy and the environment, which are perpetual and major issues. As the Swedish winter was about to plunge the country into dim twilight more than a few Swedes were reflecting on the consequences of getting what they wished for.

Certainly the unfortunate souls being picked-off by a sniper at bus stops in Malmö did.

In November it was the turn of the Monarchy; with the political situation becoming clearer and the dust settling a book called The Reluctant Monarch was published. The 20,000 print run flew off the shelves as word spread that it alleged the revered and previously respected King Carl Gustaf XVI was actually something of a rake. Here was a monarch of great dignity and mild countenance who, the book alleged, attended strip clubs and wild sex parties while philandering with a buxom model. To make things worse, it was also alleged that he used the secret service – Sapo – to manage the necessary cover-up by repossessing compromising photographs from the sirens themselves, presumably under threat of having their welfare benefits withheld. It seems that the Royal Family have done the proper thing – they reportedly discussed it sensibly and agreed to move on – but I wonder what else there is over on the dark side. The King is a committed hunter; the book acknowledges this when it alleges that he had sex with two women at the same time [I suspect that this is not literal and means that they were engaged in a tripartite tryst] after completing a successful elk hunt. Back in 2008 he caused a minor flap in conservation circles when he advocated hunting Swedish wolves before their population of about 180 ‘exploded’. 180 is not a lot of wolves in the third largest country in western Europe, especially when they tend to stay in the forest, so these revelations suggest to me that there might have been something more sinister to his enthusiasm for culling them. I’m thinking three, maybe four at the same time? Bad enough but then there were suggestions of Nazis further up the family tree. A TV documentary – Kalla fakta [Cold facts] – has alleged that Queen Sofia’s father grew rich during the Second World War by producing armaments from a factory that had been stolen from Jewish owners. She claimed that the factory produced hairdryers and toy trains. I guess that’s just what was needed in Germany during the war so that’s alright then. Hairdryers, eh?

It was all a bit worrying as we’ve always thought that Sweden would be the perfect bolt-hole in the event of civilisation coming to an end so you’ll appreciate that all this uncertainty – which in Sweden is tantamount to civil unrest – was unsettling, to say the least. Then in December just when we thought life might get back to normal Sweden, of all the places in the world, suffered a terrorist attack. We were appalled – not so much at the possibility of a life-threatening event but that someone had dared to do something that was so, well, un-Swedish. As Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt put it when responding to the two explosions ‘Our democracy functions well; those who feel frustration or anger have the opportunity to express it without resorting to violence.’ Which is of course true, unless you come from Luton, where the perp was apparently radicalised and where they don’t speak Swedish but it doesn’t really demonstrate an understanding on what Islamic terrorism is all about, does it?

So, the holidays are about over, people here are still groaning about the weather, traffic chaos, petrol and rail fare increases and VAT at 20% but spring is just a few weekends away. 2011 will be a better year, mark my words.

Here are some pics from those dark, cold days……



….well, not that dark, really.