The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: field visits

Reflections on rewilding

I have recorded a new podcast with Jan Oosthoek at Environmental History Resources called “Desire for the Wild – Wild Desires? The Trouble with Rewilding”. In the podcast, I offer some reflections about a workshop I attended back in the spring at Cambridge and Wicken Fen in England. Paul Warde wrote up his own thoughts about the workshop for the project’s blog immediately afterward, so this was my chance to follow suit.

Konik ponies at Wicken Fen in a thoroughly nature-culture hybrid environment. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

Konik ponies at Wicken Fen in a thoroughly nature-culture hybrid environment. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

During the workshop, I posted about the grazing animals being used to “rewild” Wicken Fen and questioned their “wildness”. My concern is not with the use of ponies or cattle to manage vegetation at Wicken Fen, it is about the labels that we use for the activity. What are we really doing when we introduce grazing breeds selectively bred by humans into fenced enclosures in areas where free-range grazers haven’t lived for 10,000 years? My position is that this kind of intervention is environmental management. The managers at Wicken Fen have adopted a goal of what the ecosystem should be and have chosen species to place in the area to achieve that goal. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that — in fact, I applaud it — but is it “rewilding”?

Of course the answer to that depends on what you mean by “rewilding”. That is where in the podcast, I go a little bit into the paper that I presented at the conference. I’m currently reworking/expanding the paper for consideration in a Geoforum special issue, so I won’t steal all its thunder here, but in essence, it argues that the definition of “rewilding” is anything but clear.

When the word was first coined in 1991 (that’s the first use I’ve been able to locate), it meant creating landscapes focused on the 3 Cs (cores, corridors & carnivores). In other words, it was all about large wildlife, particularly carnivores like wolves and bears, and it was developed within a US context. In 2005, the word was repurposed by Donlan et al. in their famous Nature paper “Re-wilding North America” to mean the return of megafaunal replacements for animals lost at the end of the Pleistocene from North America (think here of mammoths, cave lions, and the like). A later group of scientists working on introducing surrogate tortoise species from one Oceanic island to another started labelling their work as “rewilding”. Still others used “rewilding” to refer to the abandonment of previous agricultural land or production forest, particularly within the European context. And finally “rewilding” is even used to refer to the release of captive-born animals into the wild.

What I found interesting in all of this is how geography mattered in which definition we were talking about. In North America, the focus was on species. In Europe, animals were not discussed, it was landscapes. In the North American contexts, “rewilding” implied not having humans present, whereas that was not the case in other geographies, although even in the other geographies, “rewilding” was using a baseline before human settlement even if it wasn’t assumed that humans would be gone from the area now.

In the paper, I critiqued this notion of “wild” being only where humans are not. Bill Cronon argued back in 1995 that making wilderness out to be nature profoundly apart from humans is fundamentally flawed. It’s not that setting aside nature reserves is inappropriate, but as he said a few days ago on NPR’s Science Friday, there is “no way we can wall off those areas” so nothing is really without human influence. From this contention, I argued that making “wild” out to be only places without people leads to devaluing wild where people are, whether that’s a butterfly in the garden or a sparrow in an agricultural field. Paul Robbins, who was on Science Friday along with Cronon, pointed out that working landscapes can be incredibly productive from a biodiversity perspective. So if “rewilding” focuses only on things “out there”, we diminish the thing “right here”. We imply that if touched by human hands, something can’t be wild.

When I drafted my talk, that’s where it finished. But I got inspired to add a multi-media ending to the paper when I was sitting on a bench outside of our room during the break before my paper. I noticed how many bird calls I could hear, so I filmed the urban “wild”.

Now, Paul Warde in his blog post didn’t agree that this garden scene is “wild” but I beg to differ because I focus on a different aspect of wild. On the Science Friday radio show, Cronon mentioned the difference between controlling nature and affecting nature. Although in the Anthropocene everything is affected by humans, we do not control it all. As Emma Marris has labelled it, we live in a rambunctious garden. And it is that rambunctiousness that I believe is “wild”. A recent write-up about the wildlife in New York’s Central Park is a case in point. The inhabitants of Central Park are uncontrolled yet affected by us — they are wild.

