Wolf hunt provokes urban outrage and rural satisfaction

 

SWEDISH LETTER:Wolves are becoming increasingly unpopular in Sweden as numbers increase, but a cull has proved controversial, writes ISABEL CONWAY

THEIR EYES are open and they lie spreadeagled in the fresh snow, spattered bright red from the blood that has gushed from their gaping mouths. Bullet wounds are visible on bodies not much larger than that of an average domestic dog, not at all like the fierce and dangerous creatures of folklore and legend.

Victims of Sweden’s first wolf cull in 45 years, dominating newspapers for days, divided the nation between urban outrage and rural satisfaction.

Alongside pictures of dead wolves were those of heavyset hunters with powerful rifles taking aim and jolly celebrations after the kill. In a half-page picture in Värmland’s Tidning newspaper, a youngish blonde woman called Kia Ahlstad from Filipstad was shown skinning a dead wolf centimetre by centimetre with a scalpel.

Every Swede seems to have an opinion on the hunt, allowing for 10 per cent of the wolf population to be killed after the parliament voted to limit it to 210 animals for the next five years.

Nearly extinct decades ago, the wolf population in Sweden has grown over the years. Wolves have become increasingly unpopular, with reported attacks on livestock and pets and sightings near to towns and in villages.

Farmers such as Kenneth Holmstrom, who lost 32 sheep in two wolf attacks in 2005, campaigned for the growing wolf population to be “better controlled”. Yet prominent Swedish conservationist Mikael Karlsson characterised Sweden’s wolf population – about 240 – as “critically endangered”.

With typical Swedish efficiency and an unyielding belief that honesty and good sportsmanship would prevail, the Swedish Environment Protection Agency approved the limited cull of 27 wolves after the parliament voted to limit the wolf population.

Ground rules were laid down and 10,000 permits were issued. The hunt was scheduled to take place between January 2nd and February 15th in five central and southwestern regions. Hunters are permitted to keep the pelts but are required to hand over the bodies.

What began as an officially supervised cull was out of control as soon as the first shots were fired. Within hours of the hunt, more than half the permitted number of wolves had already been shot, some wounded badly and shot again and again before dying. Breaches of the quota occurred, with more wolves than allowed being killed in the Dalarna region.

Three days into the hunt, reportedly the entire quota – and more – had been filled. An SMS system was set up demanding that hunters contact a hotline and report downed wolves, but the procedure, policed by the Swedish Hunters Association, was self regulatory.

After shooting too many wolves, hunters claimed there had been confusion and they had been unable to obtain information or communicate with the hotline. Animal rights activists rubbished their excuses saying they were trigger-happy and could not resist the urge to keep killing.

There have since been death threats against several hunters put under police protection in recent days.

Värmland environmentalist and nature guide Leif Eriksson, who organises wilderness safaris for tourists and is an expert tracker, says: “Far too many hunters were allowed to take part. This was never a fair hunt, the wolves were slaughtered.”

Many hunters were out for many days before the hunt officially began looking for the wolves, he claims. “They knew exactly where to find them and because there was so much fresh snow, their prints were easy to follow. I know for a fact that some of those who wanted to shoot them were already wolf-haters. They wanted revenge because wolves had attacked and killed their own dogs in the past.”

Sweden’s powerful hunting lobby convinced politicians that wolves were also endangering the country’s elk population. However the figures show that elk are far more at risk from man and from traffic. Swedish hunters kill about 80,000 elk annually; a further 5,000 die in traffic accidents. Wolves are responsible for the death of fewer than 4,000, according to figures.

Far from being dangerous to man, the Scandinavian wolf is generally shy and encounters between people and wolves are uncommon. Nobody has been killed by a wolf in Sweden in more than 200 years.

The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, claiming that the wolf hunt violates EU legislation on species and habitats, believes that the cull has worsened the situation for the small Swedish- Norwegian wolf population which is a severely threatened species and is making an official protest to Brussels.

Environmentalists such as Leif Eriksson believe Sweden’s total area of 450,000sq km is more than large enough for the present and future wolf population. “We should learn to live with wolves and not kill them so they become extinct.

“They have their place in our eco system, they belong naturally in our country and should be left alone,” he argues.