Over the centuries, the Swedish wilderness has been somewhat tamed: where the wild things once were, they tend to not be any more. But in recent decades something unexpected happened — the wolves came back. And our subconscious, writes ELIN UNNES, is only too familiar with their howl.
Norrland — the northern region of Sweden, where kids learn how to forge their own knives in kindergarten, where the pine trees are an unchanging dark green all year round, and where white lichens form mats so thick that the ground looks covered in snowdrift even under a blazing summer sun — is where the wolves reappeared.
Back in the 1200s wolf hunts by farmers were not just encouraged but mandatory, and there were dire fines for anyone who missed a battue; later the punishment was replaced by a cash reward. During the 1800s, as gun quality improved, the hunts became more efficient.
Between 1827 and 1839, 6,790 wolves were killed in Sweden. The packs moved further and further north, and by the time the wolf came under legal protection in 1966 it was estimated that approximately ten individuals were left. There were no packs though. No families meant no new wolves, and for several years still, the lineage kept dwindling.
And then, at the end of the 1970s, they returned.
In 1978 a pack was sighted in Vittangi, close to the ‘three-state cairn’ that marks the spot where Sweden, Finland and Norway meet, but the next winter it had mysteriously disappeared. Then, a year later, another pack was sighted in Värmland.
The literal translation of Norrland is ‘north land’. But it isn’t actually the northern half of the country. It’s more like two thirds. Maybe more, if you ask someone from the south.
Värmland, the province where The Saga of Gösta Berling takes place, is the northernmost region you can find yourself in without being in Norrland. It has all the characteristics of the actual north: wilderness, desolation, and breathtaking mountains, dark green to the point where they look shot through with blackish blue.
In this environment, those resurgent wolves thrived. In 1983 the pack grew: for the first time since the early 1960s, a batch of wolf cubs was born in Sweden. The Värmland pack, now eight members strong, became the first founding family of the new Swedish wolf population. (There’s a total of seven founding packs, all of them immigrants walking across the border from Russia and Finland.)
By 2009 the wolf population had ballooned to 210. It was decided that numbers in fact needed to be kept down, for the peace of mind of the people that share the land with these beautiful but nonetheless deadly predators.
Hunting was allowed for the first time in over forty years. Nonetheless, before the 2016 wolf hunt, there were thought to be as many as 415 wolves in Sweden.
The wolf hunt is considered a preservation of game, a protective hunt, devised to make sure that the packs don’t outgrow their territories. During this year’s hunt, which began on an icy-cold 2 January, a total of forty-six wolves were licensed to be shot.
You can’t just sit and wait for a wolf. First of all, there needs to be snow, preferably the new kind, where even the lightest paws will leave a trace. Once you’ve found fresh paw prints you can’t track the wolf in a straight line — they’ll outrun you in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
Instead, you need to start making huge circles. If you’re able to circle back to where you began without finding an exit trail, you slowly shrink the circle with each lap, until you have the location of the wolf in the middle of the circle. Then you call in the rest of the hunters and drive the wolf in their direction.
Olle, an experienced woodsman and hunter, has organised wolfhunts, but as leader of his team he is never the one who pulls the trigger. He’s met them though.
‘Once I was going to a part of the woods where I knew a wolf had been sighted recently,’ he tells me. ‘When I got there I heard him howling in the distance, so I answered. It didn’t take him more than ten or twelve minutes to get to me. He stood in front of me, in the middle of the road, glowering at me, and I felt like it was a pair of mean, ugly eyes staring at me. I shouted but he didn’t react.Then I started shouting and clapping my hands and he disappeared back into the woods. I turned to walk back to the car and I noticed his mate had been with him. The prints in the snow were parallel to mine: she had been tracking me from behind.’
Olle says that he doesn’t feel at all like the wolf is his hunting competitor. He doesn’t care if the wolves slay an elk or two. There are plenty of elk for everyone, ‘but they take our dogs. And then we can’t hunt at all.’ His views are shared by a lot of people who live close to wolves. For dog owners and farmers with livestock it gets personal: you don’t have to lose very many pets, or come across more than one of your lambs, half-eaten but still alive, in order to dislike wolves for a long time.
Tom Arnbom, a WWF expert on predators, says humans aren’t the only ones who fear wolves: wolves are afraid of wolves too. ‘When wandering lone wolves enter the territory of another pack, they will start moving at higher speed and keep running until they’ve exited the territory. Wolves like to keep a distance. That might be what the howling is for too: to signal a position, in order to be able to keep a safe distance to other wolves.’
A lone wolf is a wolf that has left his or her birth pack, to search for a mate and a territory of its own. Lone wolves are vagabonds. And they’re fast: a wandering wolf can pass several counties in less than a month.
One Polish wolf walked to the Netherlands, but the record is held by a Scandinavian wolf who was born in the south-east of Norway and in twenty months walked through the entire country, passing through Sweden and Finland before being legally shot close to the Russian border. Of all the land mammals, only humans have a greater natural spread across the globe than wolves.
And, like humans, wolves create strict hierarchies in their packs. For example, only the mother and father wolf are allowed to procreate. The siblings stay kids as long as they live with their birth pack, and a pack usually consists of two to nine members. A pack raises new babies together and hunts together, moving quickly over vast swathes of land. A standard territory is about 1,000 square kilometres.
