For the first time in a hundred years there have been many wolf observations along the west coast of Sweden lately. Well, wolves have been spotted before, more or less likely from time to time, but nothing like this. November 27th there was thirteen sheep killed by a wolf at a farm in Knäred near Halmstad. Since then a wolf has been seen at multiple locations along the west coast from Halmstad to Gothenburg. In January seven sheep were killed by a wolf in Billdal south of Gothenburg. There has not been much opinion whatsoever about the wolves as far south as here before, but we can feel the change coming. The natural drama between human, wolf and horse is an ancient classic that calls for a longer blog post than usual, so arm yourself with a cup and a sturdy kettle of hot coffee, hang on.
Wolves in Scandinavian history
The wolf evolved in North America, just as the horse did. Eventually they spread across the Bering Sound to Asia and Europe. The two top predators in Europe, Homo sapiens and Canis lupus lupus lived in coexistence for maybe one hundred thousand years, competing over the same hunting grounds. By the end of the last ice age, about ten to twelve thousand years ago, the huge glacier that covered large parts of the northern hemisphere began to melt. Soon vegetation reestablished which attracted all kinds of grazing animals. In their footprints followed the carnivores; wolves and humans. Occasionally we humans, stumbled on the tracks and scraps our competitors left behind, but our paths seldom crossed; we were few and there was plenty of prey.
We always knew they were better trackers and hunters than we were; we were too proud to fear them, but we respected them and secretly admired them for their powers. We made camp before dusk, protected by the campfire we fell asleep at the sound of wolves howling in the distance; the wolves crossed the threshold of our dreams into our spiritual world.
The wolves grew in numbers faster than we did and our luck turned. Soon we found ourselves fighting for survival. Traveling by foot in wolf country, we felt vulnerable; the horse became our savior. We gained speed, height and confidence and became better hunters. The horse watched over us; her sharp eyes, nose and ears served us well. Eventually we found a complement to hunting and gathering; we began to breed sheep, goats and cows, we learned to plant and harvest, we built permanent lodges and became full time farmers. Now our conception of the wolf changed.
The wolves had to use all their powers and skills to kill the wild prey. Evolution favored individuals with the most aggressive and persistent hunting instincts. When the wolves encountered our peaceful farm animals they were confused; jumping the fences and killing the defenseless sheep was too easy, they killed them all not knowing when to stop and by that the lives of our ancestors were shattered. We cursed the wolf as a symbol of all things evil. The dog and the wolf, closely related yet so different; one is our best friend, the other our worst enemy. Humans lost their respect for the wolf, they no longer just feared the wolf; they began to despise it.
The fear of wolves
Considering our long coexistence it may be that some of our phobia against darkness, deep forests, open places like frozen lakes, scary sounds and so on, is due to our ancient and inherited fear of wolves. All those fairy-tales and myths about wolves told to every new generation of children is another indication of how we feared the wolf and how important it was for our children to watch out for wolves.
Our language provides us with clues about the past. Some words are similar in many languages, meaning they are ancient words we used as our language was new and we were much fewer than today. The most noticeable example is the word “Mama”; it sounds almost exactly the same in all languages. Another word we rarely ponder about today is “Wolf, Wulf, Ulv”. It tells us that the wolf made an important impact on early humans. The word for wolf in old Swedish is “ulv”. The present word we use for wolf is “varg”, which is actually another old word meaning thief or killer. By superstitious reasons people feared to speak out the real word “ulv”, so they used nicknames like, “varg”, “den gråe” [the grey], “gråben” [grey leg] and “tasse” [paw].
Scandinavian Viking mythology gives support of how ancient humans feared and respected the powers of the wolf. Oden, the god of wisdom, had two helpers Gere and Freke, both of them wolves. The giant wolf Fenris was the son of Loke and Angerboda. A prophecy says that one day as Oden rides on his horse Sleipner to Valhall armed with his sword Gunger, he will be slain by Fenris the wolf, but Vidar the son of Oden will then tear up the jaws of Fenris.
Swedish laws from the mid 1300’s require farmers to build wolf traps and keep weapons for wolf hunting. In the mid 1500’s written accounts tells us that the wolves were very numerous all over the Swedish mainland and during hard winters they strayed into villages, spreading terror among the villagers and their critters. As our weapons improved the hunt for wolves intensified, clearly the goal was to exterminate the wolf.
6 240 wolves were killed between the years 1827 and 1839.
Kerstin Jonsdotter a young woman from Laholm was the last person to be killed by wolves in southern Sweden; the year was 1846. On her way back from church she went ahead of the others to prepare the Sunday coffee, but was attacked by wolves and killed. Over the years as people passed on their way to that church, they each brought a stone to the site, which grew to a monument; the place became known as The Death Cairn.
