SHARE
COPY LINK

TOURISM

Cranes – and nature-lovers – flock to Swedish lake

The deafening sound hits you way before the sight: piercing shrieks coming from wet marshlands in western Sweden that host one of the world's largest gatherings of migratory cranes.

Cranes - and nature-lovers - flock to Swedish lake

“The sound is just amazing. It’s not beautiful, but it’s fascinating,” said biologist Anders Bergström. He leans on a wooden fence that separates visitors from trampled fields where some 10,000 cranes are taking a break.

Up to 25,000 Eurasian cranes – or grus grus, a tall, grey-feathered bird – pass through the wetlands at the southern tip of Lake Hornborga during the first six weeks of Spring, generally starting in mid-March.

An individual crane spends on average 12 days resting here, the final pit stop on a long journey from their winter homes Spain to summer breading grounds in central Sweden and Norway.

At peak periods, some 14,000 cranes – with a record of 18,500 last year – can pack the relatively small feeding area, offering their peculiar song and dance to visitors who themselves flock each year to see the performance.

“They really do dance!” lake visitor and avid bird watcher Lars Lejdegård, 68, said excitedly.

“They jump like that and come down on each other,” said the retired banker, peering up from his tripod-perched monocular to mimic bird movements with his arms.

The “dance” is not as obvious to the untrained – or unequipped – eye, but at any moment pairs of birds can be seen flapping wings, bowing necks, jumping up and down and, at times, throwing grass up in the air.

“It’s not a mating dance,” explained Bergstroem, as cranes don’t perform this ritual once they reach their breeding grounds. Instead, it’s “probably a way to strengthen the social bonds within the pairs.”

The annual spectacle draws up to 150,000 visitors to the lake, in Västra Götaland county, 150 km north-east of Gothenburg. Both average tourists and passionate bird watchers gather to witness the sight. Though most are Swedish or from neighboring Denmark and Norway, some, like Czech national Zdenek Soucek, drive more than 15 hours to witness the gathering.

“In our country, (the cranes) nest, but not so much. It’s a rare kind of bird for us,” said Soucek, in camouflage trousers and gripping a thermos in one hand and a tripod-mounted camera with an impressive telephoto lens in the other. The 57-year-old headmaster and four travel companions have already set up their observation point at 6:30 am to watch the cranes fly in, from their sleeping grounds farther off, to feed in the field.

“All the people coming here, they all have one question in common,” said Claes Hermansson, a 62-year-old local ornithologist and crane specialist. “It is: how many?”

The answer is provided by a 15-member “bird counting team”, of which Hermansson is part. Each day, they send two or three members to an abandoned bus stop on a hilltop near the lake, equipped with monoculars and a crowd counter device.

‘Listen, they are happy’

Alf Karlsson, 75, has been with the team the longest, involved in every crane count since they first started at Hornborga in 1966.

“I don’t know why. I think it’s interesting,” he said, as he, Hermansson and Börje Carlsson, a 79-year-old retired policeman sitting next to Karlsson on the bus stop bench, kept a recent count.

Their tally was 12,200 cranes, with a few more to go.

While local lore says the birds have stopped at Hornborga for thousands of years, their numbers were not always this great.

More and more started flocking to the area in the early 20th century, attracted by the potatoes grown by nearby distilleries and only a day’s flight from their previous stop in northern Germany.

“If cranes find a good spot on the migration route, there’s a good chance they will come back, and they will also bring other cranes with them because cranes are very social,” Bergstroem said.

By the 1950s, Hornborga was attracting about 3,000 cranes annually and gaining fame as a local tourist attraction.

When the distilleries closed, local authorities first kept the potato fields for the cranes, but later switched to spreading barley to save time and labour.

With the barley – today some 140 tonnes are spread each season – came more cranes, more visitors, and the counting began.

On a delicate point, Bergström concedes that feeding the cranes means interfering with nature. “We might affect the migration route,” he said.

But he points out that despite the food and visitors, the cranes are far from tame, insisting they are shy, wild birds not the least interested in their spectators.

Bird counter Hermansson agrees, saying the cranes do not flock to Hornborga to put on a show.

“They need to eat you know,” he said, lifting a hand to his ear. “Listen – they are happy.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

SWEDISH HISTORY

Why is Gothenburg known as Sweden’s ‘Little London’?

