Wild wolves of the Northern forests

 

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I have just returned from the wild forests of remote north east Finland on the border with Russia , where I spent eleven nights  photographing some of the North’s top predators, alongside my good friend and mentor Danny Green. It was a tiring trip but without doubt one of the most rewarding I’ve had the privilege of being involved with to date.

Finland is one of the last strongholds for northern Europe’s once prevalent predator species such as the Grey wolf, Brown bear, Wolverine and Lynx.

Our main focus for the trip was the Grey wolf.  Steeped in folklore and myth , this  rare and iconic predator  looms large in the imagination. We were working from purpose built professional hides at a location where our local Finnish guide and award winning wildlife photographer Lassi Rautiainen has been feeding these rare and elusive supreme predators for over twenty years. Because of Lassi’s years of hard work,   it is perhaps one of the best places in the world to see wolves in the wild.

Nothing is ever guaranteed with wildlife though and as a result of centuries of persecution wolves in particular are notoriously shy and unpredictable. To be honest knowing this just added to the excitement. Just to catch a glimpse of a wild wolf would have been more than enough for me. Forget the photography.

Our first night in the hides was spent at a location overlooking a boreal pond. Each night we would go in to the hides at 5 o’clock in the evening and come out at 8 o’clock in the morning. This far north the midsummer nights don’t see much darkness so you are able to photograph pretty much through the night. Assuming you have a subject and the weather. Unfortunately we had neither on our first evening. After a while of looking and watching,  more in hope than expectation, you start to see wolves every where. Every small tree and bush seems to take the form of a wolf.

And then as the sun began to dip, came the rain. Rain of biblical proportions. As it pounded down on the roof of the hide we started to wonder whether it was about to become a floating hide. We did talk about abandoning ship but with wild wolves and bears out there decided it was probably not the best of ideas. With no light to speak of though we set our alarms for 3.30am when we hoped the light levels would have improved. I drew the lot of first watch (surprise, surprise). Throughout the trip we worked as a team, taking it in turn to stay on watch whilst the other person (usually called Danny) got some rest.It was a relief as the rain finally stopped and to look out over the pond as a new day dawned.

And there they were, standing at the far edge of the pond looking back at me (in decent light), not one but two wolves – the alpha male and female pair.

The alpha female disappeared back into the forest as quickly as she appeared. The alpha male though remained, prowling purposefully along the perimeter of the pond.

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Half way round he paused shaking the rain water from his fur before continuing on his path.

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A little further round he stopped again, staring out intently onto the water. At which point his intentions became clear as a couple of hapless duckings glided past. This was a wolf on a mission. Oh dear. Not the ducklings! How am I supposed to show that image to Pressie?

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I’m pleased to say though that the ducklings survived to paddle another day. It wasn’t for the want of trying though as Mr Wolf continued around following the ducks, all the time coming closer to our hide.

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By the time he paused again he was perhaps no more than 20 metres from the hide.

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One of the great joys of wildlife photography is it offers the opportunity to experience rare, magical  moments like this. It was such a privilege to watch this shy and elusive predator in the wild in such close proximity. An encounter that I will always cherish and something which will remain with me forever.

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On the fourth day of the trip we were joined by Natures ImagesFinnish Predators group which Danny was leading. I’m pleased to say our luck continued to hold and over the next few nights all of the group got to see and photograph wild wolves.

I particularly like this next shot taken again of the alpha male in the early morning mist.

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We also got the opportunity to photograph other members of the pack around the pond.

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This next wolf was particularly young and more nervous than the rest of the pack. With light levels so low it made it particularly challenging trying to get anything sharp at sensible ISOs. Great fun trying though and as this next image illustrates it is possible.

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After a few nights working from the pond hide we moved location. Different hides offered different settings and opportunities. One of the other hide locations, Caravan overlooked a forest clearing and was perhaps the best bet for wolf activity.

The next  is taken from an encounter with a beautiful female wolf occurred in the early evening on our first night at this location.