1 850 wolves were killed between the years 1850 and 1859.
The last wolf to be killed in southern Sweden was shot in 1888 in Småland . Twelve years later there were only about 100 wolves left in all of Sweden. In 1950 the number was down to 20.
A law was enforced in 1966 to protect the wolf and by then less than 10 wolves remained. The year 1980 not one single wolf was believed to exist within the borders of Sweden.
The wolves returned
Then in 1982 five wolves crossed the northern border from Finland or Norway and settled in Sweden. The year after, six newborn puppies were confirmed. The population began to rise:
1992 – 17 wolves
1995 – 40 wolves
1999 – 70 wolves
2004 – 85 wolves
The damages on livestock caused by wolf attacks began to raise a public opinion against the reintroduction of wolves in Scandinavia, so in 2009 the Swedish government decided to limit the population to 210 individuals; the number was a compromise taken out of the blue.
In 2010 a thorough inventory set the estimation of the number of wolves in the interval 289-325 individuals, followed by the introduction of a limited hunting season. A total number of 4 500 licensed hunters killed the stipulated 29 wolves in 26 days.
In 2011 a total of 455 sheep were killed by wolves at 62 attacks. Four cows lost their lives and 43 dogs were attacked and killed. A new hunting season was set. This time no less than 6 428 excited hunters applied and were granted for a wolf hunting license and the 19 wolves were killed in 21 days.
The present wolf situation
The latest inventory was made between October 2011 and February 2012 and this is the conclusion of the present wolf population in Sweden:
30 family groups and 28 new batches of cubs.
26 stationary couples, yet without cubs.
5-7 single stationary wolves.
The total number of wolves in Sweden is currently estimated to between 260 and 300. As a reference there are also about 1500 lynxes and 2500 bears in Sweden.
The Swedish wolves are more or less isolated, with habitats in middle Sweden. Only four wolves are stationary in the northern countryside and one or two single wolves in southern Sweden. No wolves are permitted in the Sami reindeer districts of Jämtland. [Six wolves were shot under protective hunting legislation for entering these districts.]
In order to reach a sustainable wolf stock the current population must increase according to Naturvårdsverket [The Nature Preservation Agency]. The exact numbers required depends on how many wolves that might migrate from Finland and Russia for genetic reinforcement.
Twenty dead wolves was confirmed; twelve killed under protective hunting legislation, three shot by support of Jaktförordningen §28a (self defense in protection of domesticated animal), five died in traffic accidents. In addition to this two wolves were presumed illegally killed and there was one further suspected illegal kill.
The wolf [Canis lupus] is strictly protected by The Species- and Habitat Directive 92/43/EEG issued by The European Union, May 21st 1992. Exceptions when protective hunting may be permitted are strictly regulated in article 16.1 but the interpretation of this article is debated between The European Union and Swedish officials.
What’s a sustainable wolf population?
Lately the Swedish government has launched another licensed hunt this winter 2013. To avoid criticism by the EU the Swedish government is trying to impose a concept to improve [?] the genetic variation by shooting 18 wolves; 2 wolves each in 9 selected habitats. This idea is kind of weird, because it implies that it would be like sorting out rotten eggs out of a basket; unfortunately genetics doesn’t work like that. The simplest form of mathematics states that to gain something you must add, not subtract 😉 Genetic specialists have, very discrete but most inconveniently, pointed this out to government officials. [Three wolves has been killed, but the hunt was stopped a few days ago by court order].
All individuals in a population are genetically different (yes, even twins) no matter how small the genetic difference is. By removing individuals from that population the total genetic variation within that population will certainly decrease. It is true that the genetic variation between the remaining individuals will increase, but whether a population is sustainable or not depends on the total existing variation within the population, which is the combination of both numbers and variation.
There are two ways to increase genetic variation. The quick fix is to introduce individuals from other populations, which is very effective. The other way is to wait for natural mutations, which is changing the genetics on a regular basis. If the original genetic variation is large enough within a population, the naturally occurring mutations will, as the population grows, in time gradually change the genome enough before the population turns sterile; thereby allowing the population to grow its genetic variation infinitely.
[Before this effect of natural mutations was known it was believed there was a genetic end for all species, because when the existing genetic variation was evenly mixed together at a certain degree, all individuals would be so identical that the whole population became sterile. The genetic end of humanity, I recall, was calculated to about two million years, which of course is completely false.]
