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Published: July 23rd 2018
Tales of wolf attacks, bitey beavers and radioactive pigs
A trip to the summer house offers the potential glimpse of the local wild life. Sweden has its fair share of the more “charismatic macro-fauna” that had long ago disappeared at home in British Isles (although some reintroductions such as beavers or wolves have begun or are currently being mooted). A safari-style “big five” has been defined in Sweden comprising the brown bear, wolverine, wolf, lynx and golden eagle. This group appears to be located more in the north of Sweden and can either be very rare, highly reclusive or both. More commonly seen throughout Sweden are wild boar, moose and beavers. The impact of some of these animal’s activities are felt in the area where we are now spending our summer days.
Beavers have been new arrivals to the lakes near the summer house in the last couple of years. These furry critters have installed a lodge and are getting down and chewy with trees around the lakeside. The evidence of their woody appetite is everywhere and is marked by piles of fresh whittlings. Closer examination of their handiwork (or is that toothiwork) is remarkable. The majority of the
trees have been nibbled evenly all the way around, resulting in a cone-like, pencil-shaped end. In one example of unfinished beaver business, a mature pine had been left standing perilously upright with just a connecting stub at the base around an inch in diameter. One good gust of wind would likely bring down this tree.
Their new home on the margins of the lake is a shabby-looking lodge. Although, I wasn’t expecting something built to Germanic specifications and good order, I was still surprised how unstructured the beaver lodge appeared. It was a broadly dome-like structure extending down into the water with branches, small trees and saplings laid at all angles across the feature. Underneath was a mixture of leaves, mud and more twigs. You realize the resulting chaos is probably impenetrable even to a very determined predator.
There is real delight to be had from glimpsing the activities of this animal from a suitably respectful distance. Most sightings seem to be around early morning or late evening. They can occasionally be seen nosing through the water creating a broad wake in the still lake waters as they go about their activities.
As part of one of
one of the earliest and most successful re-wilding efforts, beavers were reintroduced into Sweden in the early 1920’s. This was after the last beaver was killed and converted into a hat in around 1871. Since then this toothy rodent has done what rodents generally do best and prolifically reproduced. The current beaver population is estimated to be over 130,000 and beaver territory has encroached well into urban areas such as Stockholm.
Not all relationships with the animal have been plain sailing. There was a report last year that an annoyed beaver bit a men in the leg who attempted to take a selfie with it at a bus top in Tyresö south east of the Stockholm. The animal’s tree felling activities have led to road blockages and a black-out has been caused by them munching through some Vattenfall power cables in the past.
More of a potential menace to domesticated animals has been the reintroduction of wolves. Wolves were claimed to be extinct in the country in the 1960s, but today there are estimated to be 340 wolves in 46 different family groups. They are mainly to be found in Dalarna, Västmanland, Örebro, Bergslagen, Gävleborg or Värmland. Their range is huge; extending up to 2,000 sq km.
Only a couple of miles away from the summer cottage where the woods give way to fields, there is a large farm with around 1000 head of sheep. In the spring of 2018, there were two quickly successive wolf attacks that killed around 70 animals in total. This rather gory record was set despite extensive anti-predator fencing around the property. The photographs in the regional and national press were pretty disturbing, showing rows of dead sheep laid out in a barn. The sheep had not met a good end. A few survived the attack, but were badly hurt and unfortunately needed to be finished-off in what must have been an extremely distressing act. As a result of this vulpine atrocity, the distraught farmer was at a lost to what to do. There was much discussion of a protection hunt, as had taken place in the north of the country, but this talk seem to peter-out in the subsequent months. It really did highlight that only three wolves could have an immense impact and the local farmer is now contemplating moving into a different type of farming.
One wild animal that has recently come off much worse from its encounter with humanity was a moose in the nearby town of Jarna. On our way back to Stockholm from the summer cottage recently, the local radio reported that a man had encountered an angry moose encroaching on his land. He threw a rock at the animal to discourage it further. In what must have been the pitch of the decade, he felled the animal outright. With the freshly dead moose in his garden the shaken-up man immediately called the police. Rather churlishly the occurrence was investigated by game conservationists who concluded who made the assessment it was not a breach of hunting regulations. I was surprised to find out this was not an entirely isolated occurrence, and that in man living outside of Västerås lobbed a boule ball to deter an irritated beast and also unintentionally killed it.
I’ve leant that keeping your eyes strained on the margins of fields for any sighting of these animals is rather pointless. You would need the patience of one of the hunters that wait-out the animals during the shooting season. One fixture of the Swedish landscape is the many hunting towers that stand sentinel and unoccupied for most of the year at the edges of fields and woods. Some of the shooting towers are minor works of art and are professionally draped with camouflage webbing. Others stand entirely forgotten and disused. On a recent walk we came across a decrepit tower where someone had hauled in old office swivel chair onto the platform.
It is much more likely you will get a sighting or happen across animal life purely by chance. I was told about a shock encounter with a wild boar recently where both parties rounded a rock at the same time in thick woodland. The surprise was mutual, as were the grunts of exclamation. This brief encounter of the porky kind was quickly followed by a rapid reversal of the direction of travel by both parties.
Wild boars were re-introduced into the southern part of Sweden in the 1970s, some 200 years after their disappearance. They have been gradually moving north over the last couple of decades. One curiosity of this northerly exposure is that they are becoming increasingly irradiated. Even 30-odd years after Chernobyl, wild board foraging activity results in them having 10 times the safe level of radioactivity. Feeding habits that involve rooting around in the ground mean they have a greater exposure to the iodine and caesium-137 left by the 1986 disaster than other game animals.
In 2017 the environmental consultancy Calluna, has issued an alert to local hunters in the country of Gävle, about 100 miles north of Stockholm, warning them of “extremely high” radiation levels among local boar. It certainly provides some food for though as you browse the farmers market in Gnesta or elsewhere; your humble wild boar banger may now have a disproportionate amount of bang.
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