Swedes gear up for hunting season. As the summer comes to an end, fall inevitably draws nearer, and with fall comes the hunting season.
The moose hunt is usually front-page news in Sweden when it begins in different parts of the country in September and early October. Almost 300,000 camouflaged Swedes – including the Swedish king! – migrate to the forests.
What follows is my account of my first moose hunt as an adult. I have to admit that for different reasons I myself no longer hunt. Please remember, whether you support it or not, the fact is for thousands of Swedes—and Americans—one way to enjoy nature is to hunt.
For a brief look at the differences between hunting in the U.S. and Sweden, see Professor Thomas A. Heberlein's The Gun, the dog and the thermos
“Quiet woods, pitch dark, mid-October before sunrise, five o’clock in the morning, five degrees below zero Celsius, the moss crunches with each step and the earth sucks onto the soles of my knee-high boots. Guarded whispers, thrifty words preserve the precious silence in which all know what to do. Prodding forward, I gently push the brush aside. A branch scratches my Goretex trousers. A moose could hear that. A curtain of silence suddenly falls. Rigid, noiseless, breathing slowly while my senses flare within me to detect the slightest sensation, I attempt to emulate this muteness.
The night fog lifts as I step deliberately across the bog. Leaves rustle from the cautious scurrying of an anonymous little creature that crosses my path, as I move towards the appointed watchtower that sets on the skirts of the woods and overlooks a patch of cultivated land.
Two days earlier, I walked this same route to clear dry branches and bushes from the path so I could descend quietly on this, the first day of open moose hunting season. I have reached the final stretch, a 50-meter downhill hike through thick forest.
As first light strikes high in the eastern sky, the black grouse start serenading and bucks bark blindly in the dawn to impress their audience of eager does.
Nature is so crisp and clean, a serene experience. Never have I felt so close to it and to myself.
I inherited guns and the hunting grounds from my father, who passed away at an all too young age. In a mixture of real interest and the feeling of a connection to my father and this forest and these grounds, I was finally here. I had gone through the eight weeks of intense theoretical and practical training to become licensed to use weapons as a hunter, and I was now about to encounter my first big game.
Growing up in a hunting family in a small town in the central Sweden means a lot of time spent in the forest: hiking and cycling in the summer, preparing for the autumn hunting season, sowing seed so that wildlife could survive a harsh winter, building watchtowers, draining ditches, collecting berries and mushrooms, skiing in the winter and assembling by open fires in springtime to plan the upcoming year’s work.
My re-introduction to my father’s fellow hunters was awkward; most remembered me as a boy. My first meeting with these seasoned elders was an eerie encounter haunted by memories.
Suddenly, although an adult, I was demoted in rank back to those youthful years when I merely helped with the dogs or cleaned weapons. These veterans all understood the forest and hunting grounds much better than I did. They knew the animals’ movements and migration patterns, which to shoot, which to ignore and how to keep a balanced stock of each species. These hunters also had unique words, conversations, ways of communicating. I was an outsider, even though these were ‘my own’ hunting grounds, and I was obliged to undergo yet another set of tests in order to become fully accepted as a member of the hunting team.
A year had passed since then and now, fully initiated, I returned to hunt my first moose.
When I first heard the noise, I was startled by the tumult that accompanied the creature. It ploughed through the forest to my right and headed into a clearing before cultivated rows of farmland. One thousand pounds of beast blasted through the woods, and I expected to see an elephant.
No, it was not actually beautiful, but with amazing majesty the animal walked out into the open. My heart pounded so loudly that I thought the moose would hear it beating and bolt. This was where I belonged, under the open skies, in direct contact with nature, on par with the rest of the creatures, from the tiny, feathered birds chirping in the morning sun to this powerful, living statue of nature that stood right in front of me.”
Many Swedes yearn to step into the scenario of my true story: over 300,000 are licensed hunters, and their prey includes a bevy of game birds, beavers, boars, deer, foxes and, the greatest of Sweden’s wildlife trophies, moose.
However, the green-clad, upright-walking creature with the smoking metal pole is not the only hunter in the Swedish forests. Sharing the food supply and maintaining nature's balance are four major predators: brown bears, lynx, wolves and wolverines. All have been listed as more or less endangered species in Europe, and in Sweden, diligent preservation efforts by hunting and wildlife groups have helped maintain steady and growing numbers of these animals.
The accomplishment has been controversial, however, particularly with farmers and with Sweden’s aboriginal Sami people (known commonly outside Sweden as Lapps), whose reindeer herds represent easy prey for predators. Government programs compensate both groups for many of their losses. The reappearance of bears, wolverines and wolves on the outskirts of remote settlements throughout Scandinavia has also led to concern from small farmers and village residents.
