Two wild species battle sheep farmers and prions
“SJALDAN liggjandi ulfr laer um getr,” goes a passage in the Havamal, a medieval Norse poem: “The sleeping wolf seldom gets a ham.” The maxim, like the one about early birds and worms, is an exhortation against laziness, but it also conjures a vision of Norway as a land of untamed nature, where wolves chase boars through snow-bound forests. This may have been true in the 10th century, but today the country’s wild fauna are not doing as well. Wolves are rare, and the government is under pressure to cull them further. Another iconic species faces a different threat: chronic wasting disease (CWD), a sort of mad cow disease that can infect reindeer.
North American elk, deer and moose have been dying from CWD since the 1960s, but when the disease was discovered in Norway in March 2016 it was the first instance in Europe, and the first anywhere in wild reindeer. Like mad cow disease, it is caused when proteins known as prions take the wrong shape. The main commercial danger is to the indigenous Sami people, who herd domesticated reindeer. They keep their herds hundreds of kilometres from the wild ones, but scientists, who are unsure of the transmission mechanism, worry that the disease could make the jump. Norway’s agriculture ministry wants the wild reindeer culled to prevent that from happening.
Norway has 30,000 wild reindeer, but only about 70 wolves, according to the latest estimates. (Surveying wolves is hard, especially in spring, when winter tracks melt and scat samples rot.) Still, that is too many for sheep farmers, who fear for their livestock. Last autumn, regional predator management boards licensed hunters to cull the wolf population by 70%, or at least 47 animals. Environmentalists said this would violate the Bern convention on the conservation of European wildlife, and by December the environment minister, Vidar Helgesen, had reduced the kill limit to 15. In February Mr Helgesen announced a new bill that would let regional authorities set cull limits on a case-by-case basis.
“Wolves get so much attention in Norway because of the power of regional policy,” says Ketil Skogen of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. The Norwegian government provides fat subsidies to keep rural areas populated, yet remote communities continue to shrink. When their residents say they want large predators shot, authorities listen. Wolves threaten hunting dogs, Mr Skogen says, and compete with hunters for game.
Though farming organisations support culls, pastureland within wolf range is limited. Estimates suggest wolves kill 1,500-2,000 head of livestock per year, and farmers are compensated for their losses. By contrast, urban Norwegians are more likely than rural ones to favour the wolves—even in eastern Oslo, according to Mr Skogen, which has a breeding pair. If medieval Norway’s spirit lives on, it may have moved to the suburbs.