Again, I’m not saying that we don’t need to work on making landscape areas in which non-humans can live. We do. Some non-humans are very sensitive to human contact so they need spaces away from us; but others actually thrive where we are. Both are important and both are wild. In that way, rewilding seems like a ridiculous term because if it’s all already wild, you can’t “re”wild it. We can as humans, however, choose to make spaces for different kinds of wild in the world.

On the time I drank castoreum

Not every historical subject offers the opportunity for a full body experience. My research on beavers, however, does.

Drinking a shot of castoreum liquor in Gällivare, Sweden.

Drinking a shot of castoreum liquor in Gällivare, Sweden.

Four days ago, I had the chance to drink castoreum (bävergäll in Swedish) liquor. This traditional hunter’s schnapps sold as the brand BVR HJT (pronounced as the word bäverhojt, meaning “beaver shout”) is alcohol infused with castoreum musk from beaver.

The first flavour was similar to oak-cured whiskey, but then the musk comes out. It’s a hard-to-describe taste, but I imagine that it’s what traditional male musky cologne would taste like. It was not particularly strong, however, so it seemed pleasant enough to consume most of the shot.

An hour later, however, I had a different opinion as the castoreum scent started to seep out through my skin – literally. My pores started to extrude the musky smell. My husband, who had simply thought the hotel room smelled a bit funny after we got back from dinner, confirmed that it was indeed me. After a shower, things got better, but I had to take another one in the morning to completely get rid of the beaver odor. My historical inquiry had turned a bit too sensory.

As a historian what’s interesting about this is that I have now experienced what people for a couple thousand years have consumed as a medicinal treatment. Hildegard von Bingen, a Benedictine abbess, mystic, and scholar who lived 1098 to 1179, recorded that fevers could be reduced by drinking wine with either dried beaver liver or beaver testicles (which were in reality castoreum sacs but ancient and medieval writers thought they were the testicles). My drink followed the same principal, although the alcohol was stronger than wine.

Illustration of the fable of the hunted beaver from S Croxall, Fables of Aesop and Others (1863)

Illustration of the fable of the hunted beaver from S Croxall, Fables of Aesop and Others (1863)

Hildegard was repeating ancient medical knowledge that had been handed down since at least Greek times. Aesop’s fables include the tale of the hunted beaver, who bites off his testicles and throws them to the hunter since he knows that is what the hunter is after. This appears as a common tale repeated in numerous works, from Herodotus to late medieval bestiaries. The hunter in these stories pursues the beaver, not for his fur or meat, but to acquire the prized “testicles” for use in medicine.

A fabulously detailed article by Charles Wilson from 1858, “Notes on the prior existence of the castor fiber in Scotland, with its ancient and present distribution in Europe, and on the use of castoreum,” goes through all of the medicinal scholarship of the authorities like Pliny and Avicenna who recommended beaver castoreum for a wide variety of ailments. Castoreum has been found on a medical drugs inventory list from medieval Cairo, so we know it was used in medical practice.

Wilson noted that in his day, the use of castoreum was almost non-existent in Britain and the US, but yet was still used commonly in other places such as France and Germany. In these places, the castoreum from European beaver was much more valued than Canadian beavers, which was considered less effective. The price differences he cites were extreme, with powdered Norwegian castoreum selling for 25 to 35 times the price of Canadian one; which is probably the reason the Norwegian pharmacopia from 1854 directed that Canadian should still be used normally in medicine unless Norwegian or Russian castoreum was specifically requested.

The apothecary exhibit in the Robertsfors Bruksmuseum, Sweden. The castoreum jar is the last one on the left on the upper shelf.

The apothecary exhibit in the Robertsfors Bruksmuseum, Sweden. The castoreum jar is the last one on the left on the upper shelf.

Although Wilson had seen a decline in castoreum prescribed in his home country, it was clearly in use in rural Sweden even into the 20th century. Earlier in July, I visited the Robertsfors Bruksmuseum (industry museum), which has artifacts related to the community of Robertsfors in northern Sweden that grew up around an iron mill. As part of the exhibit, the Robertsfors apothecary shop had been re-created with the store’s original contents (it operated 1917 to mid-1950s). One of the medicinal jars was labelled castoreum. During the period of operation, it is likely that the castoreum being used was Canadian, but it could have also been Norwegian, since by the 1930s, hunting beaver was permitted there.

