tirsdag 31. januar 2017

Wolf Politics Howl Again

Norway is famous for its' wild landscape and to some extent also its wild deer and large carnivores. Not many people from outside will know that the euro-siberian Wolf is present in only tiny numbers relative to the rest of Scandinavia, Russia of course. Even Italy has more wolves than Norway. However those 60-80 resident wolves in Norway have become once again  symbol politics. Town versus country. The elite vs the small farmer. The subsidised meat versus the subsidised predator.

However Wolves are very keen on the domesticated sheep, and given that shepheards with dogs are consigned for economic reasons to the past, Canis Lupus can have a field day with a flock of the docile wooly herbivores. Of course cars, dogs, hypothermia and disease take many more sheep, in the order of many hundred fold. Yet the wolf (and other predators in some areas like the wolverine and even bear) in Norway, to the average sheep farmer anywhere near their terratories or itinerant paths they are the worst of enemies. A shadow of fear upon their livlihoods.

Farmers in the Hedmark region border the largest concentration of wolves. Of course they and many hunters claim that there are far more than the figure of around 74 resident wolves. However this is what the nature conservation authority estimate, and they spend a good deal of time and resources counting known flocks, which have definable terratories, and tracking itinerant lone wolves or pairs who have broken away from other packs outside Norway.

We have even had a wolf claimed to be within ten kilometers of here. Without very fresh tracks or a stool sample, it is very difficult to distinguish from a large dog. However a camera sighting was made in our neighbouring town of a rather sad looking young male, who was no bigger than an German Shepherd. The same wolf was likely to the one shot in the next region, as no futher traces were found. Scary? Not for us or anyone I spoke to, even a farmer. There is quite little sheep farming in our region, being mostly woodland, and beef being more pracitical for the grassland which is available.

Before that again there was a wolf which evaded 70 hunters or more in the next small county inland. THis was in the middle of the week, and three dozen mostly grown men threw down their daily work and went on the hunt. It was shot somewhere else. The hunt is a very big 'æresjakt' as it is both a rare predator and attracts kudos amongst other farmers and their communities.  They really feel threatened even by a single wolf, perhaps, but the pride of getting one as a trophy lies deep in their folklore and would be noted as a mark of respect down generations to come.

Oddly enough I thought, a zoology professor insisted on national Radio that these wolves I mention, were Swedish wolves! I thought that was either some nationalistic idiocy or an attempt to protect the Norwegian population from felling. However their is an evolutionary explanation (God's intelligent design for those of religiously impared). The resident Norwegian wolf-packs can have their ancestory traced back to the end of open wolf culling. There is some DNA from wolves who have wandered in over the border, but the majority seem to have Norwegian passports as it were according to our Prof'. The explanation is that these wolves are the remnants of very shy and elusive packs who kept themselves well away from humans, while the itenerant wolves, needing no visa or passport to cross the endless eastern woodlands that run from the SE to the NE of more or less the entire country, are not so shy of humans.

In Sweden there are a lot more wolves several hundred pack wolves and they kill an average of 300 sheep. This pales into perspective when farmers are claining  over two thousand sheep per year killed in traffic. Norway has maintained, many would argue artificially, its small farmer population as part of national pride and a suposedly self sustaining post war food policy, while Sweden has exposed itself to the wolves of the EU market and CAP,  and abandoned supporting small, "ineffective" farms long ago, leaving the decaying remnants of communities in many of the valleys which just over the border into Hedmark, Oppland and Tronderlag, are still farmed extensively. Norway subsidises lamb production by as much as 40kr per kilogram, with the consumer then having to pay 199 to 299 NOK for most cuts. When it comes to the popular traditional christmas dinner of salt lamb ribs, 'pinnekjøtt', they have to import a sizeable proportion from abroad, especially Sweden.

