This January, more than 200 hunters from Sweden, Denmark and Norway went on a blood-curling wolf hunt in the Swedish Forests. Might we be inspired by literature to rethink?
Recently, the Swedish government gave license to shoot 75 wolfs even though the wolf is on the European list of protected animals and Sweden has signed up to the international conventions. Currently, The World Wildlife Foundation and other NGO’s are contemplating raising the issue at the European Court. So far, the European Commission has engaged in a “wait-and-see” procedure. Meanwhile, Germany is arguing for a re
For several reasons, this licensed hunting has been met with international uproar. One is that the wolves are essential allies in restoring the last vestiges of our European Wilderness and the ongoing loss of biodiversity. Another concern is the brutality with which the hunt took place. It appears the animals were clapped into nets, where they were mercilessly shut down. Further, the present number of wolves in Sweden is somewhat small. With less than 460 animals currently accounted for, 20% were targeted, seriously reducing the genetic diversity.
The question is, where do these hunters get the idea – to quote Gunnar Glöersen, predator manager at the Swedish Hunter’s Association – that “hunting is absolutely necessary to slow the growth of wolves?”. According to the newspaper, The Local: “The Goal is to empty the territory of all wolves”.
The answer is: nowhere. The hunt has no rational explanation apart from the fact that the Swedish hunters consider the wolves as competitors killing “their” game and not least their dogs (Bassi 2021). Which they are. Granted, these large wild carnivores significantly affect game species populations. The resulting competition for game does create a conflict between hunters and conservationists. Estimates range, but in Sweden, the loss is reckoned to be about €50 mill. One of the issues concerns the fact that while livestock holders are compensated, owners of land living off selling licenses are left with no compensation at all (since hunting is a sport and not a livelihood).
Another issue is that the number of “hunters” have reclined during the last decades. Increasingly, this crisis is felt among the remaining hunters who were recently characterised by sociologists as people with limited education, living in rural areas and motivated by “tradition and stewardship” (Skogen 2020). These people tend to regard illegal killings of wolves as a “lesser crime”. If anti-elitism and distrust of environmental organisations are added to the mixture, the silent acceptance is even more marked. “While the political dimension is not always articulated, overlooking it and treating illegal killing simply as “crime” may stoke conflicts and fortify an understanding of power relations that already drives resistance”, they write. The outcome is a group of people nourished by local and rural newspapers, and voicing the war against these “bloodthirsty beasts” (Linnander 2019).
However, as may be discerned from the literature (e. g. Lin 2021), the main issue is emotional and concerns values. It appears that whenever people get together to take part in debates for or against wolves, the emotions upgrade the conflict between those who consider wolves “exciting animals” versus those who regard them as “bloodthirsty beasts”. For the conservators and rewilders, the physical abhorrence of seeing a dead and shot wolf is nearly nauseating. On the other hand, the anger against the city-dwellers and biologists may end in more or less hands-on violence. Behind these conflicts lies a complex “interlinkage of cultural, historical, and ethical aspects that decision-makers have failed to address in their attempts to resolve them” (Lin 2021).
The Story of the Bear
Curiously enough, the bear is no longer regarded with the same “hate” in Sweden and Finland, even though they number more than 3000-3500 – nearly six times as many as the wolves– and wreak the same havoc. Also, bears are definitely more dangerous for human beings than wolves (Mykrä 2017).
However, a recent study explains how the bear was rescued by turning it into a “sacred animal” (ursus sacer). This story took its beginning in 1864 when the Swedish government decided to intensify the extermination of all the large predators in the Swedish landscape: the wolf, the wolverine, the lynx and the bear. During this period, Sweden suffered from a massive migration caused by the population explosion in the industrialised society. To some extent, the government likely felt obliged to try and mitigate the sufferings of people caused by the empty landscapes and the increased attacks on livestock. Also, the state cashed in on the hunt (pelts and hunting licenses).