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I really like this slinking pose with intent gaze in this last shot set against the forest background showing the wolf’s typical habitat.

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A bit of natural history for you just to finish off with, concerning  the Grey Wolf’s range, biology and conservation status which I hope informs these images and will help everyone appreciate just what rare and special species wolves are.

The wild Grey wolf population in Finland is linked with that of Russia, occurring mainly in the forested areas along the length of the border between the two countries.

In Finland itself, there are only between 140 to 150 wolves  making up around 14 packs and spread out over an area of 100,000 km. This population is a part of a larger Russian wolf population. In the whole Russia there are about 30 000 wolves, but  just across the Finnish border, only about 350 individuals.   North eastern Finland where we were photographing represents one of the core ranges of the Finnish wolf population at present.

Finland had a relatively large wolf population until the 1880s when the systematic persecution of wolves began eventually bringing the wolf almost to extinction in Finland. Since then the wolf population increased to around 250  individuals in 2005. Since then it has collapsed and is now down to its current level of no more than 140 to 150 individuals. One pack south of Oulu has even disappeared completely

The wolf is classified as Endangered in the Red List of Finnish threatened species. After Finland’s accession to the EU, outside of the reindeer herding areas in Northern Finland, the wolf came under strict protections.

Some people living in areas where they have to co exist with wolves have found it difficult to adjust to this change brought on by EU membership. Reindeer herders blamed increased losses of livestock on wolves resulting in financial hardship. Such was the anger about curbs on hunting wolves in some quarters that Stavros Dimas, the European environment commissioner who insisted on the crackdown to protect these endangered predators, once received a bullet in his mail box.

Illegal hunting is largely suspected to be to blame for the latest collapse. Now the hunting of wolves has been curbed and permits are granted only in exceptional cases where the animals have caused extensive damage or where there is a so-called “troublemaker” individual in the area. These  have been granted, primarily in the reindeer husbandry areas.

The conservation status of the wolf in Finland though remains precarious. Loss of domestic reindeer in the reindeer herding area, negative press encouraging attitudes against large carnivores and man’s innate fear and prejudices wolves have all contributed meaning that the species still faces many challenges in terms of its long term conservation. It’s a sad irony that this magnificent predator has much more to fear from us than we do from it.There were once at least thirty different subspecies of wolf. Most have become extinct. About five subspecies survive today.

Wolves traditionally have a large range. A wolf pack usually comprises of a family unit, made up of an alpha male and female pair at its head and their offspring.

Family packs consist of an average of 7 individuals. The particular pack we had come to photograph is currently made up of 11 which is relatively big for the area.

Female wolves usually have their first litter when they are around two years old, a litter consisting of around 4 pups born in the spring. When we visited the adults were still taking food for the pups, safely hidden away at the den. Young wolves leave their original territories setting out in search of  territories of their own at around 11 months.

In Finland the moose is the main source of food for wolves. In the area where we were located, studies have shown it makes up 75% of a wolf’s diet. Wild reindeer makes up 20% with the remaining 5% consisting of smaller prey items.

For anyone that read that last bit, well done for sticking with it and thank you very much. It took me a while to research and write, all driven by  the power of the Google search engine!

This is the first of four blogs about the predators of the Northern taiga. I’ll be returning to the wolves later. In part two I’ll be turning my attention to the most secretive and (pound for pound)  powerful of the boreal predators, not to mention my favourite of the X men, the Wolverine…

This entry was posted in Finland - Summer, predator, the North, wolf. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Wild wolves of the Northern forests

  1. Peter says:

    Some great images Jules, really nice and good variation.

  2. BARBARA HERMAN says:

    I only wish that people would leave these beautiful animals alone. They have to live, as we do, but to submit them to inhumane killing is just not on. I especially feel for Susi, going all the way back to her home…..that is instinct, in both humans and animals. PLEASE LEAVE THEM ALONE.

  3. Sherry Dunn says:

    Beautiful Photos and thumbs up to everyone who is trying to preserve these fascinating creatures carry on with your good work.

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