Thursday, November 15, 2012

The predator war in Sweden

Yesterday I attended a half-day seminar with the title "The predator-war, a journey through times" arranged by the Swedish Forest Historical Society. Karin Dirke from Stockholm University started with a presentation about the historical view of the top 4 predators in Sweden (Wolf, Brown-Bear, Bobcat and Wolverine). In the 18th century the view was that predators were greedy thieves that committed murder. At the same time they were seen as righteous executioner that carried out Gods verdicts. There was also a belief that men could transform into wolves, and wolves were regarded as "A living imprint of a human who carries on with that which is evil". The Swedish term for Werewolf came from the word for man and wolf.

In the 18th century media referred to wolves now and then, but they did not dominate the news by any means. The reports consisted of methods for trapping and news about attacks made by rabies infected wolves. These stories were usually from abroad, and all attacks by wolves on humans were regarded as abnormal behavior, usually connected to rabies infection. The risk of rabies spreading was seen as a greater threat than the wolf. One news story describes how a wolf was chasing a dog that decided to run into the house for cover. The wolf could not get in through the door, so it jumped in through the window and bit a woman. Another woman managed to kill the wolf with an axe. They opened up the wolf and found that the intestines were empty, and this is given as the reason why the wolf attacked. Another factors that is used to describe why wolves attack is extreme cold. The message is that this is not a natural behavior.

A conservation perspective starts to slowly appear in the 19th century. It is through a nationalistic touch that praises the diversity of this wide-stretched nation, and the wolf is seen as belonging to the Swedish fauna. Until then the political view had been that the wolf should be exterminated from Sweden or driven to the borders of the nation. The view of Brown-Bears was not at all as negative as that of wolves, probably because that they were not seen as full predators.

After Karin Dirke, Kjell Donell and Roger Bergstam from The Agricultural University in Uppsala described the war against predators that started already as the ice retreated to 1969 when the last one of the big four predators (The wolverine) became protected. In 17th century Sweden historical texts state that predators should be exterminated wherever, whenever, however and by whom ever.

The public was forced to participate in the hunt for predators, and refusal resulted in fines or prison. The mandatory hunts were strongly connected to holidays, and the last day of the holiday was the day of the mandatory hunt. The reward for participating was bag-money, high status, skins and reduced predator populations. An example was Herman Falk, a hunt-master appointed by the king, who alone killed more than 100 bears. He is also regarded as having saved the moose population by recommending the king to install a 10 year ban on moose-hunting at a time when the moose-population was almost extinct.

The way to receive bag-money was far from straight-forward and a skin would have to be presented to 3-4 courts before the bag-money could be paid to the hunter. This resulted in that it could take more than a year to receive the payment. Converted into the monetary value in 2009, the bag money in US$ was $71 for a brown-bear, $53 for a bobcat, $35 for a wolf and $18 for a wolverine. Outside the big four, the bag money was $6 for a fox as well as for eagle and $3 for a European Pine Marten.

The penalty for not participating ranged from fines to time in prison with only bread and water. Those employed by the state to hunt predators could get reduced salary if they failed to fill a certain quota of predators. If a state employed hunter had problems filling a quota of a specific animal due to that the region for example had few wolves, he could compensate this by shooting x numbers of another predator following an exchange rate. The penalty system was constructed so that the cost for the state would be minimal, which meant that reduced salaries from state employed hunters went to finance bag-money.

The methods used to hunt predators included an enclosed area with baits inside. The enclosed area was also surrounded by a ditch. The walls were leaning inwards allowing wolves to jump in, but prevented them from coming out. When a flock of wolves had come into the area, farmers could climb the walls and shoot the wolves. Other methods included a large group of people driving wolves towards a net, wolf pits, use of poisoned baits (Arsenic and Strychnine were often used), slip knots, scissor traps, log or stone traps, self-shooting weapons that fired when a bait was touched. 

Sweden contributed with a very cruel method that in North America became known as the Swedish Method. The method focused on concentrating the effort to the breeding place. At the den all wolves that could be seen were killed except one wolf-pup which was hung upside down in a nearby tree. This lured out any other wolves in the family that might be nearby. After that the young wolf-pup was killed as well. 

Another gruesome method included feeding a dog with Arsenic, and later putting it out for wolves to feed on. The amount of poison was regarded as enough, when the dog started losing its fur. The dog was then strangled and put as bait to wolves. The reason for strangling the dog instead of any other method was to save as much of the mercury loaded blood.

Everybody was supposed to have a wolf-net at home that had a certain length and strength. Regular inspections were done, and if a farmer's wolf-net broke when the strength was tested he could be fined.

The efficiency of many methods were poor. Driving a predator towards a net took 600 man-work-days/predator, were the term man-work-days referred to the amount of work one man could do in one day. For wolves the efficiency was 286 man-work-days /wolf. A wolf-pit had the terrible efficiency of 1 wolf/20 years, whereas a poisoned dog was reported to have an efficiency of 13 wolves and 1 bob-cat.

The result of this war on predators was very successful, with all of the big four predators having their populations severely reduced. Around 1830 the numbers of shot wolves were between 650-700 per year, but 40 years later the number was down to 50 wolves per year.

With the last of the big four predators, the wolverine, being protected from hunting in 1969 the large state supported war on predators could be said to have come to a stop, although it had since long lost in intensity with people no longer being forced to participate in hunts.

Since then all the big four predators have seen increased population-numbers, and new conflicts between humans and predators have emerged. Hopefully we have learned from the past, and will try to solve conflicts where they occur before chasing every man and woman out of the house for mandatory predatory hunts in a forest filled with self-shooting weapons, monstrous traps and a fair amount of Arsenic and Strychnine.