The wolves at my door

We don't like newcomers much in our village. Truth be told, we're relative newcomers ourselves. But that no longer seems important now a new family has moved in. Unkempt, smelly and downright antisocial, everybody seems to want them gone – everybody, that is, except a nice tree-hugging friend, who thinks they are romantic. The newcomers are wolves, you see.

The wolves I grew up with were romantic in a literal sense: they existed only in fairy tales and the odd song by Duran Duran. But since I've been coming to rural Sweden, wolves have been encroaching on reality. Three of them, it turns out, seem to have made their den a stone's through away from the churchyard.

Swedes hate uncertainty but love to hunt. For both these reasons the native wolf population died out completely in the late 1960s. But in 1974 the government placed wolves under strict protection. Killing them without direct and almost impossible to procure evidence of an immediate threat to the life of human and other domesticated animals became punishable by prison sentences not incomparable to those for manslaughter. It was an excellent piece of legislation, for the wolves. By the end of last year there were thought to be over 240 wolves in Sweden, most of them to be found in the vast swathes of woodland sweeping through the middle of the country.

Last year the environment ministry decided to organise the first cull in nearly half a century. A total of 27 wolves were to be shot between 2 January and 15 February and some 12,000 permits were issued to hunters wishing to participate.

Usually slow to the point of hazy sublimity, for a brief two days the pace of Swedish country life quickened inordinately. In many places the quota was reached in a few hours. Nationally, 28 wolves were recorded shot by 5 January, the extra being attributed to a communications error (cough cough). The hunters could keep the skins, the bodies were to be gathered and transported to Stockholm for postmortem.

The rural enthusiasm for the hunt is easy to understand. While it is no longer the case that the majority of Swedes living in the countryside are farmers, it is only a matter of a generation or two at most. And for farmers, or indeed anyone else with domestic animals or small children, wolves are a natural enemy. With recorded wolf killings of sheep and dogs having risen sharply in recent years, frustration at what many see as exaggerated levels of protection has waxed similarly. Furthermore, given that the present generation of wolves has never known man as a predator, contemporary Swedish wolves are attracted to rather than repelled by signs of human habitation.

Not wanting to risk accusations of anthropocentrism (God forbid), the government presented the cull in purely lycocentric terms: restricting the national wolf population to a manageable total of around 210 would limit the frustration of the biped neighbours, thus ensuring the animals' safety. Furthermore, given that the current population is descended from what is thought to be a mere three individuals brought over from Finland, the gene pool is not what it might be.

Heart and kidney disease is increasingly common and a cull would increase the effectiveness of the government's plans to introduce 20 new wolves over the next four years.

It's a nice argument, but the socialist press are not buying it, suggesting the government is simply pandering to the rising bloodlust of the hunting and farming community (the Center party , traditionally popular with farmers, is currently a key part of the governing centre-right coalition). Their own bloodlust rising in turn, calls are being made for the head of the environment minister and Center party MP Anders Carlgren.

So who is right? In ways reminiscent of Britain's fox-hunting debates, opinion is divided sharply along urban and rural lines, but shouldn't we be able to appeal to a higher moral code when it comes to such cases?

According to the Rev Andrew Linzey, whose book, Why Animal Suffering Matters, was published last summer, it is absolutely wrong to inflict suffering on an animal unless it is for its own good. This precept is a simple extension of that trusty cornerstone of all moral thought, do as you would be done by. That is to say, when considering the implications of our actions for others in the light of how we ourselves would desire to be treated, we should include animals among these others.

In this sense, the question of the conflicting perspective of rural v urban dwellers is irrelevant. The imperative to preserve the wolf species is, after all, bound up with the more general recognition that certain predators or vermin once understood as being in simple competition with us are in fact partners within a more complex ecology. The cull therefore offends a universal moral precept and the immediate perspective of the human agents is irrelevant.

But perspective is the lifeblood of moral awareness. The grounding principle to which Linzey refers derives from an effort to balance perspectives, not to do away with them altogether: incorporate into your own point of view what you understand to be the point of view of others with whom you identify. The moral sphere exists in the lived and felt relation between sentient, self-conscious beings, and in that sense it is local before global, particular before universal.

So while we may be right to identify with wolves in the abstract, identifying with them in the flesh is a rather different matter. The people in our village are currently more intrigued and alarmed than frightened by their new neighbour. But without culls of this nature, the fear of wolves preserved in fairy tales will once again become quite real.

There's a rumour that our new neighbours is now a family of two. I, for one, am glad.

Popular Posts