Wildlife, Carnivore and Human Management in Norway (15-22 October 2022)
Lessons for Scotland
As near neighbours on Europe’s North Atlantic coast, with similar sized populations, and with numerous historical touchpoints, Norway and Scotland might be thought of as sibling nations. It can be argued that Norway’s political independence (gained from its larger neighbour over a century ago) and its more recent oil wealth have allowed it to pull ahead of Scotland in socio-economic terms. A similar sentiment holds that Norway, with its greater biodiversity intactness, has been far more effective than Scotland in managing and protecting its natural capital resources. This raises the question of whether Scotland can reverse biodiversity decline and build climate resilience by emulating the wildlife management practices employed in Norway?
A group of 8 individuals working in the conservation sector in Scotland gained a practical insight into Norwegian methodologies on course entitled “Wildlife, carnivore and human management in Norway”, held 15-22 October 2022 and hosted by the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences at Evenstad. The course formed part of the ERASMUS + Structured Adult Education for Staff programme and was organised by ARCHNET. Facilitated on the ground by Evenstad lecturer Elisabeth Nybakk Riseth, the course explored the themes of Municipal Wildlife Management, Apex Predators and Predation, National Park Management, Heritage Centres and Heritage Communication, Reindeer and Moose Management, and Forestry. It consisted of lectures, excursions, meetings with experts, and practical examples of wildlife and landscape management.
The Evenstad university campus is located in Hedland County, 130 miles north of Oslo. It lies in farmland alongside the river Glomma, surrounded by hills covered in Norway spruce, Scots pine and birch forest. Like Scotland, Norwegian landscapes have been entirely shaped by humans, but the difference in the amount of forest cover was immediately apparent. When the course participants remarked on the diversity of tree species and tree ages in the surrounding forests, we were told that the forests were self-seeding, and Norway ceased creating monoculture plantations in the 1960s. The forest ground layers were equally diverse and impressive and support an good populations of capercaillie and black grouse – species which are only just clinging-on in Scotland. Looking across a wide range of vertebrate species, it is easy to see that nature in Norway is clearly in a healthier state than in Scotland.
The landscape around the small university campus at Evenstad (centre of image) is characterised by farmland and species-rich woodland (Photo: author)
The greater biological diversity of Norwegian forests is reflected in their economic productivity – not only in terms of forestry but also in terms of large ungulate hunting. The annual moose hunts across Norway are a key social and cultural activity in rural areas, and in south-east Norway moose hunting has become more economically important than sheep farming. Through selective hunting of moose (taking about 30,000 each year out of a population of around 130,000), Norway is simultaneously managing to hold the population stable, avoid any material impact on commercial forestry, and generate around US$ 50 million from wild meat annually. Admittedly, this all happens in the near absence of large carnivores and where humans have effectively replaced wolves as the apex predator.
Observing a moose hunt organised by the Evenstad students on state land, and subsequently visiting a nearby private hunting enterprise, were insightful experiences. They revealed a deeply ingrained and grass-roots hunting culture in Norway, where around 9% of the population are registered as hunters. This contrasts with the situation in Scotland where both game bird shooting and red deer stalking are predominantly elite pursuits enjoyed by a tiny minority and support relatively few rural jobs. Large ungulate hunting in Norway is a communal and cooperative activity; technology (radios, GPS and phone apps) is extensively employed to maximise hunting efficiency; game meat (rather than a trophy) is the key end product; and maintaining long-term quarry sustainability is recognised as being of paramount importance.
There are other key differentiators between hunting in Scotland and Norway. Each large herbivore shot requires a licence based on a pre-authorised regional quota, and all hunters must pass an annual shooting test to maintain their individual hunting registrations. In addition, Norwegian hunters are also required to report quarry species seen during a hunt and provide the data to the national statistics office so that it can be used to inform future hunting quotas. Indeed, hunters play the key role in providing unpaid monitoring from a whole range of species – and while the course visitors were initially sceptical of how objective this data could be, it is widely regarded as robust. The whole system of wildlife resource monitoring and decision-making system reflects a greater degree of rigour than is present in Scotland. Generally, it could be said that tradition, community, and sustainability are the foundations of all hunting activity in Norway – and hunting is widely regarded as a key conservation tool.
