If you go down to the woods today…

With wolves, bears and wild boar, Sweden has more scary creatures than many a European country. But the most dangerous of the lot is also one of the smallest, as Ben Kersley reports.

As the third largest country in the European Union, but with a human population of only 9 million, Sweden has plenty of room left over for the animal kingdom. Best known are the elks and reindeer featured on endless tourist souvenirs and stolen road signs, but the country’s forests are also home to a host of more intimidating mammals.

Sweden’s largest predator is the brown bear. Despite its sharp claws, ferocious teeth and enormous bulk, the bear is actually an ominivore, which means it spends most of its time grazing on berries and grass. However, the brown bear is a prolific hunter, and pursues everything from small rodents and fish to larger animals such as deer and the occasional elk.

As Sweden’s bear population has stabilized and subsequently increased, human encounters have inevitably become more common. However, few bear attacks are fatal: although the most recent death occurred in 2004, prior to that you have to go back to 1902 to find a deadly attack. This puts the statistics at roughly one per century.

Mats Höggren, Animal Director at the Kolmården wildlife park near Norrköping, puts the wolverine at the top of the list of Sweden’s hunters. A member of the mustelid family, the wolverine has incredible strength and stamina and can quite easily bring down an elk many times larger than itself.

Wolves are also finding their way into the headlines as their population increases in Sweden. According to Höggren, the danger of wolves is exaggerated by the Swedish press. Wolves are extremely unlikely to attack a human unless cornered. In fact, the last recorded incident of a wolf fatally attacking humans was over the winter of 1820-1 when a hand-reared wolf escaped and, unable to hunt for food yet unafraid of humans, killed 11 children in Dalarna.

In reality, you are very unlikely to meet Sweden’s large predators face to face as they have such a well-developed smell and hearing. To make extra sure that they can hear you coming, walk along clapping or singing. If you do meet a potentially dangerous animal, Höggren’s advice is simple: don’t panic.

“Most animals will only attack if they feel threatened. Stay calm and back away slowly facing the animal. Don’t turn and run.”

A brown bear will almost certainly attack if it is provoked and most bear attacks on humans happen when a bear has been injured. If you are attacked (and if you have the clarity of mind to do so) get into the foetal position and play dead. Try to be as unthreatening as possible to the bear.

Typically, it’s the vegetarians who are the real danger, particularly when they are feeling hormonal. Wild boar, which have been reintroduced to the wild over the last 20 years will attack if they are protecting a litter of young, but again only if they feel threatened. A rutting stag should not be approached, as these otherwise passive ruminants become extremely aggressive during the mating season when they are trying to impress a potential mate.

Sweden’s iconic elk pose a much greater threat to humans, although ironically not through any fault of their own. Annually, they are involved in over 4,000 collisions with cars, many of which lead to human injury and occasionally death. Elks can weigh around half a tonne and their rumps can be two metres from the ground, providing a test for even the sturdiest Volvo. The animals themselves rarely survive a collison, either dying immediately or several days later.

There’s danger in the water too: In freshwater, the pike, a fish which often grows over a metre in length and has a fearsome set of teeth, has been known to bite swimmers. While on the water, an angry swan will charge and can do real damage with its muscular neck.

On the coast, danger lurks beneath the water. As temperatures rise, more and more jellyfish stings are being reported and contact with weever fish is becoming more common on Sweden’s west coast. The weever is a small fish with poisonous spikes on its back. It is usually found nestling in the sand in shallow water; if stepped on by an unsuspecting paddler it can cause extreme pain, swelling and occasionally nausea. If you are stung, the pain should go within a few hours and can be helped by immersing the sting in hot water. Where no hot water is readily available, those in the know recommend dousing it in urine.

There is only one venomous snake in Sweden, the adder, which has a reputation greater than the threat it actually poses. Fatalities from adder bites are almost unheard of as the victim of a bite can usually get help before the poison does any real damage. Mats Höggren, who specializes in snakes, says there are a number of myths surrounding snakes that are founded in fear rather than fact. “To most people, the snake represents pure evil and most snake myths are totally irrational.”

Ask a Swede what their most dangerous animal is and many will say ‘badger’ without pausing for breath. Like snakes, the badger gets a bad rap in Sweden for no apparent reason other than it lives in close proximity to humans and very little is known about it. Walk in the woods and some people will warn you to ‘beware of the badgers’; some will even recommend that you put eggshells or charcoal in your boots in case you get bitten by one as there is a commonly held belief that a badger will only release its bite once it hears the sound of bones being crushed.

Spend anytime outdoors in Sweden and you will meet thousands of irritating but harmless insects. Thankfully, there are only one or two that can be classed as dangerous, including wasps that deliberately build their nests close to picnic areas.

Sweden’s most dangerous beast is also the smallest: The tick, no bigger than 5mm in length, is not an insect but part of the arachnid family. The tick is a parasitic mite that feasts on the blood of its host. If that weren’t enough, it is also the carrier of a number of diseases including Lyme disease and encephalitis. The tick embeds its head under the skin and gorges itself on blood, with its body and legs clearly visible and moving. If you find a tick, remove it with a pair of tweezers making sure that you don’t leave the head in the skin. Keep the tick as this will help to identify any possible infection.

But is a walk in the Swedish woods really tantamount to dicing with death? Höggren insists there’s no cause for alarm:

“Statistically, you are more likely to be shot by an over enthusiastic hunter mistaking you for a deer than be attacked by a bear, wolf or wolverine.”

Just beware of the ticks.

For further information:

Kolmården Safari Park www.kolmarden.com

The Scandinavian Bear Project www.bearproject.info

The Hunter’s Unionwww.jagareforbundet.se