Unless you live in the woods, or, like Olle, know how to call a wolf, you probably aren’t going to see one. Identifying the scats is easy though: wolf scats are filled with frizzy elk hair and lots of white bits.
The predators, er, wolf down the entire elk when they eat, and the bones turn into a calcareous mass in their intestines. Sometimes, wolf furs will turn up in certain of the less politically correct second-hand stores in Stockholm. The bristle is coarse and rough, and unlike the wolves in fairy tales, it’s not actually grey but urine-coloured, resembling a dirty blond Alsatian.
Colours aside, the old sagas have much to teach us about the Swedish wilderness. Ancient Swedish animistic beliefs include lake spirits, tree spirits and house spirits, all of whom need to be appeased, or else…
There’s also Bäckahästen, a magnificent white horse that will lure children onto its back and then dive into a stream and drown them. There’s Skogsrå, or Huldra, who looks like a pretty lady, but when she turns around her back is a rotted-out tree trunk.
There’s Näcken, a wildly beautiful young man who plays his violin in the nude, sitting in a brook or by a watermill, but if you listen to his magical songs he’ll lure you into the deep and kill you.
Wolves, though, are mostly just wolves, and that’s frightening enough. The Christian Church described the wolf as the devil’s creation; even the gods of the Vikings, the Æsir, were afraid of Fenrir, the monstrous wolf that roamed Valhalla before the gods managed to bind him with a magical fetter.
In The Saga of Gösta Berling wolves pursue Gösta and his runaway girlfriend through a wintry Värmland landscape. The latter wonders to herself if there will be anything left of the two of them for people to find. Since they’re being chased by twelve wolves, the answer is probably ‘no’.
Wolf packs will slay the same number of animals every year (120 elk, to be precise), regardless of the size of the pack, the only difference being that the larger packs leave very little biomass — i.e. leftovers — for the rest of the forest’s carnivores. With a pack of twelve wolves on your heels, your bones would be gnawed clean.
More recently, black metal has attempted to capture the spirit of the wilderness, and, a bit like the old folk-tales, it doesn’t so much show you what the Nordic forest looks like as how it feels. The music manifests the condensed darkness, the cold and the desolation, and turns it into something alluring in its power. Wolves, perpetual outsiders even among other animals, are common symbols.
‘It is the magic combination of fierceness and beauty that makes the wolf an exception even in nature,’ says Erik Danielsson, of Swedish black metal band Watain. ‘Wolves are revered outlaws, feared in their bestial nature, yet also objects of fascination and curiosity, of naturally inhabited and unreachable grace.’
The old farmers would use protective magic against the wolves: cows would be smeared with a mix of tar and valerian root to protect them against both wolves and the aforementioned Huldra.
The many words for wolf that exist in the Swedish language offer an insight into our relationship with the creature. The oldest is ulv, which is the etymological root of ‘wolf’. But ulv became magically tainted. People feared that using the animal’s true name was like summoning it, and swapped to varg, which actually means something along the lines of ‘perpetrator of violence’.
But as the wolves kept devouring the farmers’ livestock, varg soon became tainted in the same way as ulv, and the synonyms piled up.
Wolves have distinct personalities. Some are so shy that you can tiptoe through their territory without ever knowing that they’re watching you. Others show no fear. They become comfortable in villages and backyards and take up a special diet of sheep and hunting dogs.
The infamous she-wolf Ylva, who was the result of an incestuous affair within the original Värmland pack, wreaked havoc in northern Värm land in 1987, attacking sixteen dogs and killing four. When she tried to mate with a Swedish elkhound — amazingly caught on camera in the documentary Vargens väg — that was the end of Ylva. She was shot shortly after, to prevent the possibility of wolf-dog hybrids. A hybrid isa disaster waiting to happen, because if there’s one thing that actually makes a wolf dangerous, it’s the loss of fear. (Wolf-dogs exist, but for natural reasons are rare: in the footage it’s clear that Ylva feels very conflicted towards the dog.)
The likelihood of actually being chased by wolves is small. But even though, by the time The Saga of Gösta Berling was published in 1891, wolf attacks had become a distant memory, that scene still felt terrifyingly plausible to readers. In 1820, the year that Gösta’s story begins, there was a series of vicious wolf attacks in Värmland. More than thirty people were attacked. Several children were killed and partially eaten, proving that the wolves responsible weren’t rabid, but actually hunting prey. In the end, the Värmland attacks were traced back to a single animal, the Gysinge Wolf. He had been raised by humans, along with his two siblings, at a nearby mansion. When they became troublesome pets, the father of the house took them out to the woods to kill them.
But he only managed to kill two of the pups, and set the third one free.
When the Gysinge Wolf was killed, the attacks ended, and there haven’t been any since.
ELIN UNNES grew up in Norrland, Sweden, the daughter of two hunters. She’s never seen a wolf, but has seen wolverines, a lynx, a bear cub and an otter. For many years she was the Nordic Editor of Vice magazine while also leading a secret double life as a hobby vegetable gardener. She is working on the follow up to her first book, The Secret Gardener.