In articles about the Swedish beaver reintroduction, stories about castoreum as medicine were standard parts of the narrative. In 1922, Eric Festin retold a story recounted by his colleague Alarik Behm in Nordiska däggdjur that same year that I have cited before but it’s worth putting here again:

My grandmother, born in the Jämtland mountains at the beginning of last century, used to tell us kids, that when someone in her home town was very ill and began shaking […], you would give the sick person castoreum, a half teaspoon in a sip of liquor, after which the patient died. Either the medicine was given too late or else it had no effect. This castoreum was supplied by two men, Halvar and Marten, and thanks to their and others’ earnest ‘supplies’, beaver disappeared from the area.

What I think is critical in this narrative is that the extinction of the beaver was not because of hunting for fur or meat, but for castoreum (even if it sounds like it wasn’t all that effective!). Looking at the stress on castoreum as the reason to kill beavers in historical documents, all of the medicinal texts touting castoreum’s healing powers, and the apparent regularity with which it appeared in pharmaceutical preparations, I’m inclined to believe Behm’s grandmother that the decline of the European beaver should be attributed to its musk glands. While beaver fur was certainly useful and harvested in ancient and medieval times, particularly in Russia, it did not really become a mass market fashion commodity until after the discovery of the New World and the new Canadian beaver stocks. Before then, beaver pelts might have been a side product of the really important item: castoreum.

In this light, the European beaver’s near-demise was not unlike the killing of rhinos for their horns to be used in Chinese medicine. The difference was that the beavers lived closer to the users of beaver products, so they saw them disappear, and eventually, worked to bring them back. And that’s something to be thankful for as I sipped castoreum on a summer day in Sweden.

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A sensory tourist experience

Last week I got to experience a contemporary side of animal reintroduction – it’s place in the tourism industry. For the muskox, nature tourism would seem a natural fit. After all, there are no other places in Europe to see wild muskox than the Norwegian and Swedish mountains. For the beaver, I was a little more skeptical about how tourism would work since beavers are not particularly large and for the most part noctural.

I had expected the muskox safari to be similar to the safari I went on in Kruger National Park or the whale safaris I’ve been on in Hawaii and Norway.  In those experiences, the guide talked about the animal’s characteristics — where it lives, what it eats, how many babies it has, etc. — and then you’d take a lot of pictures. These tours were a ‘biological’ experience, about seeing a specific animal in a natural setting rather than on TV or the zoo. In other words, it was about seeing BIG animals in ‘wild’ places.

This partially happened during the muskox tour. My guide talked a bit about muskox biology, but really not much. We were more focused on the steep uphill climb before us. Once we reached the top of the first climb, the guide would stop and look through his binoculars, scanning the horizon for potential muskox. When he spotted them on the side of the mountain, there was a quickening of pace to get in better viewing distance. I was glad I had my 200mm lens because they were pretty darn far away (which considering their attack history was quite ok by me).

The other two tourists were clearly impressed with the animals – there were some oohs and aahs and particularly ‘how cute’ about the babies. Now, don’t get me wrong, they were interesting animals to look at, but I thought they were very similar to mountain goats, just a bit bigger. When they ran, they looked really awesome because of the waves of hair, but other than that brief moment when they had been startled by something, they just sat there or lumbered slowly around. Maybe I was little jaded from having seen lots of photos and videos of muskox because of my research, as well as live muskox at the Myskoxcentrum two days before much closer up.

One of the tourists, Heidi, getting her piece of muskox sausage

One of the tourists, Heidi, getting her piece of muskox sausage

But something struck me about the muskox tourism experience during the tour. Once we spotted the muskox and had gotten about halfway to our final position, we took a coffee break and … ate muskox. The guide had brought some of the muskox sausage that Kongsvoll fjeldstue specialises in, so he cut pieces for everyone. The sausage actually had both muskox and reindeer in it (to make the rare muskox meat go further, I’m sure) and tasted a bit sweet. There we stood eating what we were watching. In so doing, the tourism experience was not framed as a nature protection story; it was in many ways a production story. But what was being produced? After all, muskox aren’t hunted (at least not legally) in Norway and muskox are not being raised for meat. The sausage is actually only a by-product of the human limits put on muskox – when they wander too far off, they have to be culled, and that has made some meat available. That was a part the guide didn’t tell us; he didn’t say where the meat we were eating as we were watching came from. The tour was a full sensory experience with food consumption and sight consumption linked, yet unexplained.