Around 70 wolves are estimated to be left in Scandinavia, and six family groups have been traced in the regions of Leksand, Hagfors, Filipstad and Dalsland-Halden as well as Årjäng-Kongsvinger. Wolves have been hunted or chased away from civilization in recent years. In addition, Norwegians report that new packs of wolves are being formed following mating of the wild animals with runaway German Shepherds, and experts express concerns regarding these new and unpredictable hybrid races.
The lynx, also nearly extinct, is slowly regaining its numbers. At the same time, this feline predator, despite its relatively small size compared to mountain lions of North America, is encroaching on reindeer and domestic stock. Bo Toresson, chairman of the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management (Svenska Jägareförbundet), has supported measures to control the lynx population by professional hunters.
The Sami are also calling for control of the growing wolverine population, which these traditionally nomadic herders blame for loss of reindeer. On the other hand, far from the spiritual and natural attitudes of native North American tribes, the much modernized Sami (snowmobile-riding hunters and herders who have obtained measurable political clout) display little reverence for any flora or fauna that impede the unlimited expansion of their vast reindeer holdings.
Although the wolverine's name in Swedish is actually an old word that means “glutton,” recent documentary film footage indicates that the animal is neither as vicious nor aggressive toward humans as its reputation suggests. But research remains to be done about population densities and natural habits so that the elusive and wide-ranging wolverine, seldom encountered by hunters, can be properly maintained as an important predator in the wilderness.
One of the friendliest of the bear species, the Scandinavian brown bear was reduced to only about 100 animals in Sweden by early in the 20th century. Naturally an omnivore, Swedish brown bears find farm animals and reindeer to be easy prey. But only seven attacks of bears during the last century caused injuries to people, and the last recorded fatality following a bear attack was in 1902. Today, assisted by closely related bear species from neighboring countries, the population has increased to more than 1,000, and some carefully controlled hunting of around 70 bears per year is licensed to professionals.
The indigenous Swedish beaver vanished into extinction 200 years ago. Restocking during the last century has resulted in an estimated current population of some 100,000, of which about 5,000 are killed annually. Beavers, like many other wild animals, are partially or completely protected against hunting in some provinces.
Deer are abundant throughout Sweden, although annual takes have fallen to around 200,000, with another some 30,000 perishing in traffic accidents. Predominant game birds include Canadian geese, cormorants, European woodcocks, greylag geese, hazel hens, mallards, partridges, pheasants, ptarmigan, ravens, willow grouse and wood pigeons.
Although alpine hares, boars, minks, muskrats, otters, pine martins and red foxes are among the plentiful assortment of other Swedish fauna, the quest for glory in Swedish hunting circles centers on but one magnificent challenge: the moose.
Alces alces, the Swedish moose
The moose hunt is front-page news each autumn in Sweden, and over a quarter-million camouflaged Swedes—over 80 percent of all hunters in Sweden—along with their invited guests from abroad migrate to the forests when the season starts. (Notably, about five percent of Swedish hunters are women, and nearly all of them participate in moose teams.) The timetables of this system have been fine-tuned in recent years to enable local groups to control their moose populations by visually counting and observing individual animals.
During the season, moose can be hunted from one hour before sunrise until sunset. Moose hunting in southern and central Sweden starts at the beginning of October and continues for about two months. In northern Sweden, the season for moose starts at the beginning of September and is divided into two parts, with a break during the rutting season toward the end of September and beginning of October. In the smallest hunting areas, moose hunting is allowed for only a few days.
Moose is tasty—similar in consistency to beef, it tastes even more akin to buffalo, without the gamy taste of venison (and not even vaguely reminiscent of chicken). In addition to private cooperative cold storage places used by hunters, moose can be found on restaurant menus or packaged in some grocery stores’ frozen food compartments in Sweden. (Reindeer and venison can also be found; in some places, these are sold in slices for sandwiches in the deli section).
About half of the body weight of a moose becomes meat after processing. Approximately 100,000 animals are shot each year (the 1982 high was 175,000), a value of $90 million (SEK 600 million) in meat alone. Hunting moose is turning into a lucrative tourist business, too. To be part of a hunting group compares in price to a luxury vacation week—actually bagging a moose is accompanied by further expenses, and a coming home with a mounted trophy is a sizable investment.
Estimates calculate that this fall’s annual take, which is down from last year, will still leave up to 300,000 moose romping around after the hunting season ends. And with reproduction rates of 40 percent to 70 percent, it is clear that moose do much more than munch on moss during long nights in the Swedish woods.
Nevertheless, there is marked lack of truly elderly moose in Sweden, according to Bo Lindevall, information chief of the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management. A moose reaches maturity between four to five years of age and is somewhat aging at ten to 12. By the age of 20, a moose is nearing the end of his days, because his teeth have worn down so much that the animal cannot chew the twigs and other tough to digest food it needs in order to survive the coldest winter.