We may mention a parallel to the Nokota Horse, as well as other isolated wild horse populations, that concern have been raised about the genetic variation in these horse populations and that external horses must be introduced at all times. As you know by now this view is false. Once a population has managed to grow to a certain size, the genetic variation is basically forever guaranteed.
Reflections on the wolf issue
Then what is the purpose of yearly hunting seasons for wolves? The correct answer should be to control the size of the population. However, the controversy is that the wolf population in Sweden has not yet reached a sustainable genetic variation, so shooting wolves at this point will only make it worse. Because there is a political decision to limit the wolf population we must rely on a steady flow of migrating wolves from Finland and Russia, which is problematic since these migrating wolves must escape undetected thru the northern reindeer districts to reach the habitats in mid Sweden. Another alternative that has been discussed is to introduce puppies from Finland into already established family groups, [meaning: tranquilize the parents, “remove” the original cubs, switch them and hopefully the parents will adopt them] but no benefactor has volunteered to donate puppies from an already low Finnish wolf population and Swedish wolf experts has expressed doubts about such a dicey experiment.
However, the opinion against wolves in Sweden is not unprecedented at all considering the number of killed sheep and dogs. The support and economical compensations for “damage on livestock by protected predators” are more like a minor contribution than a full compensation. When it comes to sheep or cows raised for slaughter it might only be a question of generous economical compensations and maybe killed hunting dogs is a risk a hunter must be prepared to take, but the risk of wolf attacks against horses, dogs, pets and other farm animals alike is truly a serious problem! To see your horse, after years of friendship work and deep affection, being killed by wolves is a very high prize to pay for an individual citizen. To go one step further and consider the risks of even worse incidents feels unnecessary.
In order to be able to live in a country with wolves, it seems necessary to accept the concept of “risk”; not being one hundred percent safe when walking in the woods or keeping your animals out on pasture. But is “risk” a relevant concept? For most people the “risk” of ever meeting a wolf is 0%, but for those who lost their sheep the “risk” was 100%. So isn’t it more about who’s making the decisions and who’s taking the risk that is the issue?
So if a sustainable population of wolves call for numbers that is bound to cause a serious negative impact on people’s lives, then maybe Sweden is too small a country, or to densely inhabited, for a population of free living wolves?
One way to look at these paradoxes is to analyze the perception of; what’s human and what’s natural. For example: the Swedish moose population has lived without natural enemies in Sweden ever since the wolf was exterminated, so every year there is a hunting season for moose in October and one hundred thousand [100 000, honestly a true number, not kidding] moose are harvested in a humane and almost painless way. This means that the moose population can feed a thousand wolf family groups, a total of 40-80 thousand wolves! Without this annual hunting season the moose population might soon grow out of its habitat, leading to starvation not only among the moose but also among different deer species, deceases, increasing numbers of deadly traffic accidents, etcetera; very inhumane.
So if this is the “human” way, how is the natural way? Well every natural ecosystem contains both predators and prey animals; it’s the engine in evolution and very “natural”. Wolves feed on moose. Some moose are easier for the wolves to catch than others, which mean that the surviving moose possess some feature that makes them more successful than other moose; stronger, faster, wiser, healthier, etcetera. It also means that the best wolves will be successful, leading to stronger, faster and smarter wolves. “Survival of the fittest” as Charles Darwin wisely stated. In a natural ecosystem evolution improves the survivability of biological life as a natural phenomenon. In a human engineered and controlled ecosystem, the finest moose are shot leading to a degenerate unhealthy population and the wolves are kept at low numbers in constant need of genetic renewal.
Maybe it is not natural to be human, or human to be natural?
To kill for food or in self defense to protect offspring is natural, but it is human to consider future consequences.
Our intelligence has given us the self confidence to engineer our own comfortable future; in the name of progress we stop at nothing. We want to live our lives in maximum comfort without fear or inconveniences; the world is our resort. The laws of nature no longer abide in us. Sooner or later we must acknowledge humankind clumsiness, because nature always wins. Even the simplest ecosystem is far more complicated than we can even imagine. The more we interfere, the more damage our ignorance tends to make. Why not let nature restore itself to a working ecosystem, why interfere. Accept that nature is what it is; there are predators as well as prey animals in the woods, nature is not a park or a garden made for our convenience. If we want to keep farm animals it is our own responsibility to keep them safe. If the wolves get to our animals it is because they are better wolves than we are farmers. It is time to prepare for a life with wolves and to learn how to do so without anybody getting hurt. It is of common interest so all must share the responsibilities.