One of five beavers I saw on the beaver safari.

One of five beavers I saw on the beaver safari.

The beaver safari in Sweden had some of these same characteristics. At the beginning, my guide recounted the history of timberfloating on the Dammån and when beavers first came to the river 32 years ago. He talked about beaver biology and pointed out signs of their activity on the river’s banks. Then we arrived at the half-way point for the cook-out. We had cooked coffee on the fire and ate smoked fish. Normally, though, the tour has smoked beaver meat. Unfortunately because I was the first tour of the season, the smokehouse hadn’t yet delivered the beaver meat. This was, like the muskox safari, a full sensory experience. Beaver would be eaten and then the tourists would be loaded back into the boats and go out to take pictures of the beavers in the wild. And that’s what I did, minus eating the beaver – although eating the smoked whole fish was still a first-time experience for a girl raised in the desert. The tour is marketed mainly for families with children, so I wonder if the kids think it’s ‘cool’ or ‘icky’ to eat the beaver. In any case, there are lots of beavers to see on the river, so it’s almost guaranteed that the kids come back having seen a wild beaver.

Muskox pelt for tourists to feel in the Myskoxcentrum exhibit

Muskox pelt for tourists to feel in the Myskoxcentrum exhibit

The Myskoxcentrum tour, while not featuring eating muskox, likewise included sensory experiences. In that case, tourists were encouraged to touch the muskox pelt and the qiviut products made from it. A picture on the wall showed the original herd of five that had migrated to Sweden – and behind you was the stuffed body of one of them – so the guide pointed out which one he was in the picture. The experience was about making the wild tangible.

The tourist experiences of muskox and beaver were shaped by their history as reintroduced animals. The stories of how the animals came to be where they are was a prominent part of the narrative. The relationship between human and animal was further strengthened by eating the animal which you as tourist was about to take pictures of. This ‘full-bodied’ tourism integrated the animal into the human story and the human in to the animal one.

Why we need history

There has been a lot of discussion globally as of late about why we need the humanities, most recently in connection with the release of The Heart of the Matter report by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences in the US. I’ve seen commentaries arguing that the humanities make literate citizens that are creative and communicative or that they stress uncertainty, balancing the approach of the hard sciences. These are all perfectly fine and true reasons for studying humanistic disciplines. But when it comes to my field, I want to say that we need history because we tend to forget.

The wild muskox herd I saw while on the muskox safari in Kongsvoll, Norway. The calves in the herd were all about 1 month old. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen.

Part of the wild muskox herd I saw while on the muskox safari in Kongsvoll, Norway. The calves in the herd were all about 1 month old. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen.

Yesterday on my 4-hour tour to see the wild muskox of the Dovre mountains, I had the pleasure of  hiking with Heidi, a lawyer from Oslo, and Saul, a corporate coach from London, along with our guide, Joakim, a 25-year-old ecology student born and raised in Dombås. What I noticed was the way that memory works – or doesn’t – about reintroduced animals.

At one point I asked Heidi as a Norwegian what she thought about the muskox. Her answer was that the muskox had been in Norway as long as she had been alive, so they were a normal, natural part of the Norwegian countryside. Although she had never seen the wild muskox herd before, she had never thought of them as out of place. This is a typical way of thinking about the past. For many, if something has been present for his/her lifetime, it becomes the baseline. This concept, known as the shifting baseline syndrome as described by the fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, plagues much of the environmental sciences as well as environmental history. Humans have a lifespan that compared to ecological and even historical timeframes is a blink of an eye, yet we have a tendency to judge what happens by what we see with our own eyes. Environmental history as a scholarly pursuit has the task of bringing the hidden past that occurred outside of the memory of living humans into the light.

Near the beginning of my tour, Joakim stopped us to talk about what to do if we ran into a muskox close up. He was very intent on stressing the calm, peaceful nature of the animals; they would only attack if threatened so we had nothing to worry about. As a historian, I have read a lot of newspaper accounts of muskox attacks, and while he is right that they attack only when threatened, I would not characterize them as peaceful because their response to threat is often to attack. When I mentioned to Joakim that a man had been killed by a muskox only a few kilometers up the road in 1964, our guide was shocked. He had no idea that someone had died from a muskox attack in the area. I was a bit surprised that the death had not entered local lore, especially since it prompted a fair amount of community outrage, but that history obviously had not trickled down to this young ecologist. Without this history, Joakim could think of the muskox as a different kind of creature than he would with it.

