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Whilst you won’t see a Polar bear (Isbjørn in Norwegian) walking down the streets of Oslo or Stockholm (unless they have escaped from a zoo!) you can see Polar bears on Svalbard (Norway).
Where is Svalbard?
The Svalbard archipelago is the northern most part of Norway, though it is around 500 miles off the northern shore of Norway. Svalbard can be found between Norway and the North Pole deep within the Arctic Circle. There is little vegetation on and Svalbard and much of it is covered by glacier and bare rock. During the summer it has constant daylight and during the winter the sun never rises above the horizon.
The Polar bear is the largest species of bear it is also the most carnivorous, their diet consists mainly of seals though they are opportunists and will eat whale carcasses and other carrion and have been known to rifle through a dust bin (in human populated areas) when really hungry.
There are thought to 20,000 – 25,000 polar bears around the world; it is thought that at least 500 polar bear on Svalbard and 1,900-3,600 polar bears in the Svalbard area and the Barents Sea. They are usually found on the coast around areas of pack ice and ice floes.
I have heard Polar bears aren’t really white!?
Whilst Polar bears appear to be white or off white to yellow their skin is actually black and their fur is actually almost completely transparent. They appear white because their hollow guard hairs reflect all coloured spectrums of light.
Are polar bears friendly?
Polar bears may look cute and cuddly but like any other bear or wild animal can be aggressive towards humans; especially when they have cubs and/or are hungry. There have been cases of Polar bears attacking humans but it usually only happens when the bear’s food supply is low and they have been attracted to areas where humans are by the smell of food; which they can smell from as far away as 20miles, they can even smell a seal pup through 3 feet of snow from around half a mile away!
Do Polar bears hibernate?
Male polar bears and none pregnant females are active all year round and do not hibernate though if the weather is really bad they may den for a short period of time. In the winter pregnant females make a maternity den usually in snow drifts. They stay in these dens for 3 months until they emerge in the spring having given birth to, usually, 2 cubs. During the time they are in the den they are not really hibernating, there heart rate does slow but there body temperature remains constant.
How thick is a Polar bear’s coat?
A polar bear’s coat is very thick! They have a thick woolly under layer of fur and a layer of guard hairs, which are stiff and hollow. Their coat can be 2.5 – 5cm thick. Polar bears moult in the spring time.
Are Polar bears vain?
Polar bear can spend up to 20 minutes grooming themselves after they have eaten to make sure they are free of dirt, however, this is not because they are worried about what other Polar bear might think of them! Polar bears clean themselves so thoroughly to make sure their fur remains water repellent and insulating.
Are Polar bears marine mammals?
Polar bears spend a lot of their time on the ice floes out at sea; they have been found almost 100miles away from land! They are brilliant swimmers; they can swim at speeds of up to 6miles per hour and have been known to swim for 60 miles at a time. When swimming a Polar bear will close it’s nostrils to prevent them from getting water up their nose! These abilities mean that Polar bears are often considered to be marine mammals however they do spend time on land during the summer when the pack ice and sea ice are reduced.
Do Polar bears cover their nose when hunting?
It is said that you can see a Polar bear’s nose from almost 6 miles away on a clear day if using binoculars. As Polar bears are so well camouflaged it had been suggested that their black nose would give away their presence when hunting and that coving their nose would allow them to sneak up on their unsuspecting prey. However over years of study no one has ever seen a Polar bear cover its nose whilst hunting!
Do polar bears use tools when hunting, like blocks of ice?
No, Polar bears do not use tools when hunting; they usually hunt by waiting silently by a seal hole and then when a seal surfaces they pounce and bite at the seals head. However if a hunt does not end successfully Polar bears can become grumpy and have been seen kicking at snow, slapping the ground and throwing ice!
The Arctic fox ((Aloplex lagopus) Fjellrev (in Norwegian) Fjällräven (in Swedish)) is one of Scandinavia’s most endangered predators here we discuss how they are adapted to their environment and what is being done to help protect them.
Adaptations for living in the cold:
The Arctic fox lives in the Arctic region of the northern hemisphere and is extremely well adapted to the severe weather conditions (it can survive conditions as cold as -50oC!). These adaptations include very thick insulating fur, a special circulatory system in their legs to maintain their body temperature and to stop their feet freezing! They have rounded ears to reduce surface area for heat loss, as well as a short muzzle and short legs which also help reduce heat loss by reducing the fox’s surface area. During the autumn the arctic fox adds to it fat deposits in order to keep it warm throughout the winter and to use as an energy reserve.
The Arctic fox’s coat colour changes from winter to summer to help it remain camouflaged and in the winter the fox grows fur on the bottom of it’s paws which helps it walk on ice and snow as well as helping to keep it’s feet warm! It has excellent hearing in order to hear its prey underneath the snow.
Arctic foxes are able to lower their metabolic rate and their body temperature during winter this helps them to conserve their energy. During times when there is little food availability to increase the Arctic fox’s chances of finding food they can reduce their metabolic rate still further, allowing them to use their energy reserves more slowly.
