Hunters have shot dead 54 wolves in a month in Sweden’s largest and most controversial cull of the animals yet, prompting fury from conservationists and satisfaction among farmers who consider the predators a threat to their livelihoods.
The Stockholm government has authorised the shooting of 75 wolves in its 2023 cull, more than twice last year’s figure, despite warnings from scientists that wolf numbers are not large enough to sustain a healthy population.
“Wolves are a threat for those of us who live in rural areas,” said Kjell-Arne Ottosson, a Christian Democrat MP and vice-president of the parliament’s environment and agriculture committee. “We have to manage that. We have to take this seriously.”
Farmers say more than 340 sheep were killed in 2021 by a Swedish wolf population estimated at about 460. The predators, which in the 1960s were thought to be extinct in Sweden, are also resented by hunters, who say the dogs they use to track and drive deer and elk are regularly attacked.
“This cull is absolutely necessary to slow the growth of wolves. Sweden’s wolf population is the largest we have had in modern times,” Gunnar Glöersen, predator manager at the Swedish Hunters’ Association, told public broadcaster SVT.
However, the scale of this year’s planned cull – only 203 wolves have been shot in total in Sweden in the 12 years since authorised hunting resumed – has alarmed conservationists. “It’s tragic,” said Daniel Ekblom of the Nature Conservation Society. “It could have consequences for a long time to come.”
Scientists have said the that to sustain a healthy population, the wolf population roaming Sweden and Finland should not fall below 500, and Sweden’s Environmental Protection Agency has said at least 300 are necessary to avoid harmful inbreeding.
Led by centre- and far-right parties, however, Sweden’s parliament voted two years ago to cap the wolf population at 270, while the Swedish Hunters’ Association wants to go even further and lower the limit to 150 animals.
Wolf numbers fell steeply in Sweden after 1789, when a law was passed allowing commoners to hunt. That led to the decimation of the deer and elk populations, prompting wolves to prey more on livestock – and the state to pay a bounty for every wolf killed.
The population shrank to the brink of extinction and the predator was declared a protected species in the 1960s. Numbers began growing again 20 years later, however, when three wolves from the Russian-Finnish population migrated to central Sweden.
The European Commission has previously opened infringement proceedings against Sweden, warning that the annual cull falls foul of the EU’s habitats directive since “the wolf population has not reached a level that guarantees its conservation”.
“It’s astonishing that Sweden keeps on making these decisions,” said Marie Stegard Lind of the anti-hunting group Jaktkritikerna. “The commission has been very clear about its opinion that these hunts are, in fact, illegal,” Lind told AFP.
This year’s cull began in early January and ends on 15 February, although several regional authorities have already called it off having reached their quota. Experts have said the government’s planned national total of 75 wolves may not be reached.
Under pressure from farmers and hunters, the government authorised limited annual culls again in 2010. Since then, the wolf “has become a symbol of the conflict between the city and rural areas”, Johanna Sandahl of the Nature Conservation Society told AFP.