Still Dancing with Wolves

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

When Estonians go to vote on 14 September on whether to join the EU, some of them will have good reason to remember one of the biggest final obstacles that the Commission put in the country’s path to the Union. If the EU had not backed down, there would be no moose, bear, wolves, lynx and beavers hunting next year.

When Estonians go to vote on 14 September on
whether to join the EU, some of them will have good reason to
remember one of the biggest final obstacles that the European
Commission put in the country’s path to the EU. The
referendum comes on the eve of the moose-hunting season. If the EU
had had its way, there would be no moose shot starting next year.
Nor would there be any hunting of bears, wolves, lynx, and
beavers.

In the end, in the very final phases of
negotiations, Estonia won concessions. Under license, all four
species can still be killed each year, though there will be new
rules for bear hunting.

To Estonians, it is something of a mystery why
the EU stuck so long to its (metaphorical) guns. In 1995 two other
countries with a Baltic shoreline–Sweden and Finland–joined the
EU and managed to win exceptions. Sweden retained the right to hunt
bears, while Finns were allowed to hunt bears and also lynx.
Sometimes the right was hard-won. Andres Lillemae of the Estonian
Hunters Society says that attacks by bears killed one man and left
two men in wheelchairs before the EU granted an exception.
“The more bears there are, the more they may have contact
with people,” he says.

Perhaps it was the relative richness of wild
animals in Estonia that made it difficult for EU functionaries to
understand the Estonian position. According to Peep Mannil, an
official at the Environment Ministry, Estonia has 450-550 brown
bears, 600-800 lynx, and 100-150 wolves. This effectively makes
Estonia the European modern-day homeland of the brown bear and the
lynx. It also has the second-largest ratio of wolves to hunters in
the Baltic, behind Latvia. The Baltics and the Carpathians are the
only regions in Europe where the wolf is not a complete rarity. All
three animals are more frequently sighted in Estonia than in either
Finland and Sweden.

Other figures indicate that Estonia has a
relatively large number of moose, and wild boar–already common and
a popular target for hunters in winter–are becoming more numerous.
Increasing production of food crops has encouraged their
expansion.

Estonian hunters argue that, without proper
control, the populations could grow out of control. They believe
that they have shown themselves capable of managing these big,
prized animals. With some exceptions, their populations have
remained stable.

But what particularly concerned them was the
explosion in the relatively humble beaver. Hunted to extinction
about a century ago, the beaver was re-introduced to Estonian lakes
and rivers in the 1950s. They have bred relatively fast. There are
now 16,000 of them, enough–so local press reports have claimed–to
destroy thousands of hectares of forest. Only in Latvia is the
beaver more common.

“There are so many beavers that they are
fighting each other for living space,” says the Hunting
Society. “Many of the beavers that are caught have bite
marks.” The beaver is an animal with no natural enemies.
Culling is therefore all the more important, hunters argue.

Under EU regulations, 25 to 30 wolves can be
shot annually, Mannil says. Around 20-30 bears can be killed a
year, while the lynx cull will remain at 100 a year.
Environmentalists are planning to reserve a few lakes for beavers
and direct hunting to areas where the beavers are damaging property
and costing money.

The victory has some strings attached. If the
number of lynx falls over the next five years, the European Council
will pass a qualified majority vote to end Estonia’s
exception.

HUNTING AS A WAY OF LIFE

But obscured by these tussles is a broader
change in hunting–by northern European standards, Estonia may be a
relatively small hunting nation, but hunting is a way of life for a
small, 1 percent minority. There is good reason: 51 percent of the
country is forested and the forests teem with wildlife.

But the number of hunters has dropped by a
quarter over the past two years, to 15,000. As a percentage of the
population, hunters are three and a half times less common in
Estonia than Denmark and Sweden, and six times rarer than in
Finland.

An overall drop in Estonia’s population,
and a decline in interest among the young may be factors. So too
might money. Hunting the biggest and wildest game can be a
relatively expensive past-time. In the mid-1990s, fewer Estonians
were able to afford it.

In the mid-1990s, the decline was good for the
wolf population, which soared to over 700 in 1994. A massive cull
followed, with about 350 being gunned down in 1995.

If fewer and fewer Estonians continue to hunt,
could we see a similar swing in the population? If so, hunters from
Denmark and Germany–countries with far more hunters but fewer
prey–are, it seems, interested in bagging a prize or two. They can
already get licenses to shoot in Estonia. Come May 2004, the
expected date of entry into the EU, there will be even less
paperwork. Perhaps Estonia, increasingly seen as a
“tiger” economy, could develop a modest wolf
economy.


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