This is not to say that there cannot be cultural memory of events from the past. I’ve talked about that in the case of the beaver extinction in Sweden, which was remembered through storytelling about the grandparent’s generation or even their grandparent’s time. But such memory is limited. When I mentioned that I was also working on beaver reintroduction, Heidi was surprised and replied that she had seen beaver all over in Norway and Sweden, so how could they have basically been extinct? Obviously the history of beaver – its near demise and remarkable comeback – is not something being taught in the schools or discussed by the public if this well-educated middle-aged Norwegian knew nothing about it. To her, the current spread of beavers must mean that they had always been here, an assumption that we know is not historically true.

Alternate histories without the beaver can certainly be imagined. It’s entirely plausible that beavers might not have existed at all in Europe at this time, if the actions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to protect the last remnant populations and reintroduce individuals to prior habitats had not been taken. That beavers would not die out entirely was not a given at the time. Only history tells us why they didn’t, and in doing so it holds lessons for us as well as future generations.

History tells us that the way things are now is not how they were in the past, and that the way things are now and how they will be in the future is not inevitable. History makes us remember things we’ve forgotten. This is why we need history.

Muskox mascots

In the main tourist shop in Dombås, which had a huge number of buses filled with foreign tourists stopped there, there were souvenirs with Norwegian flags and trolls and lots and lots of moose. Moose were everywhere on the souvenirs. I guess when people think of Norway, they think of moose. I didn’t see a single muskox.

Yet in the last two days, I have been overloaded with muskox. They sternly look out from signs, brochures, and posters. Their likenesses ae captured as paperweights, children’s toys, and even fire starters. There are very expensive muskox wool knitted hats and mittens and sweaters. The muskox mania was visible both in Härjedalen on the Swedish side of the border and in Dovre commune on the Norwegian side. As my guide at the Myskoxcentrum said yesterday about muskox,

They are more like a mascot, one can say, or a symbol for Härjedalen.

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Even downstairs from the Trollstua that was empty of muskox, a small but new annex in the Dombås tourist office called the National Park Center was dominated by them. The first thing the visitor sees in the hallway is a muskox skin and that you can touch and then 7 large photos of animals from the area, 2 of which show muskox. Although a set of reindeer antlers sits next to the sign for Rondane National Park, Norway’s first national park, there is not a complete reindeer on exhibit. There is a family of wolverines (they were cool!), a beaver, and lots of birds — and there are the muskox. The muskox display in the last room has a mother and calf taxidermied specimens as well as three skulls and lots of photos. Although reindeer are more populous than muskox, it is muskox that is the draw with special muskox safaris offered every day by multiple outfitters in town.

By becoming emphasised and symbolised, the muskox may or may not have a future here. In Wild Ones, Jon Mooallem observed poignantly:

In the twenty-first century, how species survive, or go to die, may have more to do with Barnum than Darwin. Emotion matters. Imagination matters. The way we see a species can impact its standing on the plantet more than anything covered in ecology textbooks.

Muskox at the National Park Center in Dombås

Muskox at the National Park Center in Dombås

I see many similarities of Mooallem’s discussion of polar bears with the Scandinavian muskox. They have, just like teddy bears, been converted from oxen with a temper to big kind mammas and cute cuddly babies. They still look strong and powerful, but the edge is taken off. That can be a good thing because people are then drawn to spend their money on tours and souvenirs of muskox, which encourages locals to have them around. At the same time, this changing of the muskox’s nature might make visitors and locals alike complacent and come into conflict with an animal that has no qualms about charging a person. Only time will tell if the muskox mascots remain physically and emotionally at the center of this region.

Decisions, decisions

The main beaver reintroduction file at the Jamtli archive

The main beaver reintroduction file at the Jamtli archive

I finished up my archival work in Östersund, so I wanted to reflect on that process. Being a historian is part detective, tracking down sources that illuminate the past, and part waste handler, sorting through junk to find something usable.

