Wolf hunt stand-off in Sweden heightens rural tensions
Three wolves are pictured in a pen at Kolmarden Wildlife Park, Norrkoeping, Sweden on June 18, 2012 - by Pontus Stenberg
"I think we could live with some wolves, but not as many as there are now. They're getting too close to people," Elsa Lund Magnussen told AFP at her small sheep farm and abattoir outside Karlstad in south-central Sweden.
She pointed through the driving snow to a wooded area a stone's throw from her traditional red wooden house and sheds.
"A wolf killed a moose calf just over there a week ago," she said, shaking her head.
"When you know a wolf can turn up on your land anytime, it changes your whole quality of life. You don't dare let your dogs out in the yard ... and people say you need to take a rifle when you walk in the forest!"
Wolf hunting is a sensitive issue in Sweden, as in other European countries where the carnivores were re-introduced in recent decades and enjoy protected status under EU conservation laws.
The European Commission threatened the Nordic country with legal action in 2013 over a planned cull, later stopped by a Stockholm court.
Then the wolf conflict worsened in January when the court blocked another planned cull of 30 wolves following an appeal by environmental groups on the grounds that it violated EU law.
Now only strictly limited "protective hunts" are allowed in the event of wolves killing livestock or posing a clear threat.
'I'm not a wolf hater'
The ruling came just a month after the government unveiled a new wildlife policy allowing the wolf population to be culled down to 270 from the current level of about 400.
"Sweden has never had so many large predators as now," Environment Minister Lena Ek said at the launch of the report, which said the country had a viable wolf population that needed curbing to "take into account people who live and work in areas with a concentration of predators".
Environmentalists rejected that claim, calling it a political decision taken on shaky scientific grounds.
Their legal victory has angered many small farmers like Lund Magnussen who point to rising numbers of sheep attacked by wolves across the country -- up from 292 in 2008 to 411 in 2012.
"I'm not a wolf hater, but if my animals are attacked by wolves I will lose a lot of money and it could put me out of business," she said, adding that totally fencing off wolves is impossible and far too costly.
Another group who say they are paying too high a price for protecting wolves are Sweden's hunters -- about 500 of whom live in this part of Vaarmland county, including Gunnar Gloeersen, who organises the local hunt outside Karlstad.
"Of course wolves have to eat too, but the question is how much?" he asked.
Gloeersen -- who is also the national hunters' association spokesman on predators -- said wolves are decimating game stocks and injuring hunting dogs, which are essential for tracking moose over large areas.
"There's a limit to how much you can torment people. Dead wolves are going to start showing up," he said with a shrug.
"If democratic rules drawn up by parliament are not applied I'm convinced that illegal hunting will explode."
And there are some indications that that has already begun, with reports of a growing number of wolves with new mates -- an indication that an existing mate was killed.
Jan Bergstam, a burly environmental activist, believes hunters and farmers are exaggerating the wolf threat to get subsidies and because they are angry that the predators get in the way of hunting with dogs.
Fences instead of rifles
He said hunts should be limited to a few cases where wolves repeatedly attack livestock or leave too few moose for hunters.
"We've been helping farmers set up fences, and not one with fencing has had their animals attacked by wolves," he said.
"It's good we stopped the licensed hunt. If we don't want wolves to be endangered they need a chance to spread around Sweden."
Bergstam says threats of an anti-wolf revolt are not new but they need to be taken seriously.
"They encourage people to go out and shoot as many wolves as they want," he said.
"This lobby group (hunters) has pumped politicians full of ideas about the countryside on the brink of collapse -- and it's not true."
Resolving the legal dilemma may take years, and many expect it to end up in the European Court of Justice.
The European Commission may also be reluctant to reopen discussions on a hard-won directive from 1992 that protects more than 1,000 animal and plant species across the continent.
But the longer the delay, the more frustration and anger will grow in the Swedish countryside.
"The worst thing is the feeling of powerlessness -- that we can't seem to get any sensible decisions," said farmer Lund Magnussen.
"While the legal process is going on, I want to continue to be able to live and run my business here ... I won't go out and shoot wolves and put them on the parliament's doorstep, but I will defend my animals."