Arctic foxes usually make their dens in low mounds or eskers in the arctic tundra. The dens are often used by many generations and some can be hundreds of years old! They often have numerous entrances and tunnels covering large areas underground.
The Arctic fox eats mainly lemmings but will also eat hares, voles, sometimes seal pups and will even eat other animals’ leftovers if food is scarce. The Arctic fox uses its excellent hearing to find its food under a covering of snow. When the Arctic fox hears its prey it will jump on the spot to break through the snow to its prey below.
Arctic foxes have a high pitched bark and will hiss and scream but they do not howl. Studies have shown that they can differentiate between members of their families and non members by their barks.
The number of the Arctic fox world wide is very high (several hundred thousand). The population size of the arctic fox is directly linked to the population size of its main food source, the lemming. In abundant lemming years a female can have as many as 10 – 16kits per litter though the average is 6! Where as in years where lemming numbers are low a female may only have a few kits or not reproduce at all.
However populations in Sweden and Norway are critically low and the Arctic fox is threatening to become extinct in both countries. The estimated total number of adults in Norway, Sweden and Finland (Fennoscandia) is thought to only be around 200 individuals.
In the past the main threat to Arctic foxes was hunting for their fur. Whilst the demand for fox fur has decreased and with it to the amount of foxes being hunted Arctic foxes are still hunted today by indigenous people as a game species.
The encroachment of the red fox on the territories of the Arctic fox is another factor affecting the numbers of Arctic fox as the red fox is larger and more aggressive.
There are several projects operating in Sweden and Norway which are working to help increase the numbers of Arctic foxes through the supplementation of food and control of red fox populations.
Finally the last of the chanterelles were cooked and eaten, and it was time for bed. But once again a little surprise was in store. As we drifted back to camp in ones and twos, we were instructed to put on our headtorches and directed off up into the forest for a late night “reflector walk”, finding our way through the woods only by the reflective markers attached at intervals to branches.
It was a peaceful and meditative experience, best if done alone. The sense of quiet and thick darkness of the woods cleared the mind and I arrived back at camp relaxed and thoughtful.
Retiring to a warm sleeping bag with a tummy-full of freshly-cooked wild mushrooms on a crisp starry night is a wonderful feeling, and we slept soundly until morning. The only blight on an otherwise perfect day was waking with a crashing headache the next morning. I quickly found I was not alone in this as there were one or two other campers wondering zombie-like through the morning mist clutching their heads. The general concensus as we stood huddled in the morning chill discussing our woes was that we’d all underestimated how warm it had been the day before and, with the exertions of the orienteering exercise, hadn’t drunk nearly enough fluids. But half an hour, a dose of aspirin and a litre of water later and we were all feeling ready for action once more…
Photo: Tommy Sollén
Today was to be a break from outdoor activities, with a programme of workshops from the manufacturers whose equipment we had been testing for the last few days – Lundhags, Bergens, Helsport and Didriksons. Swedish and Norwegian outdoor clothing is not particularly well-known in the UK (with the possible exception of Haglöfs), but is consistently of very high quality, and as always I had been impressed with the comfort and functionality of the gear we’d been testing. Today was a chance to learn more about the products from the companies themselves. The morning passed in a relaxed series of informal workshops, mostly conducted sitting on the rocks gazing out across the lake as the mist lifted and a surprisingly hot September sun shone down on us.
The afternoon saw us heading for Nordens Ark, one of Sweden’s most unique wildlife sanctuaries and internationally renowned as a centre of excellence for the breeding of endangered species. I learned a great deal from our inspirational guide and was particularly interested to see that the Ark concentrates not only on breeding international “superstar” endangered species such as the Snow Leopard and Amur Tiger but also lesser-known species of woodpecker and owl that are locally endangered in Sweden.
Photo: Lory Poly
The highlight of the day for me was a chance to step inside the enclosure with the wolverines, my personal favourite Swedish animal and one which is much misunderstood. The day ended in the company of another of Sweden’s exotic yet little understood predators, the wolf, as we settled down to a marvellous dinner in the Ark’s restaurant with panoramic windows looking out into the wolf enclosure and adults and cubs padding back and forth just the other side of the glass as we ate.
All in all, a hugely enjoyable and very educational day. Tomorrow it would be back to the water to explore the western archipelago by sea kayak, but for now I was content to enjoy the comforts of good food, great company and some of the world’s most incredible animals.
(concludes next week)
Bob from The Nature Travels Team
Nature Travels offers a range of holidays in Sweden for independents, families and small groups as well as tailor-made itineraries for larger private groups, Armed Forces adventurous training and corporate events in Sweden.
We offer a number of dedicated wildlife experiences, including moose watching, howling with wolves, beaver safaris and birdwatching in Sweden.
It’s a clear blue day, the early morning sunlight reflecting off the water, so bright and clear that were it not for the forested islands breaking up the horizon it would be hard to see where the water ends and the sky begins. The gentle slap of water against the jetty completes the scene. I’m sat on the porch of our little summer cabin in the Stockholm archipelago having breakfast with my wife, looking out across the water to a small uninhabited island about 50 metres away. Uninhabited by humans, that is, but home to a breeding pair of Ospreys who this year have raised two large, healthy and boisterous chicks. They are surprisingly vocal, the chattering cry of the parents carrying loud and clear across the still waters as they circle above the trees, like irate parents berating their lazy children for sleeping in.