With ties to Britain dating back more than 200 years, the city of Gothenburg has long been known as Sweden’s Little London.

Why is Gothenburg known as Sweden’s 'Little London'?

Grey skies, rainy days, a wide-mouthed river, and a love for English pubs. At first glance, it’s no wonder that Gothenburg has long held the nickname of Sweden’s own “Little London”, or Lilla London

But what are the origins of this British title?

“The nickname ‘Little London’ was first used in a newspaper in 1766,” explains Håkan Strömberg, educational officer at the Museum of Gothenburg.

“The Brits were the largest immigration group during the 1700s and early 1800s, mainly because Sweden was a country close by, it was economically underdeveloped compared to England and Scotland and had a lot of raw materials. To put it simply, could make some money here.”

The city’s reputation as a British enclave dates back to the 1700s when trade brought many foreign influences to the Västra Götaland region.

As merchants and shipbuilders like Charles Chapman, David Carnegie, and James Dickson moved to the area, local residents began to notice a growing list of similarities between the Swedish port city and the British capital.

Indeed, even one of Sweden’s most renowned scientists, Carl Von Linné, is said to have commented on the similarities between the two cities when he visited Gothenburg in the 1700s.

 “Being a group of upper-class immigrants, the British merchants made sure they had access to all the good things from their home country. But the feeling of Gothenburg as a Little London was most likely something the Swedish citizens had, rather than the Brits,” adds Strömberg. 

The historical roots that connect the UK and Gothenburg are still evident today, with many spots in the city still alluding to British names, like Chalmers University – founded by the son of a wealthy Scottish industrialist, or Chapmans Torgnamed after a family of sailors and shipbuilders once well-established in the area. 

Catriona Chaplin, a British expat turned Gothenburger, only began to see the similarities and know of the nickname after relocating to the region for work. Growing up in Leicestershire, central England, she’d never heard of London’s Swedish sibling city.

“We came to Gothenburg 17 years ago. We’d never heard about [the nickname] until we moved here, but there is a bar on Avenyn called Lilla London, so that’s when we started to know about it,” she says.

Today, as the membership secretary of the British Club of Gothenburg, she brings a taste of the British Isles to life in Gothenburg.

The Club, which organises social events like concerts, quiz nights, and theatre performances, has a membership base of nearly 200 families. And although less than 0.5 percent of Gothenburg’s population today was born in the UK, the club welcomes members from a range of nationalities.

In fact, the only membership requirement is having some kind of interest in the UK, be it from a cultural standpoint, a past tourist experience, or a love of the language. 

“People come to the British Club just to socialise in their native language. It’s also about the culture, like the banter, the jokes and playing on words,” she says. 

Although the city’s British roots run deep, questions remain about modern-day Gothenburg’s status as “Little London”.

To some, the west-coast maritime hub’s industrial legacy, strong working-class culture, and amiable nature are reminiscent of a different English city. “They ought to call it ‘Little Liverpool’!” says Chaplin, with a smile. 

Lasting Landmarks

Evidence of Gothenburg’s British connections can be found in many of its landmarks, shops, and of course, pubs. Some of the historical hotspots still apparent today include:

Haga – The British ‘hood 

The area of Haga, just outside the old city, was once considered a slum, but changed character thanks to British philanthropist Robert Dickson (1782-1858), who built public baths, a library, and other landmarks with the typical red bricks found in Britain at the time.

St Andrew’s Church 

A key part of the British community is the Anglican church of Saint Andrew’s, also in Haga. Dedicated to the patron saint of Scotland, it was built and to date funded by ‘The British Factory’, a British society founded in the 1700s to help expats in Gothenburg that remains active even today.

The Victorian gothic style of the church is in line with the architectural trend in Britain at the time. 

John Scott – a legend among Gothenburgers

One of Gothenburg’s most well-loved establishments is John Scott’s, a local pub chain named after Pastor John Henry Scott, an Englishman and prominent landowner in 18th century Gothenburg. 

The “English quarter”

The square of buildings delineated by Teatergatan, Storgatan, Kungsportsavenyn and Vasagatan was once known as the city’s English Quarter. The buildings in this neighbourhood are influenced by British design, and the original landowners were in fact English pastor John Henry Scott and his wife, Jacobina.

By Alexander Maxia, Lisa Ostrowski and Sanna Sailer

SHOW COMMENTS