Sunday, August 16, 2015

#Wolves, Resurgent and Protected, Vex Swedish Farmers

Ulf Ekholm on his farm in Olmhult, in a region of Sweden called Varmland. He and other farmers fear for their sheep because of the increasing numbers of wolves. Credit David Magnusson for The New York Times
OLMHULT, Sweden — Electric fences surround his sheep, two large dogs stand guard and a neighbor monitors the adjacent forest from a security camera.

Sometimes, said Ulf Ekholm, the proximity of wolves leaves farmers in this region of Sweden, called Varmland, feeling as if they are under siege. He even has a nickname for this lush and seemingly idyllic corner of Scandinavian countryside: Predatorland.

Long after dying out here, the wolf is back — and its presence is provoking a bitter dispute, bringing with it the threat of legal action against Sweden from the European Union.

Mr. Ekholm’s farmhouse, in the village of Olmhult, is on the front line of this battle, a conflict between tradition and conservation, and one that pits farmers and hunters against environmentalists and European officials.

Once hunted remorselessly, the wolf is now a protected species, and its return has provoked unease across Europe, from Finland to France.

In Sweden, the wolf population is still relatively small — about 415, according to the government, which compensates farmers for losses from wolf attacks and subsidizes protective fencing. But farmers argue that the compensation does not cover their full costs or make up for the anxiety and disruption to their lives. Hunters, meanwhile, say that wolves are killing the same kinds of animals that they like to pursue, harming hunting traditions while scaring people who live in the countryside.
Elsa Lund Magnussen installed electric fencing at her farm in Lindas. Credit David Magnusson for The New York Times
The issue is important enough to have featured in a TV debate among Swedish leadership contenders before last year’s elections. When Sweden went ahead this year with its most recent cull, of 44 wolves, it received the latest in a series of warning letters from the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union.

European officials say their job is to enforce laws that guarantee the survival of rare species — rules to which Sweden, like other countries, signed up.

They criticize the way Sweden has conducted recent, annual, wolf hunts. They say it has not satisfactorily considered alternatives and that it has failed to show that its culls do not pose a threat to the wolf population’s long-term survival.

The government in Stockholm has until Wednesday to reply and, if it fails to convince officials in Brussels that its measures are justified, could be taken to court.

Few Swedes worried when, in the 1980s, the first pair of wolves arrived, apparently after making the long trek from Finland or Russia. Some years later they were joined by a third, and then, in around 2007 or 2008, two more, according to Magnus Bergstrom, deputy director of the national environment division at the Swedish ministry of the environment and energy.

But that means the population here is descended from just five animals, and is prone to genetic defects produced by inbreeding — a big concern to environmentalists.

Nevertheless, as the numbers grew, so did the complaints from farmers whose protests prompted the government to allow in 2010 the first cull of wolves in recent decades.

Mr. Bergstrom said that Sweden’s wolf population was extremely well monitored, and that culls targeted animals with poor genes. “We have DNA from around 90 percent of the wolves,” he said. “It is often said that this is the best-monitored wolf population in the Western world.”

That does not reassure Per Dunberg, a spokesman for the Wolf Association Sweden, who says that to be sustainable the wolf population should number from 1,500 to 3,000.

“It is a top predator and many other species depend on the wolf, such as birds, and foxes,” said Mr. Dunberg, who accused hunting associations of spreading alarm.

“The hunters are telling Little Red Riding Hood stories; in fact, it is more than 200 years since a human being was killed by a wolf in Sweden,” he said.

Mr. Dunberg, who lives in Stockholm, says he has received threats via email and Facebook for his opposition to wolf hunts — though that does not appear to have deterred him.

“The hate against an animal, against a species such as the wolf, is like racism in people — it is absolutely the same process in the mind,” he said.

Camilla Bjorkbom, president of Djurens Ratt (Animal Rights Sweden), also opposes the annual hunt of wolves, which she says has caused “immense” suffering. Ms. Bjorkbom said that in some cases it might be legitimate to kill specific wolves, and added, “We need to work more proactively with farmers and think of other ways to solve the conflict.”
Hunters Gunnar Glöersen and Claes-Göran Lindberg with their hunting dogs in the forests outside of Molkom in Värmland, Sweden. Credit David Magnusson for The New York Times
But in Varmland, there is growing frustration with the European Union. At her farm in the village of Lindas, Elsa Lund Magnussen, argued that the issue was partly about democracy.

“People who live here and have problems with wolves should be in the process of deciding how many wolves we can handle,” she said.

Ms. Lund Magnussen said that the support farmers can claim from the government for wolf kills does not cover their full costs, because some animals survive, but are so traumatized that they never fully recover.

She recently installed new electric fencing, and said that while most of the cost was covered, the subsidy did not include the installation work done by her family.

Still, the investment is worthwhile. “If I get a wolf attack here I won’t have the meat for my customers, and it will destroy my company for five years. It would be a disaster,” she said.

Yet, while the dispute fits partly into a long history of antipathy between farmers and wolves, it is also about rural lifestyles. Ms. Bjorkbom argues that the main motive behind wolf culls is the “recreational interest” of hunters who are left with fewer moose to hunt because they are prey for wolves.

According to Gunnar Gloersen, game manager for the Swedish Hunters’ Association, Svenska Jagareforbundet, hunting — an old and important tradition in Varmland — is now under threat.

The return of the wolf has had “a huge impact” on the moose population, Mr. Gloersen said, adding that hunters shot 17,500 moose in Varmland in 1983, but only 4,200 last year — just a few more than around 4,000 that were killed by the predator, he said.

Wolves also attack dogs used by hunters to pursue both moose and smaller animals like roe deer and hares.

Drinking tea on the terrace of a neighbor’s house in the village of Nordmark, Claes Goran Lindberg recalls how he lost a dog while hunting in September 2008, and heard its last cries as it was attacked.

“That is something you never forget when you hear your own dog crying out like this,” Mr. Lindberg said. Two months later, the same thing happened to another dog that had strayed farther while on a moose hunt. “I only found the head and neck — the wolf had eaten the rest,” he added.

According to Mr. Lindberg, concerns about wolves have spread. “If you have seen some tracks in the snow, it is not fun to let your children go out,” he said.

At his farm in Olmhult, some miles away, Mr. Ekholm said that had he known then what he knows now, he would not have bought in this location when he moved here 15 years ago.

About 50 animals were killed in attacks on two nearby farms last year, he said, and, in a recent week, his neighbor had spotted a female wolf and two cubs on his security camera.

“We are waiting for an attack,” Mr. Ekholm added. “It will happen.”


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