Breakfasts are the best part of the day here – a chance to indulge ourselves with all the traditional trappings of a Swedish breakfast that my wife grew up enjoying here and that I too have come to love, and that we both miss terribly in our everyday life in the UK: filmjölk, räkost, tunnbröd, Kalles caviar, the words themselves are enough to make my mouth water.
Mornings are also a great time for wildlife watching on the island, from the hares nibbling quietly on the grass to the roe deer which peer out shyly from the forest. The island is small, but extraordinarily rich in animal life. A couple of years ago, I was sitting quietly on a log in the woods when a pine marten came up almost to my toes. Take care to remain quiet when making an evening trip to the outside loo and you may see a badger snuffling for plums beneath the fruit trees. You may arrive by boat to find an elk standing in the potato patch watching the world go by.
Today was a day for raptors. As the whole family of Ospreys took suddenly to the skies, it was the first time I had had the chance to watch all four Ospreys in flight at the same time – they were heading purposefully straight for us and they passed so close that you could see the outline of every feather.
They seemed agitated, flapping and screeching, and a few seconds later it became clear why. Watching a buzzard at home in the UK being mobbed by crows as they try to defend their nests is a fascinating sight. Seeing an enormous adult White-tailed Sea Eagle being chased off by a squadron of Ospreys in hot pursuit is nothing short of spectacular.
It seems wrong to apply the image to such a graceful and majestic sight, but the first thing I was reminded of as the huge eagle passed overhead was the opening sequence of Star Wars, where an Imperial battle cruiser makes its seemingly neverending progress across the screen. The aerodynamic, sculpted forms of the Ospreys diving and wheeling around it stood in stark contrast to the imposing, solid bulk of the eagle, like rebel X-wing fighters on the attack.
It seemed that the Sea Eagles had also bred successfully this year, as later that day we would watch enthralled as a young eagle landed on the grass just a few metres from the house, looking out across the island with a quiet self-confidence like a young nobleman surveying the lands he would one day inherit.
White-tailed Sea Eagles are Sweden’s largest bird of prey, 70-90cm long with a wingspan of up to three metres. They have a square, “barn door” profile in flight and can live up to 25 years. They form a species pair with the American Bald Eagle.
As alpha predators, White-tailed Sea Eagles suffered severely in the past from accumulation of pollutants from their prey and were also subject to persecution. Between 1800 and 1970, populations declined steeply all over Europe. Numbers in Sweden are recovering well thanks to intensive conservation measures, including legal protection, habitat and breeding site preservation, winter feeding and a sharp reduction in the use of harmful chemicals. While still a rare and thrilling sight, White-tailed Sea Eagles are expanding their territories once more, and their recovery in Sweden and in a number of other European countries is a true conservation success story.
White-tailed Sea Eagles are able to breed from around 4-5 years of age and mate for life. Their mating display is spectacular, ending with both birds locking claws together and cartwheeling towards the ground. They nest in a huge eyrie of sticks on coastal cliffs or in trees, and often reuse the same nest for many generations. Nests may become so large and heavy that the trees collapse under their weight. Mating pairs produce up to three eggs a year between March and April each year.
In the UK, wildlife enthusiasts travel many miles and wait for hours for the sights we were enjoying at our leisure from the breakfast table – yet another reminder of what a special place Sweden is when it comes to nature and the outdoors. The day after tomorrow it will be time to return home to Dorset – but the cries of the Ospreys echoing across the water, the shadow cast by the Sea Eagle as it glided off into the distance, the scent of the birch trees swaying in the breeze, are vivid memories I will take back with me to England and treasure until my next visit.
Bob, The Nature Travels Team
The Common Seal, Phoca vitulina, (also called the Harbour Seal in North America), is one of three seal species found around the Swedish coast, the other two being the Grey Seal and Ringed Seal. Worldwide, they are the most widely-distributed seal species, found in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Current global population is estimated to be 400-500,000, though certain populations have been seriously affected by disease epidemics in recent years. In some cases the cause of the decline in some populations remains unknown. For example, a 2007 survey of the shores of the Orkney and Shetland islands showed that around 5,000 common seals had mysteriously “disappeared”.
Common Seals can vary in colour from brown to grey, and are easily recognisable by their V-shaped nostrils. They have very appealing features, with large eyes and “puppy-like” faces, making them irresistible to animal lovers. Coupled with an intelligent and inquisitive nature, this makes Common Seals wonderful subjects for wildlife photography! They have a preference for particular resting spots, often a piece of rock protruding from the water where they can feel safe from predators or human disturbance.
Adult Common Seals can weigh up to 130 kg and females can live up to 35 years (males have a lifespan of only 20-25 years). One possible explanation of the shorter life expectancy of male Common Seals is the considerable stresses they are subjected to during the breeding season, when they will compete for mates in underwater battles with rival males. Female Common Seals give birth to a single pup, which can swim within hours of its birth, fattening quickly on a diet of exceptionally rich milk.
