Trees, wolves & unintended consequences - Sweden June 2018

Sweden is a country of trees. 23 million hectares of them. Over half of the country’s total area. So its easy to assume biodiversity would be rich and large carnivores like wolves and bears would have plenty of space to themselves. Not so. With the negative press around the impact of farming on the environment it would also be easy to assume that the declining area of farmland is a good thing for biodiversity in Sweden.  Also no true. 

So what’s going on?  The Swedish forestry industry is very successful.  As a timber merchant friend of mine neatly put it the Swedes produce good wood and the world needs it.  But spruce monoculture is taking its toll on the environment.  It suits large herbivores very well.  Roe deer & moose flourish in this habitat and so their predators flourish too.  But the loss of farmland to more forest is causing loss of pollinator habitat, reduced plant diversity and declining farmland bird numbers.  Traditional small livestock farms are struggling to survive and as they disappear into more spruce forestry so do the open woodland grazing systems that supported abundant wildlife.

Interestingly the wolf and bear are implicated in the decline of farmland too.  On Gunnar and Traute’s farm 3 hours north of Stockholm, in the forested central belt of Sweden, the cost of protecting their stock from predation is becoming uneconomic.  Gunnar and Traute milk 19 cows and have a herd of around 50 cattle including followers and beef.  Their land area isn’t big, but they manage 28 km of electric fencing to keep their stock safe from attack. They received financial support for half the capital cost of the fencing from a government scheme but the rest of the cost and the on-going management in strimming round, checking and repairs is borne by them.  Tempting to give up farming and grow trees.

But hang on a minute – how important is this fencing anyway?  Surely there is plenty of food in the forest?  What about all those deer & moose?  Farm animals are easy pickings for wolves and Lynx – a Friday night take away as opposed to a Sunday roast from scratch.  Anyone with chickens will know that a fox will happily scale a fence to take your layers whilst there are rabbits hopping around everywhere.  Traute told me about her elderly friend and neighbour who had recently lost her small flock of sheep in one go to a pack of wolves.  Devastated and giving up was how she described her. 

Wolves are also smart and learnt behaviour is something the carnivore conservationists are constantly looking out for.  Benny at De 5 Stora (‘the big 5') carnivore information centre in Jarvso, explained that wolves causing regular problems to livestock farmers will be a priority for culling as part of population management quotas which the government produce each year.  The aim with this approach is to have a wolf population that stays away from people and livestock by removing wolves that learn to raid farms for their food.

Lynx, bear, wolverine and wolves all have target population numbers in Sweden, above which animals are culled on licence. But despite the over 80% approval rating for hunting in Sweden, culling causes huge conflict in the country.  Gunner Gloersen of the Swedish Association of Hunting described the debate over culling large carnivores as worse than ever.  He blames a vocal minority with a loud voice. Hunting, he says is imbedded in Swedish culture and society and the conflict around wolves is therefore more of a social & cultural issue to do with rural ways of life, than actually about conservation.

So what does all this mean?  For wolves times are pretty good.  They are back from extinction in Sweden and their conservation is near the top of the list of priorities.  The government wants more wolves in the south of Sweden, where a large proportion of the people live and most of the farming is done. Bears continue to do well despite their blundering raids on bins and bee hives that cause more nuisance than harm; and reindeer herders in the north of Sweden are now paid to protect Lynx and wolverine to lift numbers in the mountainous regions. 

But for farmers in the ‘wolf belt’ (central wolf region of Sweden) the situation is less rosy.  Traditional livestock farming systems like at Gunnar & Traute’s are hard work and lack profit. Insufficient agri-environmental support and money for fencing means many people are no longer interested in this way of life. Land is put down to forestry for the benefit of the next generation and jobs in farming disappear.  Is this such a bad thing, my timber merchant friend might ask?  The world needs wood and Sweden is good at producing it.  And maybe he’d be right.  Are farming systems that can’t make money and don’t fit in with large carnivore conservation really worth saving in Sweden? I don’t know.  But the people deciding should surely be those on the ground, living and breathing the situation.  It is after all their knowledge that will deliver the practical solutions for conservation and it is their livelihoods that are in the balance.


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