A mild-mannered monster of the Scandinavian forests is setting Swede against Swede as farmers and hunters bicker over how to coexist with the world’s largest population of moose.
Hunting season will open in the south of Sweden on 12 October, when more than a quarter of a million Swedes will fell about 90,000 moose in a matter of weeks.
But for farmers, whose livelihoods are threatened by moose, this is not enough.
“We need to shoot more moose,” says Bernard Andersson bitterly. For 10 years he has farmed on Orust, an island on Sweden’s picturesque west coast. The moose pillage the fodder he grows for his cattle, trample his crops when they settle down to sleep for the night and break down his fences, allowing his cows to wander.
Farmers complain that as much as half of their crops are eaten or destroyed by the animals, forcing them to buy expensive feedstuffs. Apple trees on the island look like “mutilated bonsai”, they say, thanks to browsing moose.
In the forests, the picture gets worse. It’s not the moss the moose are devouring, but the young pine trees, creating a wasteland of dead and dying saplings. They are literally eating into one of the country’s main exports.
In winter an adult moose, which stands 2 metres high at the shoulder and can weigh up to 850kg, can consume 200 litres of pine needles every day, according to Sweden’s environmental protection agency. And they push over the larger trees to feed their young.
But for hunters, the flourishing moose population is key to providing adequate numbers of the animal for the first few weeks of the annual hunt, which has almost religious status in Sweden.
“People book holidays and go home to the villages where they came from to go hunting for a week. Schools and offices close. It’s a really social thing,” says Göran Bergquist, a moose specialist with the Swedish hunting association. “They don’t measure each year from 1 January, but before and after the moose hunt.”
By the middle of the last century moose numbers in Sweden were dangerously low, with open access and unrestricted hunting leading to overexploitation. But thanks to careful management, the total moose population in the country recovered and has stabilised at 400,000. The density of animals in the forest is three times that of Canada and 10 times that of Russia.
At the same time, the number of moose killed by hunters has risen tenfold since 1945 to about 100,000 each year. Half of these are “harvested” in the first few weeks of the the annual hunt.
Three years ago a new moose management system was introduced in an attempt to reach greater consensus between hunters and landowners over the size of each year’s cull. But the timber industry is still up in arms at the scale of damage to pine forests.
“If Volvo produced 100 cars and then tipped 30 into the sea, would that be acceptable?” asks Ronny Löfstrand of Sveaskog, the country’s largest forestry owner. “But that is the scale of losses we face.”
Odd Fredrikson, a landowner on Orust and chair of the regional moose management unit, says: “It is a serious problem for the Swedish economy – unlike farmers and the timber industry, hunters don’t pay taxes.”
On Orust the problems began several years ago, when hunters took out the bull moose but left the fertile females, says Ingalill Olsson, who has reared cattle on the island for 40 years. The result has been an explosion in the moose population – good for hunters, but a disaster for farmers.
Olsson says hunting interests dominate the moose management system. “Nobody listens to us,” she says. “The hunters are like a mafia, from the bottom to the highest levels of government. I have worked for years to build up my farm, and overnight it has been ripped up.”
On one thing hunters and farmers agree: shooting is the only way to keep the numbers down. Fredrikson says experiments with inflatable scarecrows literally fell flat when moose knocked them over after just a few days.
Andersson, the beef farmer, is resigned to a long battle to defend his livelihood. “The problem is we are spoiling someone’s hobby, their fun,” he says. “Hunters just live for that week in October.”
This article was first published by The Guardian on 28 Sep 2015.
We invite you to share your opinion whether the annual moose hunt in Sweden should be stopped? Please vote and leave your comments at the bottom of this page:
Thank you for voting.