Wednesday, December 30, 2015

the elk

Jacket of Nordic Giant

Here are a few notes from reading Nordic Giant: The moose and its life, a big illustrated book by the naturalist and hunter Tommy Hammarström (2004, translation by Kim Loughran).

The elk has a circumpolar distribution, with six subspecies of which the largest is the Alaskan moose. The densest population is in the Swedish forests: around 300,000 animals. Sweden also has what is possibly the world's largest hunt: it begins in September in the north, and in October in the south. 250,000 hunters shoot around 100,000 elk each year. (Even so, this amounts to only 2% of Sweden's meat consumption.)

These high figures are probably unprecedented in Sweden's history. In general the elk stock has been weak through the past few centuries, especially after 1789 when Gustav III, keen to constrain the power of the nobility, abolished their exclusive rights to hunt elk and other big game. This exposed the elk to a rural peasantry that were growing in numbers and very hungry. The result was mass slaughter, especially in winter on crusted snow. Meanwhile countryfolk allowed to kill edible game now neglected the mandatory wolf-cull. Wolves increased, and in the absence of elk began attacking cattle.

Despite several long moratoriums on hunting and the beginning of modern game laws (which were fiercely resisted; poaching flourished), the elk population remained very weak through the nineteenth century. Not until the mid-twentieth century did the elk recover to something like its "natural" level, around 50,000. Then an unprecedented population explosion occurred in the 1970s, apparently as a direct result of industrial forestry, specifically the practice of clear-felling, which led to a vast increase in Rosebay Willowherb and Wavy Hair-grass, the elk's favourite summer foods. (In 20 years, beginning in the late 1950s, around a third of Sweden's forests were clear-felled.) Even we casual summer tourists began to notice elk now and then; my mother in her youth had never seen one.

Hammarström says that the elk population is already declining from this peak (all these figures, of course, are from 2004).

The hunt, too, is in some danger of decline. It means long, cold hours alone at your post, mostly sitting dead still. With the continuing drift to the towns and a lack of interest by the young, the hunters themselves are now an ageing bunch.

Tommy comments on these age demographics, but not on the fact, unmentioned by him but apparent from both text and images, that the hunt is an all-male affair. On the first page of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, Stieg Larsson parenthetically remarked: "Even today, it can cause controversy having a woman on a typical Swedish elk hunt."

In autumn, elk eat blueberry leaves, but not lingonberry leaves. They also eagerly eat apples in the south, though these are not a very suitable food for ruminants.

 In winter, they survive only on pine-needles, precariously keeping their stomach bacteria alive by recycling urea into the saliva. (They have no use for spruce, the other main Swedish conifer.) The main drive to cull elk is their damage to young pine plantations. Though another would be the high number of road accidents they cause.

Cow and calf

[A double-page illustration from Nordic Giant. The distortion caused by the guttering is something that we learnt to tolerate but will seem strange to future generations. One of the other illustrations in Nordic Giant is completely ruined because its dramatic but small focal point falls right in the guttering.]

The calves are born in May (one, or two). Another factor in the recovery of the population was the realization, in the 1950s, that hunters had been culling in the wrong way. When they encountered a cow and calf, they shot the cow. They didn't realize that the September calf, though already large, is quite unable to survive on its own. In fact it stays with its mother for the whole of its first year, learning all the time, and is only driven off by the cow when she prepares to give birth the following May. (Even then, the yearlings are disorientated and find this traumatic. Most car accidents occur at this time of year.)

These days the approved practice is to shoot the calf and leave the cow. A single calf, whether she has one or two.

Petroglyphs at Nämforsen, Ångermanland 

In the north of Sweden there are numerous prehistoric petroglyphs. (2,500 at Nämforsen alone.) The vast majority are of elk, with a sprinkling of other animals, birds and human figures.

A curiosity pointed out by Hammarström is that most of the bulls have no antlers (a bull can be identified by its large dewlap, e.g above, top right). This identifies them as "winter elk" (January-April). Yet in all probability the carvings (from around 4,000-1,000 BCE) would have been made in the summer.


Gaskin = muscular part of hind leg, between the stifle and the hock.



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