A moose is a 1,500-pound hunk of critter that, running at a breakneck speed without regard for delicate objects in its path, can pose perilous threats to anything or anyone that gets in its way. Although culinary vegetarians, they take up to 20 human lives each year by being involved in traffic accidents; these also leave a hundred or so people seriously injured.
Even a minor impact with one of these dense creatures will crunch a car fender. At a rate of around 5,000 collisions annually, many Volvos parked in driveways throughout Sweden provide crumpled evidence of the animal’s inability to use crosswalks. The moose also creates considerable damage to planted forest areas and agricultural crops.
At this point, considering all the regulations, restrictions and serious considerations involved in moose hunting in Sweden, one might believe that any enjoyment, sense of humor or fun has been drained from the sport. But it’s quite the opposite. In many parts of Sweden, this is vacation time. Offices and firms are simply vacated, and unless you’re lucky enough to have their cell phone number, it’s even hard to locate public officials when moose hunting season is underway.
Swedes think the moose itself a laughable creature, and daily newspapers carry the “Helge” comic strip in which a cartoon moose ceaselessly bumbles from equally amusing hunters. In Sweden, where few crimes involve firearms, the joke goes that the only sure-fire way to get yourself shot in late September is to masquerade in a moose costume and go running through the woods.
200,000 wildlife watchdogs
Sweden is one of the few countries in the world where hunting is organized on a voluntary basis by hunters’ groups and private associations. These groups can in no way be compared to gun owners’ associations, and their purposes reach far more widely than lodges or clubs. Besides influencing public opinion in favor of hunting, their members, through their national organization, conduct courses and tests to teach safety and respect for animals. These visible efforts conserve the natural environment and, through statutes that require issuance of licenses and guns registration, inhibit the uncontrolled spread of firearms.
Setting the hunting seasons and quotas for animals in specific regions, research and administration fall under the umbrella of the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management, established in 1830. Using detailed reports from hunting teams, the association assembles overviews of moose densities and population changes within small areas throughout Sweden.
Two-thirds of Sweden’s 310,000 hunters belong to the association. It distributes information in the form of a Swedish-language monthly magazine, newsletter and Internet web site (www.jagareforbundet.se, with an abbreviated but valuable English-language section).
In Sweden, where you can hunt is essentially regulated by law. Landowners retain the hunting rights on their land, which they can lease out in whole or in part. Many hunters are also landowners, but more than half lease shooting rights or belong to cooperative associations.
Because almost all hunting land is already accounted for, there are few opportunities to lease shooting rights in Sweden. However, many foreign hunters are invited to enjoy “exchange hunting” in Sweden, and another increasingly popular option is to go as a paying guest.
About half the land in Sweden is owned by the state or large companies, particularly in the northern and central regions. Most of the hunting rights there are leased to individuals or hunting associations. Where the available land is scarce, owners often pool their rights to make larger hunting areas; this is particularly important for moose hunting to ensure conservation of the stock.
Many landowners and hunting hosts also require moose hunters to have passed an official test. Foreign hunters who want to go hunting for moose in Sweden should arrange through their host to visit a moose hunting training range before the hunt. Both the hunting permits and insurance can be arranged through the Swedish host. Only rifles can be used for certain game, including moose, red deer, beavers and bears, and there are special ammunition restrictions that also apply to hunting fallow deer and wild boar.
Since 1985, all newcomers to hunting are obliged a theoretical and practical examination as a condition for possessing firearms. Foreign guests can loan firearms from a Swedish hunter if the owner of the weapon stays directly nearby. International hunters planning to take their own firearms on a hunting trip to Sweden are best advised to request their host to make an application on their behalf at least one month in advance.
Ethics preserve hunters and hunting
Laws, safety regulations, rules of common sense and ethically moral procedures are drilled into the minds of all Swedish hunters, and the public is also kept alerted to avoid accidents. Responsible hunting entails more than merely wearing brightly colored clothing. Precautions for the safety of fellow hunters as well as others in the vicinity include training, planning, communications, weapons handling, public notices and warnings and group awareness procedures.
Another aspect is the welfare of the animals themselves, and this requires updated and thorough knowledge of each individual species. Replenishment is assured by hunting from groups, flocks or herds rather than eliminating individual animals, and pairs in mating ages are passed over for younger, more plentiful specimens. With unbending rigidity, seasonal quotas are strictly kept. To keep a natural balance, the rights of other predators are respected, and a hunting expedition never takes on the character of a gun-blasting massacre of everything bearing feathers or fur.
The entire nation reacts with shock when reports of poaching, illegal hunting or mindless slaughter come to the attention of the press, as well as the police, and culprits are relentlessly pursued and brought to justice. In one way or another, laws regulate most aspects of hunting, while on the other hand, the fraternity of hunters in unison with an educated and concerned public make hunting in Sweden a safe sport and preserve natural resources for future generations.
Ulf Barslund Martensson