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.

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.

I’m Swedish and I shoot immigrants

Grizzly or Brown Bear

Even though I’m in England just now it’s been hard to avoid noticing stuff happening in Sweden. Last week was all about individual protest against society and crystallised in two events.

In the north the small town of Ytterhogdal received a protest from one of its local bears. Clearly dissatisfied with the municipal facilities provided by the local council it left the woods, the usual repository for the aftermath of an afternoon spent gorging itself on lingonberries, worms, snails and the like, to take a huge dump on the town hall steps. I’ve often had cause to berate my local councillors for poor service but haven’t yet summoned up the courage to show them exactly what I felt about them so Ursus arctos arctos has become something of a hero to me. Local experts believe that the bear was, indeed, a very large one and confirmed that they usually do their business in the woods. Something must have upset this one to make it change its routine. There are about 2000 bears in Sweden and if they are all upset we’ll have to wear rubber boots when we visit the council offices so I am eagerly watching to see if the municipal services in Ytterhogdal and elsewhere improve. By the way, the pic is of an American Brown Bear that I took in Canada last year – I wonder how they view municipal facilities in Vancouver.

In the south it was far more serious. The pleasant but sleepy Malmö is our nearest city and is normally pretty quiet. Just recently, however, it has been likened to Chicago in the 1920s. The slight shift in the political climate at the recent general election saw the ascendancy of the right-wing Social-Democrats, whose anti-immigration views have been used to explain, with questionable conviction, the possible reason for a series of shootings that have occurred over the past year or so. The ‘perp’, thought to be an individual with a personal view on Sweden’s relaxed attitude towards immigration, has been randomly shooting at people of Asian and Middle-Eastern appearance. This resulted in a death and several injuries together with headlines about residents and visitors to the city living in fear of their lives. To be honest, walking across Stortorget was more about avoiding detritus from McDonalds and Burger King than dodging sniper’s bullets, but nonetheless, the story provided a sinister backdrop to parochial life. A suspect has been arrested, apparently after an anonymous tip-off. Perhaps that came from the local underworld, characters from which have been working in parallel with the police in hunting down the gunman. I assume this liaison was a temporary arrangement arising from the underworld’s belief that it has sole rights over dispensing suitable justice on its patch and that it will now get back to controlling the taxi service, kebab-stall franchises and immigrant gangs that are a part of daily life in Malmö.

Reports in the local press have surprised me. There has been mention of ‘racial tension’ but this doesn’t seem apparent from the point of view of a casual observer over twenty-something years. The population certainly has a high proportion of immigrants – I’ve heard 50% reported but once did a headcount from a downtown café and reckoned on it being higher – but the ‘tension’ and trouble seemed to be confined to internecine disputes.

Of course, Sweden is rightly held in high esteem for its tolerance as well as its adoption of an open immigration policy and tolerant it is. But tolerance should not be confused with integration. Despite the population of Malmö having such a high number of non-Swedish inhabitants there is a sullen and silent resentment among the natives. It’s civilised and cultured to be racially tolerant and that’s how Swedes want to see themselves but scratch the surface and a very different complexion is apparent, unless they’re talking about an international footballer or cash-in-hand labour, that is. In the past few days the Malmö Police issued a statement stating that the suspect was being questioned about a series of immigrant shootings and that they had ‘no explanation for why they were shot’. Er, nothing to do with their ethnicity, then? A Professor of Criminology, would you believe, was quoted as saying that the debate about the Social-Democrat’s views could destabilise those who were suffering from ‘mental illness, on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ and who might go off on a shooting spree as a result. That appears to me to be a typical Swedish rationalisation of the first magnitude.

Isn’t the first step of recovery from being alcoholic admitting you’re a drunk? Why hasn’t anyone said out loud what Swedes in Malmö whisper – that they generally resent the number of immigrants and, right or wrong, that in itself might be the shooter’s justification. Perhaps some more honesty is needed and perhaps a process of integration, as opposed to immigration, is required. The Malmö district of Rosengård has a lot to commend it but nearly all its inhabitants are of a non-Swedish background and it has frequently been the scene of considerable civic unrest; the adjacent Malmö mosque, for example, was burnt down in 2003. Rosengård provided cheap housing and cheap accommodation was offered to immigrants. Surprisingly, local Swedes moved out in droves. So, Rosengård is a modern facility, near the centre of the city with new low-cost accommodation and no native Swedes want to live there. As a microcosm of Swedish society it remains an enclave that actually serves to segregate rather than integrate – and, in true Swedish fashion, it’s tolerated as long as you don’t have to go there.