The Eurasian wolf [Canis lupus lupus] In Scandinavia
There are several subspecies of wolves. The wolf in northern Europe, northern North America and northern Asia is called the Eurasian wolf. There are believed to be more than 100 000 individuals in northern Europe and northern Asia so the species as a whole is not threatened, but many populations are isolated and thereby vulnerable. Swedish wolves weigh typically 35-50 kg and are 70-80cm tall by the withers. (Southern European wolves are only about 60 cm tall.) Russian wolves can weigh as much as 70-80 kg, but only one such big wolf has been found in Sweden, shot in 1937 near Luoktjemtjuolta.
Ordinary wolf packs, or family groups, in Sweden usually consists of 4-8 individuals, the largest documented group was 11. A Swedish wolf habitat is typically 30×30 kilometers [20×20 miles]. A habitat consists of a couple and their cubs and yearlings. Mating season is February to March and the pregnancy lasts for 65 days. There are usually 4-8 puppies and they eat meat from 5 weeks of age and they are totally weaned at 10-11 weeks. They stay two years with their parents. Life expectancy is 10-12 years, 16 at the most.
Scandinavian wolves are most active between dusk and dawn; this is when they hunt and feed. In Sweden wolves move 20-30 kilometers a day on average, but 50 kilometers is not unusual. Wolves travel with great determination; migrations of up to 1100 kilometers have been recorded.
Wolf tracks are difficult to distinguish from those of dogs and lynxes. Only by tracking over a long distance and considering stride length and the pattern of movement it is possible to confirm wolf tracks. Wolves are experienced travelers so they often walk in each other’s footsteps and their tracks are straight and unwavering, while dogs stray in different directions. Some dogs may be mistaken for wolves when seen from a distance or in bad light conditions. A wolf tail is often held level to the ground or slightly downwards, while a dogs tail is held higher or coiled.
A wolf travels in trot with a stride of 120-160cm. A wolf is heavy compared to the size of its paws, so running in deep snow and on soft grounds may be very energy consuming. To save strength they may favor to follow scooter tracks, ditches and roads. Wolves are often cautious and suspicious, they don’t mind walking around obstacles, so when encountered with a fence they may well choose to do so. However young wolves may be very impulsive and unpredictable; as inexperienced wolves they may well stray into populated areas. In areas with a dense wolf population the prey may become scarce, which increases the risk that some wolves might move closer to populated areas looking for easy prey.
The wolf diet in Sweden is primarily (96%) eurasian elk (moose) and roe deer, but also smaller mammals. Locally the roe deer’s can make up a substantial part of the wolf diet. A bear can live on a vegetarian diet, but a wolf needs meat. On average a family group of wolves may kill 100-120 moose a year, mostly calves and but also grown up moose. A wolf need 500-800 kg meat a year and they eat 2.5 to 9 kg at a time. Wolves kill far more prey than they can eat, so is the instinct to hunt stronger than their hunger? Well, one may say that practice make perfect. Among predators the evolution favors the best hunters, not the humane and considerate. By constantly searching and hunting they earn the skill needed for survival. Wolves do not hunt the way they do because they are evil, but because evolution made them into what they are.
A grown up wolf can kill an elk all by itself. They are very persistent and may pursue their victims for long distances. Sometimes a wolf might get wounded or killed by the moose during a struggle.
Wolves and horses
There are very few incidents involving horses and wolves reported in Sweden. Two horses have been killed since year 2000 [Värmland] and two horses have been injured [Enköping and Bohuslän]. One reason may be that few horses are kept outdoors at night; the other being that horses probably is the most difficult among domesticated animals for a wolf to attack.
Horses have one advantage against wolves. Wolves in Scandinavia have no experience at all in hunting horses, they are specialized in elks. Horses, in particular less domesticated breeds like the Nokota horses, have deep instincts that tell them to beware of predators. When confronted with danger horses use a three step strategy. First they stand tall, boost up themselves and try to look as dangerous and self confident as possible; usually a predator is discouraged by that demonstration. If it doesn’t work, horses turn around on a coin and take off, kicking backwards while accelerating. If they by some reason can’t get away or if they get cornered, as a last chance they stand and fight, and make no mistake; horses can kick and they can bite. One good kick from a horse is all it takes to knock out a wolf for good, no matter where the hoof hits.
A wolf needs to be in perfect condition to be able to hunt for a living, the slightest injury and a wolf is deemed to starve. An experienced wolf knows that and avoids unnecessary risks, but then of course there are the young inexperienced and hot tempered wolves. Wolves are smart and they can learn which techniques to use for different prey animals, but they generally prefer to take the easy way out and stick to what they know. A band of vigorous healthy horses is definitely a very big risk for a wolf to take on, although a lonely old horse left in the pasture over night, might be something else.