Around the Swedish coast, Common Seals are found in the Baltic Sea in the east as well as in west coast waters. Nature Travels has recently added an exciting new experience giving you the opportunity to visit the Common Seal colony in the area around the Koster Islands in Sweden’s western archipelago by sea kayak – Kayaking with Seals and Koster Island Cycling. The photos in this article were taken during a recent visit to the Koster Island colony.
Sea kayaking is an ideal way to see the beauty of Sweden’s archipelago landscape. A quiet, low-impact mode of transportation, sea kayaking allows you access to remote locations and intimate contact with marine life – a marvellous way to get a seal’s eye view of the world!
Common Seals are a particular attraction for visitors to Swedish archipelago waters, but the Swedish archipelagos are also rich in many other species of wildlife, including some very impressive birds of prey. The Osprey and White-tailed Sea Eagle are both making a strong comeback in the eastern archipelago. While taking a stroll on one of the thousands of forested islands, you may encounter elk, deer, or even a pine marten scurrying from tree to tree about its business.
The archipelagos of Sweden’s east and west coast are a stunning landscape, rich in wildlife and steeped in history. For more information on the Stockholm Archipelago, please see our blog article on the subject here. As well as the Koster Island experience, Nature Travels offers a range of guided sea kayaking tours in both the east and west coast archipelagos. For further details see our website at www.naturetravels.co.uk/category-water.htm
The Nature Travels Team
Sweden’s vast forests and rolling mountains are home to a huge diversity of animals, few as elusive and mysterious as the Brown Bear, perhaps the most magical of Sweden’s Big Five predators and a timeless symbol of the wild.
What kind of bears are there in Sweden?
The bears which inhabit the forests and mountains of Sweden are Brown Bears, Ursus arctos. In the wild, a male can weigh as much as 350 kg and a female up to 240 kg.
Are there any polar bears in Sweden?
No! The nearest polar bears are in Spitsbergen in Norway, almost 1000 miles north of Stockholm.
How many Brown Bears are there in Sweden?
The Brown Bear is a shy, secretive animal, and very rarely seen. Most Swedes, even those living in the areas most densely inhabited by bears, will go their whole lives without ever seeing one in the wild. Population estimates are therefore extremely difficult. However, there are a number of ongoing research projects aiming to better understand the Swedish Brown Bear and plan effectively for its conservation and management. A 2004 study by the Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project put the Swedish population at somewhere between 1635 and 2840 individuals, with an annual rise in population of 4.7%.
Which parts of Sweden have Brown Bears?
Brown bears are widely distributed across the northern half of the country, with particular concentrations in certain areas. There is some evidence to suggest that their range is increasing. The Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project survey in 2004 yielded the following distribution data:
What do Brown Bears eat?
Brown bears are omnivorous – they eat a wide range of foods from berries to bees to voles. Brown Bears may also hunt and catch larger animals, including moose. In the summer, their main food consists of ants, which they dig up from the large anthills found in the forests. They also eat the roots, shoots and buds of a number of plants.
Do Swedish Brown Bears hibernate?
Yes. During the autumn, Brown Bears fatten up on the raspberries, crowberries, cloudberries and blueberries which carpet the Swedish forest floor in preparation for hibernation. A good year for berries is also a good year for bears! Once they have built up sufficient fat reserves to see them through the long cold winter ahead, they then collect moss and twigs to make their hibernation den, which may be in a disused anthill or perhaps a spot at the foot of a large fir tree.
When do Brown Bears have their cubs?
Brown Bear cubs are born in the den during the winter, in litters of 1-4. Though naked, blind and helpless when they are born (weighing just 300-400g), they grow quickly on a diet of rich milk and by the time they are 6 months old are ready to leave their mother and make a life for themselves.
Are Brown Bears hunted in Sweden?
In the past, bear hunting was common, but today the Brown Bear is a protected species in Sweden, though licences can be granted to hunt particular individuals.
What should I do if I meet a Brown Bear in Sweden?
That depends on where you are (and where the bear is!) when you see it. If you are in a car or other vehicle, then simply relax and count yourself incredibly lucky that you are enjoying a rare and privileged glimpse into the life of Sweden’s largest predator.
Bear cubs are irresistably cute, but if you see a cub, resist the urge to approach it or try to take photos – the protective mother will be close by and may not understand your friendly intentions!
If you are camping in an area where there are bears, don’t leave food waste around your campsite. Bears have a keen sense of smell and it is important that Sweden’s bears remain shy and wild – associating the presence of humans with food would be catastrophic for Swedish bears and potentially dangerous for campers.
Brown Bears mate between May and June, and during this period bears are active both at night and during daylight hours. Young males are searching for females at this time and cover long distances in their search, while last year’s cubs are making their first independent forays into the world.
Young bears, like all young animals, are very curious creatures, and may not have learnt to be as wary of danger as adult bears. Make sure they notice you by talking loudly, and then slowly withdraw from the area.
There is a very slim chance you may meet a bear if you are out in the forest picking berries (as the bears love berries too!), though the chances are that they will have heard or smelt you and decided to leave long before you arrive. If not, once again, talk loudly to show your presence and leave the area slowly.