It seems to me that if Sweden is going to cure the ‘mental illness’ that manifested itself in the manner we’ve been witnessing then the government has to start treating integration in a more holistic way, as a concern relating to society as a whole, not just one of immigration.

Jack Frost nipping at our noses

Autumn turned to winter this week in Skåne. Warm sunny days with bright, clear skies at the beginning of the month have given way to freezing temperatures, ice on the pond and falling leaves. The first official snowfall of the winter was visited on the north and we have woken to frost in the morning. We’ve taken a lot of long walks and spent far too much time sitting on the deck drinking coffee and talking through a turbulent year. Friends moving away, loved ones leaving this life, governments leaving their legacies to new generations here and in England. And on the horizon the prospect of moving to another continent.

We watched nature change season, too. Cranes leaving for warmer climes in Spain, geese arriving in thousands for the winter and, in between, spectacular sights of eagles, harriers, falcons and buzzards as they moved south.

Here are some memories of those walks and sunny days in the garden – Autumn trees in the valley at the bottom of the garden; spiders’ webs in the frost; Barnacle Geese heading for their wintering grounds in the Netherlands; Cranes that may not rest until they get to France; a Rough-legged Buzzard prospecting the garden for a roosting place; a not-very-nervous Red Squirrel.




























Return of The Kev


The Kev


At last, few days off and an escape to southern Sweden; big skies, autumn colours, skeins of wild geese arriving and the pervasive scent of log fires in the air.

In my world being able to find a few days to get away sometimes proves an impossibility but this time it worked out and here we are. In another world – one that deals with international disasters, distribution of aid and the bringing solace and comfort to people and places where they’re needed – fate and coincidence combined to return The Kev to us for a few days. He moved back to New Zealand in March – I wrote about it here – and that seemed to be that as far as anecdotes around smoky fires and long evenings putting the world to rights were concerned. Seems I was wrong and all those air miles and a round trip from New Zealand that took in Haiti, London and Sweden mattered not one jot.

The Kev was back and, with only a few days here, a celebration was called for. More importantly, a fire was called for and he is the Master of Fire. The stone fireplace that he built in his garden has a lot of history and has long ago passed into the folklore of our little hamlet. Of course, fire is frequently associated with folklore; a story is told in the mythology of South America that the Jaguar was the Master of Fire and ate his meat cooked, the smell of grilling being so delicious that man, who had no secret of fire, couldn’t resist it. Jaguar was a generous deity so man ate hungrily of the cooked meat and learned to use Jaguar’s weapons, repaying him by killing his wife and stealing the secret of fire. Since that time the Jaguar has lived alone in the jungle, waiting for his chance of revenge, while man fears his wrath.

We’re not certain if there is direct lineage between The Kev and the mythical Master of Fire – I don’t discount a connection after having been seduced by the smell of the mountain of pork chops that was being cooked – but we do know that he holds the secret of making a superb fire. So, a quorum was assembled in order that important issues could be thoroughly debated; the necessity for iPods, cash payments to the victims of international disasters, the fecklessness of youth, the joys of Scotland, how the numbers of wild boar are increasing in our neighbourhood and the links between cause and effect of unlimited energy use in California. It pleased the Gods; Dionysus and Hephaestus saw fit to grant us a sunny afternoon that turned into a clear evening sky full of pin-sharp stars and we, in homage, consumed copious amounts of wine and stoked the fire.

Roasted potatoes accompanied the sausages and pork chops. It wasn’t quite a barbecue and it wasn’t quite a hāngi – the traditional Māori cook-out using heated stones required far more patience and more petite appetites than we had – but the results were delicious and delighted all the senses, being cast as background to more than seven hours of continuous, animated and increasingly raucous conversation.

