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.


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