If you find a bear at rest or perhaps eating a kill, it is important that the bear does not perceive you as a threat to its food. Stand as tall as you can, speak loudly and retrace your steps slowly. Do not run.
Almost all dangerous incidents with bears happen with wounded animals (for example, when a hunter has accidentally encountered a bear whilst out hunting for elk and shot at the animal). Like any animal, fear and pain will make it aggressive. Contrary to the images in films, standing on hind legs is not an aggressive posture for a bear. It simply allows the bear to have a better view of the surroundings, and to confirm what their senses of smell and hearing have told them.
If the bear starts to come towards you, then it has perceived your presence as a threat. It may be protecting a cub, or perhaps a carcass nearby. Perhaps the bear had no opportunity to hide when you approached or has just emerged from its hibernation den. If you have a dog with you, the dog may have provoked the bear. Talk loudly and leave slowly, but do not hit or threaten the bear, and do not run.
Whatever the reason for the bear’s approach, an attack is unlikely – the bear is probably just “faking”. Confrontation for any wild animal is a dangerous thing, as it may result in fatal injury, and many animals, including bears, gorillas and elephants, employ this tactic of “fake” charges to avoid the need for a real fight.
In the very unlikely event that you are attacked by a bear, try to distract its attention away from the attack. Place an object (such as a rucksack or fishing equipment) between you and the animal. If this fails, lie down on the ground in a foetal position or face down on your stomach. Cover your neck with your hands and protect your head, and “play dead”. Making yourself as small as you can and behaving as passively as possible will help to persuade the bear that you are not a threat.
What Brown Bear signs can I look out for?
In some areas you have a good chance of seeing signs that bears are sharing the forest world with you. You may be lucky enough to see their tracks in mud or snow, or perhaps to see hair caught on fencing or scratch marks on a tree trunk.
There is no reason to be afraid of meeting a bear when you are out canoeing, hiking or wild camping in Sweden – the chances of encountering a Brown Bear in Sweden are extremely low. In the whole of Scandinavia, there have been only four known cases in the last 100 years where a human has been killed by a Brown Bear.
So make the most of the peace and tranquility of Swedish vast tracts of wilderness, and enjoy the uplifting sensation that you may be travelling through the homeland of one of the world’s most fascinating and much misunderstood creatures – the Brown Bear!
The Nature Travels Team
If you are travelling to the forest farm for either our Summer Fun on a Forest Farm or Winter Wonderland on a Forest Farm experiences, you may like to visit the nearby Järvzoo, which is home to a wide range of Swedish wildlife, including Brown Bears, with large enclosures and semi-natural surroundings. Visitors use a walkway to move through the park which takes you above the animals, allowing excellent views unencumbered by fencing and wonderful photo opportunities.
We also offer dedicated wildlife experiences giving you intimate encounters with two of Sweden’s other elusive forest dwellers, the wolf and the moose. For further details please see Elk Safari Adventure and Howling with Wolves.
Sweden has something of a reputation when it comes to mosquitoes – but which stories are really true? We have tried to answer some of the questions we are frequently asked below:
What is a Swedish mosquito?
Confusingly, the Swedish work for mosquito, “mygg”, sounds less like “mosquito” and more like the English word “midge”, those small, fast-flying clouds of biting insects which have been the bane of many a camping trip in Scotland. Swedish “mygg” are larger, slower, and much easier to catch, and what is more they do not share the tendency of their smaller cousins in Scotland to mount kamikaze attacks on your dinner cooking quietly over the campfire…
Some areas of Sweden, particularly the north, do also have midges, or “knott”, but mosquitoes are much more widespread, distributed in varying densities throughout the country.
Are there a lot of mosquitoes in Sweden?
Yes, and no. The density and number of mosquitoes varies greatly depending on the time of year, the part of the country you are in and the degree of rainfall during the breeding season in spring and early summer. They generally appear around mid-June and disappear again towards the end of September, with numbers lowest at the beginning and end of the season. Since mosquitoes like water and birch forest they are not often found on the high plains away from the mountain stations. Although mosquitoes are present throughout Sweden, numbers are highest in the north of the country.
Mosquitoes go through four stages in their lifecycle: from egg to larva to pupa before finally becoming an adult. Water is essential for mosquitoes to breed, as mosquitoes spend the larval and pupal stages of their lifecycle in water. Most mosquitoes will become food for a wide variety of animals, but those that are not may live for 2-3 months.
Do Swedish mosquitoes bite?
Yes, they do. Sweden has 47 species of mosquito, 45 of which are the biting kind, though not all of these will bite humans. Only female mosquitoes bite humans, as they require the protein to breed.
Some people are particularly sensitive to insect bites and develop itchy red spots, while others seem to be little affected. Mosquitoes in Sweden can be a nuisance, but with some simple precautions the problem can be managed.
How can I avoid being bitten?
Generally, mosquitoes in Sweden are only a particular problem during dusk hours, and more in the north of the country than elsewhere. Wear long-sleeved (bite-proof!) shirts and trousers, and use a repellent if you wish. Cover your head with a hat or scarf. If you are particularly bothered by mosquitoes, you may find a net for your face helpful.
