I have never seen a wolf, except at Skansen, the outdoor zoo in Stockholm, where most of the wild Nordic animals are represented. That’s probably why I was slightly surprised by the zealousness to kill wolves in a rare and controversial hunt conducted in Sweden over the first days of January. For the first time in 45 years, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency allowed 27 wolves (around 10 per cent of the population) to be shot under licence, with the aim of increasing acceptance for wolves and improving the genetic status of the Scandinavian wolf population.
The hunting period was identified as 2 January-15 February, and 12,000 hunters quickly registered for the task of killing the animals. At 17.00 on the first day, 20 wolves were already dead. At the time of writing, only one remains to be killed. Meanwhile, the whole country is arguing over how the hunt was organised, if the wrong wolves were shot and why any of them should have been shot at all. The WWF has protested against the hunt, and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation has reported Sweden to the EU commission for breach of the union’s directives. Wolves are a touchy subject in Sweden, stirring up almost primal feelings of love and hatred.
Why was a hunt needed in the first place? After all, the wolf is an endangered species in Sweden. While we city people have never seen a wild wolf, let alone been bothered by it, the situation is different in the provinces where they are more common. At least a few times a year, hungry wolves attack livestock and other tame animals. Another problem is that the Swedish wolf population suffers from severe inbreeding, resulting in illnesses. In the 60s the wolf was almost extinct in Sweden. Today, all the animals originate from three individuals that migrated from Finland and Russia in the 1980s and 1990s. The aim now is to limit the population to 210, with the hope that healthy wolves from Finland and Russia will wander over the borders to Sweden and mix with the population, as a few have already done.
While the reasons behind the hunt may be valid, the way it was conducted leaves a lot of room for improvement. The desire to kill seems to have been huge, and it was unleashed on the wolves without much coordination. The hunters were only required to check an answering machine every hour to see if the quota had been filled, and at least in one province, it was exceeded. The hunt was unselective, so completely healthy wolves have also been killed. Some animals were merely wounded and had to be found in the forests, sometimes after a long search. Two dead wolves are suspected to have been parents to cubs born last Spring.
With a population of only around 200 animals, the wolf density in Sweden is quite low: according to the UN, 20 European countries have a larger population per sq km. But the fear and hatred of wolves has long traditions. In the 17th and 18th centuries they were the main threat against tame animals in Sweden, and in old folk tales, the wolf has always represented evil. In this tale, however, it doesn’t stand out as the main villain. If the wolf hunt is repeated next year, it will hopefully happen in a more civilised way.