Wild meat is widely consumed in Norway and is a significant generator of income for hunting enterprises (Photo: author)
Challenges of wild reindeer management in National Parks
It would be misleading to suggest that everything within the sphere of wildlife management Norway is rosy. The group excursion to the Randone and Dovrefjell National Parks revealed that human recreational activities (hiking, skiing, musk-ox safaris, and snow-mobile use) and infrastructure (roads, railways, powerlines and tourist cabins) are having a significantly prejudicial impact on Norway’s already fragmented wild reindeer population. The right to roam is celebrated by a human population in Norway that embraces outdoor pursuits, but as in the national park staff and associated management bodies are under-resourced and struggling to protect nature from disturbance and development. These challenges are exacerbated by livestock diseases (such as foot rot) which bring an added existential threat to Norway’s wild reindeer.
Human-wildlife conflict is also evident in Norway’s management of predators – an aspect of the course which was covered by a series of lectures. Coming from a nation that has entirely lost its apex predators, it was disquieting to learn that number of hunting licences are issued each year for brown bear, lynx, wolves and wolverine.
Norway’s experience with lynx provides key learnings for any potential reintroduction project in Scotland. For example, in Norway, several thousand free-ranging sheep are killed by lynx each year; lynx have almost no effect in reducing a robust roe deer population; and since lynx territories are so large, management and monitoring need to operate on a county (or even country) basis. In light of this, the Norwegian experts were at pains to stress the importance of government involvement in any future lynx reintroduction project in Scotland. They believed that a lynx reintroduction in Scotland will inevitably be characterised by expense, uncertainty, complexity, and controversy – although nature will undoubtedly be enriched by lynx return.
Norway’s approach to wolf management is highly controversial and the wolf carrying capacity is limited by social rather than ecological factors. As a signatory to the Bern Convention, Norway has an obligation to maintain a viable population of all formerly native species – although with wolves, it does so in the most limited and begrudging manner. A wolf population of approximately 40 animals is tolerated within a designated zone along the Swedish border. Outside this zone, wolves are ruthlessly hunted to minimise sheep depredation. Even within the tolerance zone, the decision to eradicate whole wolf packs has divided the nation, exacerbated a town-country split, and resulted in a tiny wolf population that is dependent on immigration from neighbouring Sweden to maintain genetic diversity. Wolf control is driven not only by sheep farmers, but also by hunters who resent wolf impact on the moose population and the threat posed by wolves to hunting dogs.
Moose and moose-hunting are widely celebrated in Norwegian culture (photo: Kevin Cumming)
While Norway’s natural ecosystems are more complete that those in Scotland and there is a far greater degree of human connectedness nature, it would be a mistake to think that the Norway’s landscape is ‘self-willed’ or that Norwegian people regard themselves ‘as being part of nature’. On the contrary, human economic interests prevail when they conflict with nature, and Norway’s wildlife is subject to rigorous top-down management system where humans are very much in control. Anthropocentric prioritisation (some may say ‘double standards’) can been seen in the management policies that favours reindeer and moose over wolves; and which tolerates muskox (artificially introduced from Greenland) but at the same time shows absolute intolerance to the wild boar that periodically cross the border from Sweden – a native species that was widely found in Norway until a few hundred years ago.
Nevertheless, Norway provides valuable lessons for Scotland.
Hunting is Norway is cooperative and communal – and it connects people to nature. The emphasis is on food, rather than sport; hunting is populist rather than elitist, and it neither relies on the industrial-scale release of an alien bird species (pheasants) nor the maintenance of an artificial moorland habitat for a single species (red grouse). These differences must lie, at least in part, in the highly concentrated model of land ownership that exists in Scotland. This stands in contrast to the greater proportion of both individual-owned and state-owned land in Norway over which hunting occurs. Thus, while Scotland struggles with falling biodiversity and a runaway red deer population, Norway at least gives the impression of a wildlife management system that is functioning, and which positively contributes to maintaining biodiversity.
Norway’s wildlife resource model demonstrates that nature thrives in the presence of diverse, healthy woodland – and that these conditions provide not only healthy ecosystems but ample opportunity for sustainable community-based economic activity. To its credit, Norway has never allowed its ecosystems to have become as degraded as those in Scotland – and whenever species over-exploitation has occurred, the long land borders with Sweden and Finland have provided a means of recovery. As part of island, Scotland has never had that luxury. Above all, the Norwegian experience suggests that healthy and abundant woodland must be a key component of recovering biodiversity in Scotland. This inevitably means drastically reducing upland grazing pressure from sheep and deer, and adopting forestry management techniques that are less reliant on spruce monoculture.
These learnings will be presented to colleagues at SCOTLAND: The Big Picture and to the 50-plus landowners in Scotland who are members of Northwoods Rewilding Network.
James Nairne, Project Lead, Northwoods Rewilding Network