What repellent should I use?
Everyone has their own individual preference regarding repellent. However, in general we recommend you buy your repellent in Sweden, as this may be more effective against Swedish biting insects than repellents purchased elsewhere.
Do Swedish mosquitoes carry malaria?
No. Malaria was present in Sweden until the 18th and 19th centuries, when people lived in much closer proximity to their cattle, but disappeared from the country in the early 20th century.
Are mosquitoes all bad?
While most humans consider them a curse, there are a number of positive sides to the presence of mosquitoes:
- Mosquitoes provide an important source of food for many animals, from the tadpoles and fish which eat their larvae to the birds and bats which hunt for adults on the wing.
- In some countries, mosquitoes assist in the pollination of certain plant species, including Cattleya orchids. These plants in turn have leaves which collect small pools of water and host mini ecosystems of their own containing frogs, newts and toads.
- Spreading disease may seem like a negative, but maintaining the flow of bacteria and viruses around an ecosystem builds immunity and helps to strengthen populations as a whole by culling weaker animals.
- Finally, it is sometimes said that without the deterrent that mosquitoes provide to human settlement, some of our wildest and most beautiful places would have been colonised and developed to a far greater degree. So mosquitoes are actually powerful conservationists!
Mosquitoes are present in Sweden, and in some cases they can be a nuisance. But with simple precautions there is no reason why they should be more than a minor annoyance or spoil your enjoyment of some of the world’s most spectacular wild places. The Nature Travels Team feels strongly from personal experience that if you can survive a camping trip on the west coast of Scotland and live to tell the tale, you will have little difficulty dealing with Swedish mosquitoes!
The Nature Travels Team
Nature Travels offers a wide range of outdoor holidays in Sweden, from canoeing to dog sledding to romantic log cabin breaks, for independents, families and groups of all ages and levels of experience.
Is it an elk? Is it a moose? If you’re in Sweden, the answer is “BOTH”! The iconic, majestic forest dweller Alces alces is known as a moose in North America (actually the sub-species Alces alces americana) and an elk in Europe. The word elk, like the Swedish word älg (pronounced /elj/), is taken from the Latin alces. To make matters even more confusing, elk in North America is used for an entirely different animal – a kind of deer, Cervus elaphus, otherwise known as a Wapiti, which looks like this:
The European elk (or moose), on the other hand, looks like this:
Elk are widely distributed throughout Sweden, from the giants inhabiting the wilderness of the mighty Sarek National Park in Lapland (hunting restrictions have meant that large bulls have been better able to survive and reproduce) down to the lower regions of this vast country, but the forests of Bergslagen are a particularly wonderful area for elk watching in Sweden. As home to the traditional royal hunting grounds, hunting pressure on the elk in this area is lower than in some other parts of Sweden, and as a result the elk population far outnumbers the human population! The area surrounding our log cabin holidays in Varmland also have high moose populations and offer very good chances to see elk in Sweden.
Elk may be fairly common and widespread in Sweden, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to see, especially at close range. Elk are shy creatures, and will retreat into the cover of the deep forest at the slightest disturbance, loping off with a slow-motion gait that uncannily resembles a giraffe running on the savannah. While it is not unusual for a commuter returning from a day’s work in Stockholm to see an elk standing motionless on the edge of a field in the setting sun, similarly a hunter may wait a week in a hide in the woods and not see a single elk!
During a recent visit to Sweden, the Nature Travels team had the opportunity to take part in an evening elk safari with local elk expert Marcus, who has been running elk safaris in the Bergslagen area for a number of years now and has never once returned home without a sighting. Hundreds of nights spent patrolling the forests, hills and dirt tracks of Bergslagen have given him an in-depth knowledge of the best places to find these beautiful animals, and all elk safaris now come with an “elk guarantee” – though Marcus says he still worries that one night they might all be hiding!
Due to time pressure we took the “express” version of the elk safari – a whistle-stop tour of some of the best local elk-watching spots – but nevertheless managed to see 9 elk in just over 30 minutes, including some wonderful close-up views of mother and calf and a large male with full antlers. The full safari takes a number of hours, and combines an exploration of the local forests on foot with observation from the minibus (as in Africa, vehicles can sometimes be less threatening to wild animals than a human presence on foot). Typically in recent tours it has been possible recently to see at least 30 animals in one evening, including some very close encounters indeed. The trick to getting close, says Marcus, is to crouch down in the grass until the elk bends its head to graze, then creep slowly forward. As the animal looks up, crouch down again and remain still, then creep forward again as it returns to graze. After a few minutes of patience and quiet, you can get closer than you would believe possible!
Elk safaris are available between May and September and include an atmospheric night in an authentic charcoaler hut! [Update October 2011: Elk Safari Adventure is no longer featured as part of our standard portfolio of wildlife holidays in Sweden, but can be arranged on request. Our wildlife experiences currently focus on Sweden's wolves.]