When I worked on medieval history, I had to use every little scrap of evidence I could find to understand the whole picture of what was going on. But when I moved over to modern history, I was flooded with sources. There were newspaper accounts, popular magazines, scientific journals, interviews with live people (shocking for a previous medieval historian), personal letters, court documents, legislative files, and so on. These have to be waded through and only some are going to be used in the story.

I work in an ecology department and my colleagues in our group do field work all the time. They go out to plots and clip leaves or take soil samples or count how many of each kind of plant grows there. Then they come into the office and put numbers into statistical computer software to determine what is ‘significant’. For them, all differences are not significant: one plot may have more plants than another, but that variation may be simply part of random variation rather than showing that there is something fundamentally different about the two plot. As an environmental historian, I don’t use statistics to determine significance, but I find some things significant and others not.

One of the 96 pages from the Beaver Fund list in the Jamtli files

One of the 96 pages from the Beaver Fund list in the Jamtli files

The significance, however, depends on the question I want to answer. For example. I found a whole folder that had the list of donors to the Beaver Fund started by Eric Festin to pay for the purchase and transport costs of the beavers. If I wanted to find out exactly how widespread support for the project was, I could have copied all 96 pages, tried to read the names of the donors, and then tracked them down through other records to find out who they were. But to be honest, I didn’t want to spend the time and effort to do that. I was more interested in seeing a sampling of the pages, which showed that many people gave very small donations: 1 kr (something equivalent to 25 kr or $4-5 today) was common and some people even gave 0.25 kr (basically $1). Others gave in the 10 kr range and Gustaf Werner from Göteborg (who was a regular correspondent of Festin’s) sponsored the project most with a donation of 1500 kr. I decided that while the overall types of gifts are significant, the individual donations were not, so I did not copy every page.

The same kind of decision was made in the case of the “beaver report” that the local Olof Olofsson and his son would send to Festin. Especially right after the reintroduction, they sent monthly letters detailing where the beavers had gone and what they were doing (building a new lodge, cutting down more trees, etc). These continued through the 1930s, although they became more like an annual report. Because I am not actually interested in where the beavers moved around to at the level of detail of these reports, I decided they would not make the cut either.

Part of a letter from the Svenska naturskyddsföreningen's director to Festin, 28 May 1921, from the Jamtli archive

Part of a letter with difficult handwriting from the Svenska naturskyddsföreningen’s director to Festin, 28 May 1921, from the Jamtli archive

Some questions of significance hinge on whether or not I could actually read the document in question relatively quickly. Typed letters were no problem, but handwritten letters could be a real challenge. It’s not that they couldn’t be read eventually with some serious effort, it’s that when you have 3 days to look through files, you can’t spend a huge chunk of time on any one letter, unless you have other reasons to think it is important. So it’s possible that something in these nearly-impossible-to-read documents was really interesting, but I decided it was not significant to my overall project.

These are some of the decisions a historian makes. I ended up with 296 digitial images from the Jamtli archive files, which is still a ridiculous amount of material to work with. I made a list of each letter as I decided to photograph it and wrote notes or partial transcriptions so I would know what it was about. The hard work of making these individual pieces of paper into a good environmental history is yet to come.

Road trip!

Summer 2013 research trip for The Return of Native Nordic Fauna project

Summer 2013 research trip for The Return of Native Nordic Fauna project

I’ll be headed out on a research road trip in two days. I’ll be working on both of my main reintroduction cases: beaver and muskox. First stop will be the archive at Jamtli in Östersund. The first beaver reintroduction project was spearheaded by Eric Festin who was the director of the museum, so there should be lots of interesting documents about the beaver’s return. I’ll be there for 3 days. Then I’ll be driving to Funäsdalen where I will tour the Myskoxcentrum and see the Fjällmuseet. After that, I head to Norway where I will check out the presentation of muskox for tourists in Dombås (the gateway to Dovrefjell) and at Kongsvold Fjeldstue. I’ll even get to go on a muskox safari. Then I’ll drive through Trondheim, making a quick stop at the Vitenskapsmuseet, and finally back to the Östersund area where I’ll take the first beaver safari tour of the season at Camp Damman.

Whew! I’m tired just thinking about it. I can’t imagine how tired I’ll be on Monday the 24th when I return.

