Once they were mythical creatures. Today, elks in Sweden are seen as pests who gobble up the young forests. Every autumn 200,000 Swedes go elk hunting, but they are not only after the animals.
Elks and cars are a dangerous combination
Willy Uvebrant is stomping around the forest of Agunnaryd. The air is damp from the morning dew. It smells of resin, moss and mushrooms. The farmer is in his mid sixties and wrapped in a green windbreaker.
Sweden’s elks are becoming a nuisance
Willy reckons he is on the right track: The long legs leave behind notable tracks on the forest floor. “That is an elk track,” he explains. “They must have come this way. But I fear the tracks don't seem very fresh.”
Elks are not very keen on being tracked down -- they are masters of disguise and deception. The hunters from Agunnaryd look to proven tactics. Specially trained elk-hounds track the animals and lead them to the hunters, who remain spread out and on the lookout. Willy loads his shotgun. A high-caliber cartridge is put into the barrel. The experienced hunter has done in a good dozen elks in his time.
No natural predators
But Willy can tolerate elks. He sees the “kings of the forest” as elegant creatures that stalk the forests majestically with their long legs. The giant male elks, however, need to be culled because they have no real natural predators in the Swedish forest. “In the winter, the elks nibble the young shoots from the fir trees and spruces,” Willy explains.
And then there are the many elk-related accidents. A boy from the neighboring village died in one such accident. “A fully grown elk weighs a good 500 kilos (1,102 lbs)” Willy says. “If you hit one in a car, then it can get very nasty.”
A new occurrence
A group photo of elk hunters and their hounds
Suddenly shots echo through the forest. Willy startles and stares into the undergrowth. No sign of elks anywhere. 18-year-old Henrik has had more luck on the neighboring hillside. A lone young elk ran right in front of his rifle. According to professional hunting etiquette, the takings are shared out on the spot.
Henrik stands beaming next to his elk and looks at the unappetizing pursuits. “It's a kviga, a two-year-old female without young,” he explains. “The dog chased her out -- she was standing here in the thicket just 20 meters from me. It's the first elk I've ever shot!”
Elk hunting has social implications
In recent years the hunters in Southern Sweden have been hauling in the elk less and less frequently. But nationwide the number of kills is massive. Some 100,000 of the animals are allowed to be culled each year. More and more women are getting involved, such as Ann-Sofi Svensson, who thanks to her hunting success stopped having to put up with mocking comments from her companions long ago.
“I was drawn to the forest as a child with my dad,” she says. “I ran around with a chain beater or I sat with him on a raised blind.”
Ann-Sofi feels that even the guys think it is a good thing that women are getting involved. But when they go to knock back a few drinks, she unfortunately can't join them. She has to look after her children.
"We celebrate, drink and play cards"
In the evening. the guys are by themselves and they enjoy having a merry old time. All kinds of high-percentage beverages are passed around in Willy's rustic hunter's hut. The friends all grew up together in their idyllic Southern Swedish homeland, which in Agunnaryd really looks like something from the Grimms' fairytales. Of course, they all dream that a glorious male elk might one day come into their sites.
But Willy knows that elk hunting is much more than that as he fondly watches over the poker game.
“Elk hunting has massive social significance,” he says. “We meet friends that we haven't seen for a long time. We celebrate, drink and play cards. And tomorrow is a new day. Only Magnus here, he's feeling a bit sick. He has drunk significantly more than his fill. We can't hand over any rifles to him. He'll have to sleep late and beat his hangover!”