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Sweden’s most dangerous animal

…is definitely not the the moose. But with safaris, bumper stickers, oven gloves and t-shirts featuring the moose, it must be Sweden’s zoological superstar. The Swedish predators, like the wolverine, are not that easy to spot. Join Rikard Lagerberg as he takes a closer look at Sweden’s wildlife and the dangers to beware of.

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Photo: Maria Emitslöf/imagebank.sweden.se

Plenty of space

Sweden is a great place if you are interested in wildlife. Besides moose, reindeer, deer and various birds, which you can spot without too much effort, Sweden is also home to predators such as the bear, wolf, lynx and wolverine. It makes sense considering that Sweden is the third largest country in the European Union yet has the second lowest population density (23.5 people per square kilometre), which translates into a lot of open space; everything from privately owned forests to national parks and pure wilderness.

Some people imagine that these predators roam around freely and even venture into cities; that they literally live amongst us. Then again, a hard-killed myth about Sweden is that we have polar bears in the wild. We don’t. And very few people ever get to see a large predator in the wild in Sweden. Still many humans fear these creatures, but not nearly as much as they fear us. The predators of Sweden tend to avoid humans like the plague. So, are they dangerous?

There are around 3,200 bears (Ursus arctos) in Sweden, and they can eat a staggering 180,000 blueberries each in one autumn day. And did you know that a bear can run as fast as 65 km/h?

Photo: Håkan Vargas/
imagebank.sweden.se

Blueberries on the menu

As far as anyone knows, the lynx and wolverine have never hurt a human being in Sweden. Ever. And the last time a wolf attacked humans in the wild was in 1821, and that wolf had been born in captivity and later released. The bear, on the other hand, has been known to attack – and even kill – humans in modern times.  According to a report from the Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project, 31 people were attacked in all of Scandinavia between 1977 and 2012. Few of the attacks had deadly outcomes and almost all took place during a hunt. It turns out bears actually prefer to eat blueberries.

People’s fears are difficult if not impossible to put to an end. Benny Gäfvert of the large carnivore centre, Rovdjurscentret De 5 Stora, says: ‘Myths about predators start to build from an early age, through children’s books and tales. These animals have also had a historical impact on human lives that is still on-going.’ The historical impact he refers to is mainly about livestock, which is the main reason our predators remain controversial and a continued cause for debate: what is a healthy number of predators in a country like Sweden?

‘I am convinced that Sweden will be home to large predators even in the distant future’, Gäfvert says. ‘All sides on the debate have a consensus when it comes to the preservation of large predators, from hunters to conservationists. The only question is how big a population.’

So, one shouldn’t pick a fight with a bear. But there has to be something dangerous out there, even for those of us not carrying a gun, right?

A wasp is as dangerous as the Swedish wildlife gets.

Photo: Erik Forsberg, CC BY NC

Sweden’s most dangerous animal is…

Not only does Sweden have the so-called Right of Public Access, which allows us to roam freely in nature, but our nature is also safe. Karin Åström, vice chair of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (Naturskyddsföreningen), sums it up:

‘Swedish nature is amazing – there is so much of it and essentially nothing dangerous lives in it unless you are allergic or hypersensitive’, she says. ‘The most dangerous things in Swedish nature are the things we don’t tend to talk about – wasps and bees.’

Wasps actually do kill more people than any other animal in Sweden, about one per year. I have been stung by wasps, and though a little painful, it turns out I am not allergic and thus in no danger. Ticks rank pretty high for me, as carriers of Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis (TBE). A bite from the most poisonous spider in Sweden is about as harmful to humans as a mosquito bite. Our only poisonous snake is also fairly harmless unless you happen to be allergic.

Meeting a predator in the wild

So Sweden is pretty much harmless, at least in terms of dangerous animals, and we are not about to replace the moose with a wasp in our tourist shops. But what if you happen to meet a wolf or a bear? Or what if you want to see one?

Gäfvert at the large carnivore centre says that ‘the best chance is to hire a professional tracker or book a hideout. Some of them nearly guarantee sightings of bear. Wolf is more challenging to track and see.’

If you happen to meet a wolf or bear alone in the wild, you should step away facing the animal and make noises like singing or talking. Don’t run: they are much, much faster than you and it might trigger their predatory instincts. If a wolf follows, make yourself seem large and dangerous, step towards rather than away from it. If it against all odds were to attack, fight back! If a bear moves towards you, however, drop some belongings and hopefully that will shift the attention away from you. If, again against all odds, you are attacked, lie down on the ground face down and protect your head and neck.

The large carnivore centre claims that the most dangerous carnivore in Sweden is mankind. So even though it might feel more natural to wear earth tones for a hike, be sure to put on a bright-coloured top to prevent hunters mistaking you for a moose. Hunting season in Sweden varies depending on prey and region, so better safe than sorry. And if you feel uncertain, just ask a local… even if they are the most dangerous predator in Sweden.

Last updated: 27 March 2014

Rikard Lagerberg

Rikard Lagerberg

Rikard Lagerberg is a Swedish writer, editor and translator who has spent most of his adult life in the US and Ireland. Returning to Sweden he discovered a new curiosity for his native country.