Having returned from Sweden less than 24 hours ago following an all-too-brief visit to shoot driven wild boar for the Shooting Gazette, I have plenty to think about. Fascinated by the links between Scandinavia and Scotland, I always nursed the idea that the Nordic countries had retained some wild spark which we have lost over the last thousand years. The presence of beavers, bears, reindeer and moose all conjure images of an ancient world in the days before man really began to throw his weight around, and the copious abundance of capercaillie and black grouse gave me considerable scope to dream of a last shred of electric wilderness (or something like it) in a Scotland which can feel tame and pedestrian by comparison.
As it was, southern Sweden (near the town of Karlshamn) is rather like many other parts in northern Europe. It seemed a flat, arable countryside with a good covering of birch woods and ubiquitous brick-red dutch barns. The overall impression was lovely, but this was not the Sweden of my dreams, which, if it exists at all, lies much further to the north. Since I was shooting with journalists and media folk from across northern Europe, it gave me a chance to canvas opinion on how life works alongside some of the attention-grabbing and politically-loaded “wild” species which give Scandinavia such an alluring aspect to a Scotsman.
Their feedback was fairly unanimous, and coming from a relatively conservative, hunting-minded demographic, I was surprised by the consensus. According to our conversation, beavers are largely benign creatures which cause problems only for some foresters, and wild boar provide sufficient excitement and income from sporting interests to offset the sporadic and irregular nature of the damage they cause. Recent publicity about wild boar killing lambs in Scotland was dismissed as totally ridiculous – the very idea was absurd enough for one Finnish sporting journalist to laugh aloud and shout “farmers will say anything!”
Even lynx were viewed as little more than a minor threat to some livestock (particularly lambs), and bears were regarded as being so shy and reclusive that they rarely came out of the woods to do harm. All were agreed that most large wild mammals were part of a bigger picture which, with careful management, had little impact on agriculture, forestry and rural industries. This provided some useful context to apocalyptic British fears that even a few lynx would spell the end for agriculture as we know it.
Consensus was equally aligned on the subject of wolves, but this time the feedback was deeply negative. The topic summoned up a fund of expletives in a range of different languages, and laughter vanished from the conversation. While some had hunted wolves in the Arctic Circle and saw value in the experience, all were agreed that these predators are wholly incompatible with human beings. They provided countless anecdotes of sheep, horses, cows and pet dogs being killed by wolves, and while there is not much modern evidence of wolves attacking humans, a general culture of fear prevailed where wolves were found. Parents refused to let their children wait for the school bus in the morning and trips into the woods were curtailed for youngsters.
In these cases, perception had become reality – statistics which explain how unlikely your children are to be attacked by wolves fly out of the window when a recent newspaper article in Finland reported that a wolf weighing 75Kg had been shot by hunters – summing up the sharp intake of breath in the room after this remark, a Danish photographer muttered “think of what that bastard could do”. A Swedish journalist later explained his belief that “They [wolves] just need too much space and demand such huge resources that we cannot provide for them, and many people are afraid”. Nodding throughout this monologue, a Frenchman added “The people in the cities want wolves in the countryside, but they would not be so keen to hear a wolf howling in the park down the street”. It’s a kind of wilderness NIMBY which rings a bell in Britain.
I haven’t had time to process much of the information I gathered in Sweden, and as ever this blog is simply a means of jotting down raw materials as I gather them. Perhaps I will come back to the subject after some digestion, particularly if there is time to type out the bulk of my notes.