What is it that makes for such a continuous, diverse and uninterrupted discussion? One theory put forward at some time was that no one had a partner of the same nationality; New Zealand/Swedish; Swedish/Hungarian; Dutch/German; Kurdish/Egyptian-Swedish; English/Swedish-Hungarian. There were as many opinions as there were nationalities so it’s little wonder that the UN gets, well, not very far in reaching consensus. We were more successful.

Coward that yours truly is, I scuttled away out of the fire’s glow and into the darkness after the baked apple and vanilla sauce but before the seal was broken on the bottle of Haitian rum. My ‘mornings-after’ of nursing crushing hangovers are strictly rationed these days. True to form and in what is now a time-honoured tradition, The Kev appeared next day bushy-tailed if not entirely bright-eyed, but modestly unaffected by the success of the previous evening. He’s now on his way back to New Zealand, the fireplace is raked and the ashes have barely cooled. Quite a visit.


Edit and Dara ponder a point...


Nevine and Åke see the funny side...


Edward and Gisine
Edward and Gesine; an erudite view


Edward, Gesine, Karin and Nevine keeping warm


Dara, Åke, Edward, Gesine, Karin, Anna and Nevine


Master of Fire


Ari shoots Yours Truly


and Willy watched it all from the roof




The bottle uncork’d

Wet, wet, wet; wind and floods too. A depression that the weather boys missed in their forecast hit us on Saturday and we got off lightly with some water coming through the porch roof. That seemed to be due to a combination of the deluge and storm-force winds working to prove that water can flow uphill but a lot of other people woke to flooded basements, overflowing drains and cars in metre-deep puddles. It’s just about passed now and, after two dull, cloudy days the skies cleared today to treat us to a bright, sunny and cooler afternoon.

Golden Eagle over the garden

One of the reasons that I enjoy this place so much is the wealth of natural wonders and I could bore for the Nation about it. In autumn, birds migrating south in Scandinavia travel down a landmass that gets narrower below a line drawn roughly between Oslo in the west and Stockholm in the east. It narrows again, by about two-thirds, when they get to Skåne so the numbers are concentrated into a smaller area. It’s a bit like sand running out of a funnel and, where we are, the sky at this time of year is often full of birds flying overhead in a more-or-less south-westerly direction. The general movement south starts slowly in July and gets frantic through to September and October and experts know what to expect is on the way through at various times in that period. The weather affects things so if there are depressions, like this week for example, or strong winds the general flow can be disrupted. Birds seek shelter, go to ground or just stay put but when the weather breaks it’s like drawing a cork from a bottle and the flow starts again, often in a great rush. Today was such a day.

This morning the strong winds had gone but there was still low cloud and a constant, heavy drizzle of rain that rendered everything dull and thoroughly depressing. No birds overhead and, unusually, not much to be seen in the garden. When it eventually cleared up I strolled down to the end to look over Fyledalen. As the sun came out an adult Golden Eagle was soaring just above with two Common Buzzards and a Kestrel moving it along. They were taking advantage of the improvement in the weather and, as there were more Buzzards in the distance, a cycle ride around the village was called for. I counted over forty species in the few remaining hours of daylight; the highlights included four more Golden Eagles, two Honey Buzzards, four Hobbies, two Marsh Harriers and over twenty Common Buzzards. Those aside, there was also a Wryneck, twenty-two Red-backed Shrikes and a group of over twenty Spotted Flycatchers.

The principal watchpoint is Falsterbo, at the extreme south-western tip of the country. Migration here often involves huge numbers of birds; often more than are seen anywhere else in the world. A reasonable estimate of the total number that passes through southern Sweden each autumn puts the figure at around 500 million. A lot of them fly right over my garden and many spend some time in it.