As well as being home to thousands of elk, two of Sweden’s most exciting, most threatened, and most controversial predators roam the vast forests of Bergslagen – the wolf and the lynx. Reconciling the interests and opinions of conservationists, farmers, hunters, local people and politicians is never an easy task, and the presence of large predators in Sweden has always been a sensitive issue. But Sweden is tackling this question with typical foresight, compassion and practical skill. The research station at Grimsö, deep in the Bergslagen forests, works with radio tracking on local predator populations in an attempt to learn more about their movements and behaviour and develop management plans for their conservation and future survival, while at the same time working hard to maintain the trust and goodwill of those who may feel less than positive about the presence of wolves and lynx in the area. A recent initiative has been the introduction of special fencing, similar to an electric fence but with strands much closer to the ground, which has proved extremely effective in reducing livestock deaths due to lynx and wolves.
Photo: Andrea Barghi
Having grown from just two individuals, the Swedish wolf population is in something of a genetic crisis. It is estimated that to keep the population genetically viable, new blood needs to be introduced at least every 15 years or so. Recently, there was great excitement when a new wolf appeared in the Dalarna area. Analysis of dung has identified this wolf as being part of the Finnish-Russian population, and it represents the first new blood for the local wolf population since the 1980s. Worryingly, there has been some conflict between this animal and local livestock populations, and its future remains uncertain, but with luck the animal may be able to breed with local wolves and provide a much-needed boost to the gene pool of the Swedish wolf population.
Since 2006, Marcus has been working together with the researchers at Grimsö to offer evenings of wolf tracking and wolf howling. To find out more about this spine-tingling adventure, see our Howling with Wolves experience.
Bergslagen is a fascinating area for wildlife watching, and the images of elk frozen in the torchlight are still fresh in our memories – we’ll make sure we plan a little more time for elk watching on our next visit!
The Nature Travels Team
The Rovdjursföreningen (The Predator Society) in Sweden works for the interests of all large predators in Sweden: the brown bear, the wolf, the lynx, the wolverine, and, of course, humans, with a very informative website that is unfortunately only currently available in Swedish. However, for non-Swedish speakers they also have a wonderful collection of images – see http://www.de5stora.se/galleri/galleriDe5/ and click on “Öppna galleriet”. In the UK, Tooth and Claw operate on similar principles – see http://www.toothandclaw.org.uk/.
In the region of Jämtland, near the Swedish-Norwegian border, lies the nature reserve of Vålådalen, encompassing the ancient forests and wide valley of the Vålån River and the surrounding mountains. Since 1988, this 1200 km2 area has been protected as the Vålådalen Naturreservat.
With a height difference of between 500m and 1600m above sea level, a quarter of the reserve is comprised of forest, almost all of which is classified as “natural forest” or “virgin forest”. The geological and climatic variations within the reserve allow for a very wide range of flora and fauna, and the reserve is home to some of Sweden’s rarest and most spectacular animals, including the wolverine, the arctic fox and the gyrfalcon, as well as rare plant species such as orchids.
The arctic fox, Alopex lagopus, is Sweden’s most endangered mammal, and the subject of concerted conservation efforts in Sweden. The work, which includes radio tracking and supplementary feeding programmes, is now beginning to show real benefits, but the arctic fox population in Sweden remain very fragile. Arctic foxes are highly vulnerable to fluctuations in availability of food supply, and they will only breed in years with plentiful food. One of their main sources of food, the lemming, has a population cycle with periodic peaks and crashes, the reasons for which are still largely unknown. Also of major concern is the spread of the red fox into arctic fox territories, and conservation measures have also had to involve the culling of red fox populations in some areas to reduce competition.
In a good lemming year, females may give birth to 5-6 letters of 5-10 young each under the protection of the winter snows, which means that come spring the mountain heaths of Vålådalen will be alive with huge numbers of these beautiful animals. Lemmings provide an essential source of food for arctic foxes, as well as for birds of prey such as the long-tailed skua and rough-legged buzzard, and arctic fox females may give birth to up to 16 pups in a good year. Mortality rates can be high, though, and it may be a long time until the next lemming peak.
Food supply is only one challenge the local wildlife faces in the fight to survive in the Jämtland mountains. As with any mountain environment, the climate in Vålådalen can be unpredictable, with weather conditions changing often and suddenly – in Vålådalen, this is a result of the Atlantic climate zone and the continental climate zone meeting over the mountains.
Safety when you’re out in the mountains should always be a primary consideration, and this is ideal terrain for mountain skills training. Nature Travels offers two tours aimed at improving your survival/outdoor skills in a mountain environment. Mountain Magic for Beginners takes you on a camping expedition into the Jämtland mountains during the summer season, with expert instruction in navigation and mountain safety – as well as a great camping experience in wonderful surroundings, of course! The winter version of this tour, Beginner in the Snow, also gives you the opportunity to camp wild in the mountains – but this time in the depths of winter – teaching you essential skills to ensure that a winter expedition is both enjoyable and safe.