In many ways, the trip is about border crossing. Just as the animals I am studying have crossed over the border between Norway and Sweden, I’ll be moving between the two countries. I’m curious to see how the nations as entities and the political boundary that people have drawn affects the way these animals are thought about and presented. Are the Swedish and Norwegian muskox one and the same? Are they understood to be different? How long did the beavers from Norway retain their Norwegian identity once moved to Sweden? How do we project our ideas of nation and border onto animals that couldn’t care less about our lines?

These are just some of the questions I hope to grapple with next week. And I’m looking forward to sharing some of those insights here on this blog.

If a woodpecker could peck wood

White-backed woodpecker (Weißrückenspecht) illustrated in Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas (1901)

White-backed woodpecker (Weißrückenspecht) illustrated in Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas (1901)

As part of our RESTORE team meeting today, we had an excursion to two restoration and release sites for the white-backed woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos) about an hour’s drive north of Uppsala, Sweden. We were led on the tour by Kristoffer Stighäll, who works for Naturskyddsförening (Swedish Society for Nature Conservation) on the white-backed woodpecker conservation project.

The project has two components working in tandem. One is to restore the forest structure from a spruce-dominated relatively-closed forest to a more open deciduous (aspen, birch, lindon, etc) tree forest with lots of dead wood. This restoration work consists of taking out spruce trees (which are being sold as timber) and killing some deciduous trees through ringing and/or prescribed fire burns to create dead wood. Both of these are necessary for to make habitat for the beetles (and their larvae) that woodpeckers eat, as well as for nesting holes for the woodpeckers.

The second component is population reinforcement/reintroduction – basically bringing more white-backed woodpeckers into the areas known as current or previous woodpecker habitat – which has been practiced in Sweden since the mid-1990s. These woodpeckers are currently bred at Nordens Ark, a private zoo near the Swedish-Norwegian border, from a stock of birds caught in Norway. Between 2008 and 2011, 35 woodpecker youths were released into the wild from this breeding stock.

Cage used for the white-backed woodpecker releases at Båtfors Nature Reserve

Cage used for the white-backed woodpecker releases at Båtfors Nature Reserve

We got some insight into the reintroduction process during the tour. The young woodpeckers are taken from Nordens Ark when they are 7-8 weeks old, which has given them time to leave the nest and learn to fly. They are then brought to the release site, where they are placed into large aviary cages with 3-4 other woodpeckers. They stay in there one week with larvae being brought in as food. Then the door (the hatch-like door above our guide’s head in the photo) is opened so that they can choose to fly out. Food continues to be placed inside the cage, but also outside of it to encourage the youths to come out and explore their new home. In a week or so, they typically fly off to find a new territory.

According to our guide, of the 16 birds released last year at the Båtfors Nature Reserve we visited, 5 to 6 are still in the nearby vicinity. We didn’t see one, but if we had it would have looked like this. And although we heard other woodpeckers pecking on the trees, we didn’t hear the white-backed one which would have sounded like this.

The white-backed woodpecker is an interesting case of people thinking about species on a national level. I say this because the white-backed woodpecker is in fact not endangered or even threatened on a global scale according to its IUCN status. Although the numbers are thought to be decreasing globally, there are estimated to be 180,000 to 500,000 breeding pairs in Europe alone (and the species spreads all the way into Asia). Yet, people are spending money to the species bring back the Sweden: the Swedish Forest Agency alone claimed that it spent 7.8 million SEK in 2012 on the project and there are lots of other groups involved, including county-level agencies, the Nature Conservation society, and forest companies, so there was much more than that figure invested. While the species is not seen as a threatened one globally, it is on the Swedish Red List as Critically Threatened. Its range is said to have decreased by 90% over the last 30-40 years, thus it has become an object of major conservation effort. In the Swedish decision-making process, the national level has outweighed the global one.

While the white-backed woodpecker is certainly a historical part of the Swedish fauna, one has to ask the question of whether or not it matters if it is in Sweden in the future. There are other woodpeckers present in the same areas (we heard plenty of great spotted woodpecker during our hike) and for a long time people even thought the great spotted and the white-backed were just two sizes of the same bird because they basically do the same things. If it really doesn’t matter that this particular species is here, the reintroduction money is not being put to good use. There have been something like 50 birds released in the last 5 years in southern Sweden but there are thought to be only 10 breeding pairs now in the whole country — making for some individual retention statistics that sounded pretty pathetic to me.