At the beginning of the 20th century, however, the population of bears was so depleted that a public debate ensued. In 1909, the first law on national parks was passed. Soon after, the cruel traditions of bear dancing and baiting were forbidden. Also, the bear became a “national treasure” when Arthur Hazelius, in 1893, decided to house bears in his new Open-Air Folk Museum at Skansen. At the same time, the bear began to figure in literary works, such as short stories by the renowned Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf and others. In these stories, the interplay between humans and animals was given voice in a manner echoing and repeating the Old Norse stories of shapeshifting as we know them from Sagas, poetry and pictorial art. No longer was the bear just a feared “alien”. Now, the bear was once again turned into a human in disguise, a liminoid border walker.
With the philosopher Agamben, Lindén has suggested that the bear at the turn of the 20th century once again came to be considered an “Ursus Sacer” – an ur-mythological creature roaming in another realm, pure nature filled with “bare life”. And yet, the bear was always also the shapeshifter par excellence – a liminal being on the threshold of humanity, as witnessed by the bear’s propensity to walk on two legs. This shift in the idea of what a bear might be came about at a time when the first societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals flourished – in the second half of the 19th century. Thus, the bear became the Nordic icon of the noble animal – nature-bound, yet – in its human disguise – a tacit reminder of our own animal status.
How come, though, modern wolves never succeeded in acquiring the same sacred status as the bear? Perhaps one reason was that no one bothered (until now) to forge new stories of wolves as sacred animals.
Recently published, a novel by the grand old Swedish novelist, Kerstin Ekman, called “Löpa Varg” – Wolf Run – might help achieve this end. In the book, we read about a pensioned-off old “forester” Ulf living with his wife Inga in the Hälsingland in Northern Sweden. One morning, Ulf suddenly sees a male wolf from his camper in the wilderness. This experience opens up for a soul-searching and aching walk with the wolf through the landscape of his childhood, his “dead forest”, which he and his family helped to desecrate through the bleak manufacture of the old forest as a harsh and bitter monoculture, his lifelong hunting experiences of moose and other animals such as wolves and raptors, and the painful reminiscences paving his way through old age and his sickness onto death. In between, we hear about locals failing to protect themselves against the bears and wolves, the loss of livestock due to drunken carelessness, and finally, the end of his wolf through an act of horrendous illegal killing perpetrated by a local simpleton. Of particular interest in this connection is the scene where a man and his dog, through negligence, are attacked at home by a bear. After this incident, “everything turned grey”, we read, leading to the final and meaningless killing of his wolf, sacrificed so that Ulf may finally acknowledge his complicity in the bio-crimes committed in the 20th century. Exquisitely written, the story is wrought with harrowing elegance, staged to transform the most hardened “wolf-hater” roaming the last vestiges of the derelict wilderness of the world.Already, the rights to the novel have already been sold to be translated into nineteen different languages from Catalan to Ukrainian – with more to come.
Perhaps this novel will pave the way for us Europeans to return to a more responsible, rewilded world without being obliged to fight the unfounded wolf hate in the rural backwaters left on the brink of despair.
European Wolf. Source Hippopx CC0
“Exciting animal” or “blood thirsty beast”?: A critical discourse analysis of the coverage of the wolf issue in Swedish news media
Jönköping University, School of Education and Communication 2019
Wolf-Related Conflicts and Power Dynamics in Rural-Urban Relations in Norway
by Doris Friedrich
In: More than ‘Nature’: Research on Infrastructure and Settlements in the North
redigeret af Doris Friedrich, Markus Hirnsperger, Stefan Bauer
Lit Verlag 2019
The Bear as Ursus Sacer in 19th Century Swedish Literature.
By Claudia Lindén
In: Squirrelling: Human-Animal Studies in the Northern-European Region
Ed. by Amelie Björck (Editor), Claudia Lindén (Editor), Ann-Sofie Lönngren (Editor)
Södertörn Academic Studies 2022
Hunters’ attitudes matter: diverging bear and wolf population trajectories in Finland in the late nineteenth century and today
By Sakari Mykrä, Mari Pohja-Mykrä & Timo Vuorisalo
European Journal of Wildlife Research (2017) volume 63, Article number: 76
Attacks on hunting dogs: the case of wolf–dog interactions in Croatia
By Elena Bassi, Ivan Pervan, Damir Ugarković, Krešimir Kavčić, Marina Tomić Maksan, Miha Krofel & Nikica Šprem
European Journal of Wildlife Research volume (2021) vol 67, Article number: 4