"How would you like to have a wolf live near you and come and kill your children?" is the perfect example of the emotive argument the farmers' self appointed PR crowd and politicians claim. Attacks on people are rare, even threats are. But about 5 years ago some swedish school kids encountered part of a pack of wolves on their way home from school. The wolves and the kids retreated their own way. How many  drivers retreated their own way and didn't kill the children they did on the road statistics of Norway and Sweden? When a pair of wolves located in Oslo's own national park, Nordmarka, it was a sense of excitement for many, and photographers hacked their way through miles of the most inaccessable pine woods to try and catch some shots. A few sheep were killed, not all were confirmed wolf kill. The Elg hunters were up in arms because there was evidence a couple of elg and calves had been taken. Personally I am much more afraid of traffic, and especially those drop outs who seem to come from the small communities, who do pills and drive old sooked up mercedes or Volvo 240s. One even seemed to play a game of chicken with a bus I was on, driving right for us on our side of the road. I guess there are 60 of them in the whole of Norway the Police keep an eye on. Perhaps we could have a licensed cull?  Or free to shoot policy when one is proven a threat?

Statistics on wolf attacks on flocks of sheep in Norway are a little bit hard to come by. There seems to be deliberate obfuscation to my mind, as to whether there are more or less than someone would like us to know. The farmers do get compensation, but complain about the paperwork and having to get the nature rangers out to test for DNA. However that wasted time taken away from farming, is not actually a reality for the majority, especially of small farmers who have incomes from other sources that their poor prey animals. Also given the opportunity to bash about the woods for a week they will gladly hunt wolves and give up their flocks.

 It is a fact that a wolf, wolverine or bear can kill a flock of 30 sheep in one sitting, and do many of them just for the hell of it. However a single loose dog can kill almost as many. Who is kidding who about wolf attacks and how many sheep really get killed? Or how many are our seemingly tame Canus Domesticus, which cause several severe maulings to family members every year, and go loose on sheep if they get the chance. The dog is far closer to its recent ancestor the wolf than many would like to know, with packs of dogs posing a lethal danger to humans in Bucharest for example. Sheep have been  bread to be softies. From the point of view of 'factoids', sound-bites and fancy answers which contradict reality, the farmer's lobby are more keen on propaganda than the nature ranger service or the green party of course. Like the climate debate, the authorities and the greens present real research, but in a democracy those are open to challenge and contradiction from 'sources' of confidence, which it seems are largely a body of anecdotal attitude comong from farmers.

More sinister though than any debate about threatened livelihoods, are some of those farmers with jobs off shore or their own building firms. These gentleman farmers make only a fraction of their income from lamb meat, but need to keep it up to get their subsidy which maintains the point of having a farm at all! THe farm pays for itself, with the meat being part of that hobby economy. They are more interested in a glory hunt, and having free reign to kill any itinerant wolves, anywhere they care to drive to. They are the ones off out all week with a rifle and a pick up truck, not tending their flocks when a wolf felling license is given for a 'Swedish' lupus. Not all gentleman farmers and not all sheep farmers are against wolves. Here it gets very sinister because if they speak out in the media or local society, they recieve death threats.

It becomes obvious if you follow with the anger and rhetoric the wolf is not a symbol of fear, it is a symbol of power for farmers and hard pressed rural communities. Small farmers who have not diversified or become collectives, are really struggling especially with the policies of efficiency the conservative coalitions sprung upon them without much forewarning in any of the two main parties' manifesto. Larger farms are better in a land so geographically spread out, and those farms who invest in scale get the best support. They want to have a complete cull of wolves, but the politicians on their side know that is unlikely but they may achieve a felling of half the national population of wolves as a result.

Help is on the way for the wolf in terms of facts perhaps, as a programme of radio collaring specimens from the Hedmark and Oppland areas is rapidly being set in place. This will give more answers about their intrusion, and maybe catch some 'red handed' . But  which will be disputed anecdotally again, and they who shout, cry boo-hoo or bully hardest in the media, in the face of scientific evidence,  these days have an uncanny habit of winning.