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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.
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/.