Restoration site where the trees have been ringed (the bark stripped) so that they will die and make more dead wood, prime woodpecker feeding grounds

Restoration site where the trees have been ringed (the bark stripped) so that they will die and make more dead wood, prime woodpecker feeding grounds

At the same time, the white-backed woodpecker has spurred a myriad of people into action to restore deciduous forest in Sweden. Almost all of Sweden has been turned into one big conifer plantation — to the detriment of species like woodpeckers that need trees like aspens and birches. So the restoration projects themselves might be beneficial to lots of species that need those kind of trees. The projects might have conservation effects that far exceed the conservation of one woodpecker species.

When I was a kid, we would try to say the tongue-twister “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” as fast as possible over and over again. The question on my mind today was: “How much wood would a woodpecker peck if a woodpecker could peck wood?” The only way to answer that question is to put woodpeckers and wood in the same place. The restoration projects I saw today might be one step in that direction.

Wild Again?

I previously wrote about the word reintroduction and how the prefix ‘re’, which usually means ‘again’, is not working like that in this word. The species being reintroduced was not introduced and then being introduced again; such a situation would be contrary to many people’s fundamental understanding of reintroduction as only applying to species that got to where they are by themselves in the past.

This week, I’m at a workshop about ‘rewilding’ at Cambridge. It’s another case of a ‘re’ word, so the question is: Is ‘rewilding’ really bringing back a wild that had been there in the past?

I went on a site visit as part of the workshop to Wicken Fen Nature Reserve. Wicken Fen, the first nature reserve owned by the National Trust, has established a Vision for a landscape scale restored reserve. This Vision was talked about yesterday as ‘rewilding’, making the landscape wild again.

A one-month-old foal in the Konik pony herd at Wicken Fen. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen.

A one-month-old foal in the Konik pony herd at Wicken Fen. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen.

But in what ways is it wild and in what ways not? A big part of the restoration program involves the introduction of large grazers: Konik ponies and Highland cattle. I got to see the ponies up close – one came right up to me for a clap on the muzzle – and that was a great experience, but was that pony and the place rewilded? Here are some things to consider.

First, the ponies range freely, but only within the limited fences of the section of the fen they are assigned to. It may be more space than a typical farmer’s horse, but it is certainly not having free range over the landscape. Fences abound because the landscape is a human one. Not only do the ponies need to be kept out of nearby farms, but also kept out of some sections of Wicken Fen. In other words, the property is managed to create particular landscapes in particular sections. While the presentation about Wicken Fen I heard stressed the flexible management (i.e. an exact end point is not written in stone for a given area), there are still lots of decisions being made about where grazers can go and where water will be pumped onto the land to make the wetlands.

The Konik ponies at Wicken Fen may be free range, but only within the fences and in a clearly historically human-shaped landscape. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen.

The Konik ponies at Wicken Fen may be free range, but only within the fences and in a clearly historically human-shaped landscape. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen.

Second, the ponies themselves are a human creation. Koniks are a breed created in Poland from mixing wild tarpans (which are extinct) with domestic breeds. During the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, there was great interest in the breed as the ‘essence’ of the wild European horse – the Nazi’s were particularly interested in backbreeding it into their vision of the tarpan. Koniks were used at the end of the 20th century in large scale grazing experimental areas in the Netherlands, and this is the source of the ponies at Wicken Fen.

Third, it has been a really long time since grazers roamed free in this area. When asked about when free horses would have last been in the area, the answer was the end of the last Ice Age. Reintroducing these grazers then takes the landscape back 10,000 years, similar to the Pleistocene rewilding schemes in the US and those underway in Siberia. There isn’t really direct evidence for wild horses in the distant past from the Wicken Fen area – so their historical presence is more assumed than real. Our ideas of what was there in the past are more important than what really was there in the past.

In thinking about rewilding, I think the ‘re’ is wrong. It implies that the area was wild, then tamed, and now wild again. I think wild and tame are way too mixed together for that to be true. Hybridity is the norm not the exception. Rewilding is not ‘wild again’ because it’s never not been wild and, as long as people have existed, it’s never not been tamed.

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