Scandinavia; it’s a funny place

Back in Scandinavia and it’s the Vikings’ version of the silly season in Denmark and Sweden. Despite promising myself a few quiet days that included some gentle birding [migration is underway and the skies are filling], a few glasses of good red wine and a little garden tidying before embarking on a sojourn to Cannes I was dragged out of my repose by Greg [from Denmark via Berkshire] and Bill [from Vancouver] to waste another evening of my life trawling the bars and cafés of Copenhagen. It was Fashion Week so the city was heaving, packed to the brim with the fashionable, the wannabes, the glitterati, the hangers-on and that most exquisite of creatures – the Danish Girl on a Cycle. Now if you haven’t seen this phenomenon you have missed a treat that no man should miss. There is something unique and singularly Danish about flowing blond hair, a short dress hitched up to thigh level, long legs and high-heeled shoes cruising past on the way to an evening out. Now you need to understand that my appreciation is purely an intellectual concept; cultural and aesthetic, it’s not sexist at all. Here’s some further serious reading, for the enthusiast, with a few pictures thrown in.

We started in a busy and crowded Tivoli and ended, an Italian restaurant, two bars and an Eastern European street party later [which was supplying waitress-served free beer, by the by], at Café Victor. This place is a highlight of Copenhagen and a personal favourite. The evening was warm, despite some light summer rain and the atmosphere nothing less than splendid. Construction was underway for the longest catwalk in the world – a 1600m long carpet that 250 models would stride along the following evening. Copenhagen was in party mood, none more so than the Navy guys sitting near us who were plying a bevy of very pretty girls with pink champagne in exchange for some very model-like posturing in their dress uniform caps. The bars had spilled out to the streets; there was a lot of laughter and noise, an appropriate amount of throwing-up and, of course, those blond girls cycling back and forth. Only Ray Milland knows how I felt next day after I’d crashed at Tove’s apartment but I think it was worth it.

Compare that to Sweden, where an altogether steadier but nonetheless just as silly atmosphere prevails. The Swedes do like a party and, I understand, an occasional drink, but as summer wanes and the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness arrives their thoughts turn to berries. Well, mushrooms too, but mostly berries. They love berries and as the undergrowth of the northern forests grows heavy the eager consumers in the warmer southern bit grow restless for punnets resplendent in the blues, reds and yellows of autumn. Imagine, then, our horror to find that not only is the harvest being ‘outsourced’ to Vietnamese itinerants but that they are also being exploited by the wholesalers. Last week we heard that tragedy stalked the harvesters among the bushes as, like our summer, the autumn was late this year and the berry crop with it. Apparently, the 300 guest workers had to pay their own travel, lodging and food and were contractually obligated to pick 90 kilos of lingonberries, 50 kilos of blueberries or 20 kilos of cloudberries per day in order to be paid their wages. The late crop meant no berries and that meant no wages. No money meant no food so it all came to our attention and that of the police when hunger drove them to go foraging in the woods with – listen to this – catapults and bows and arrows to shoot birds and animals to eat. I haven’t quite understood if the Swedes are alarmed at the Vietnamese workers’ plight or the potential loss of wildlife but I am greatly concerned that the berry-pickers appear not to have been told that a catapult will not stop an elk or a brown bear even if you get close enough to hit it over the head.

A little further south, but still in the forest, three middle-aged German women went for a hike and got lost. So what? Well, like a lot of Germans and, in some respects like our Vietnamese visitors, these ladies had a strong connection with nature. Instead of picking berries they were tripping through shady dells and across sun-dappled clearings stark naked. Whether or not they didn’t know the area or hadn’t brought a map [no pockets, of course] they soon realised they were lost and struck out for any signs of civilisation. Nothing, not even a Vietnamese berry-picker hunting birds. The women were part of a naturist group vacationing in a woodland cottage and the remainder, alarmed that the three hadn’t returned, called the police. The report in The Local, my source of important news, didn’t state that they had to use a land-line but I have spent a moment or two wondering how or where you carry an iPhone 4 when you are stark naked. Anyway, after wandering around until 10.30pm below circling police helicopters and, most embarrassingly, approaching sniffer dogs the ladies chanced upon their rented cottage and were welcomed into the naked bosoms of their naturist companions.

This has all made me feel very uneasy. One of the things I’ve always liked about Swedish forests is the solitude and the dearth of people. Sitting on my deck with a glass of red wine this evening I was wondering just what lurks beyond the garden fence and it was safe to go down to the woods today.