Photo: Annica & Torkel Ideström
Vålådalen in the summer is a beautiful area for a walking holiday in Sweden, and Nature Travels offers a hiking tour with a difference – in the company of your own husky sled dog! The dogs, who spend their winter providing the propulsion for our popular dogsledding holidays, also love to be out in the summertime, and our Hiking with Dog tour gives you the opportunity to explore the Jämtland mountains with your own pack dog to help with the load!
Vålådalen in winter is an excellent area to go doglsedding in Sweden. Nature Travels offers five dogsledding holidays in Sweden, all of which take place in or around the nature reserve. Our popular Dogsled Adventure in Jämtland is a week-long dogsledding tour into the beauty and silence of the winter mountains and is available from December onwards. As spring begins, the days lengthen and temperatures rise, it is also possible to spend your nights under canvas, and our Go Camping by Dogsled and Ice-fishing and Dogsledding experiences combine the excitement of a dogsledding adventure with the true wilderness feeling of spending your nights in a tent or teepee. For the winter season 2007/2008, we have also added a shorter 4-day dogsledding tour, Discover Dogsledding, as well as our Premium Dogsledding Expedition, which combines the challenges of a mountain dogsledding holiday with a few creature comforts along the way!
The Swedish mountains possess an expansive, ethereal beauty at any time of year – a place to rediscover your spirit and follow your dreams – and in Vålådalen Nature Reserve is an ideal place to explore the endless possibilities of the Swedish mountain world!
The Nature Travels Team
Heathrow Central Bus Station is a wonderful spot for people watching. It’s late afternoon, and I’m sitting on a bench by stand number 13, watching the world go by. The air is filled with the heady aroma of diesel fumes as an endless stream of National Express buses arrive, load up and head out again, bound for such exotic destinations as Oxford, Worthing and Brighton. All around me a hundred small human dramas unfold – an elderly couple argue quietly together about their luggage, a young mother loses her patience in her struggle to control a wayward toddler, two young backpackers sit on their rucksacks holding hands ….and all to a soundtrack of the roar of jet engines, the neverending drone of London traffic and the chatter of voices in a dozen different tongues. Over the years Heathrow Central Bus Station has played a vital role in many of my travel adventures – the expectancy and anticipation of arrival, knowing you’re off somewhere new and exciting, the joy of coming home to see old friends and loved ones, and occasionally the blank exasperation of seeing your coach pull away just as you reach the stand.
Sitting there as the skies darkened and the pigeons pecked listlessly around my feet, I couldn’t help thinking that the scene stood in stark contrast to the view I’d been looking at earlier that day. Just a few hours before, shortly after breakfast, I had been sitting on a jetty on a small island. It was still quite early, and the morning mist was clearing to reveal a bright blue sky and the promise of a warm September day. A full moon still shone faintly overhead and on a neighbouring island an osprey came in to land on its nest at the top of a pine tree. A few minutes later a flock of cormorants passed over in perfect V-formation like a small black aerial display team, and behind me a field vole emerged warily from the forest undergrowth, sniffed the air for a few seconds, got startled by the flutter of a dragonfly and disappeared from view. As I watched the last of the mist evaporate in the gathering warmth, I caught a glimpse of a very large bird of prey as it flew into view from behind the trees. Another few minutes’ patient waiting and what I could now see was a Golden Eagle glided into view and circled lazily just 20 metres or so above me before heading off to the horizon to try new hunting grounds.
All around me the world was full of life – in the air and on the ground, but still all was calm and quiet. Apart from the distant tak-tak of a small outboard engine and one or two characteristic red and white summer cottages peeking out from the forests of surrounding islands, there were no signs of anyone else being around at all. Somehow it seemed as if the whole scene was being played out just for me, that the world had stopped whatever it was doing and decided to sit back and enjoy things for a while.
What made the sensation so surprising, and in a way so much more special, was that I hadn’t journeyed to a remote and undiscoverd part of the world, spending hours bumping along dusty country tracks or slashing my way through impenetrable forest to get here. This was the Stockholm archipelago, and I was on one of the 24,000 or so islands that make up this stunning marine landscape on the east cost of Sweden. Just over an hour away by boat lay one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world, home to around 800,000 people. This combination of wildness and accessibility has always, for me, been one of the great attractions of Sweden – the country offers some of the most spectacular and wildest landscapes to be found anywhere in Europe, yet the swift and efficient transport networks and the attention paid to planning and design mean you don’t need to travel for days to reach them.
My reverie was interrupted as I glanced at my watch and realised it was time to get going. Lifting our luggage into the boat, we gunned the engine and headed out across the dead calm waters. Ninety minutes later we were sitting in Arlanda airport, the sights and sounds of the archipelago still fresh in our minds. As Douglas Adams wrote in Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase, ‘as pretty as an airport.’ Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort.” But perhaps he’d never been to Arlanda. While nothing compared to the sweeping majesty of the landscape I had been in earlier that morning, Arlanda would probably do rather well in a world airport beauty contest, and is certainly a lot more attractive than Heathrow Central Bus Station….
Bob from The Nature Travels Team
Nature Travels is the UK specialist for wildlife, outdoor and adventure holidays in Sweden. Our sea kayaking experiences take place in the beautiful and wild Trosa archipelago just to the south of Stockholm.