Hallingskarvet, Norway. Altitude: approximately 1,500 metres above sea level. Up in the distance the fox den was clearly visible. Then the weather, which had been holding up reasonably well until that point, turned. A wave of rain and fog rolled over the mountain, reducing visibility to a few metres. The chance I had of seeing the arctic foxes I had trudged through snow for hours to see was effectively ended.

This was this last August during a visit in Norway. The reason for the trip was to see the attempts being made to save one of the most threatened animals in the Scandinavian mountains – fjällräven, the Swedish name of the species - first hand. Even though I didn’t see so much as the tip of a bushy tail disappearing behind a rock, it is clear that the arctic foxes are there.

The scattered bones laying outside the den left little doubt about that. This last year has been one of the best years for the arctic fox in a long time.

The Arctic Fox - Recently tagged

The fur of the arctic fox has one of the highest levels of insulation measured in any mammal. Because of this, and its beauty, they were hunted heavily during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Prices sky rocketed and the population plummeted. Despite being listed as a protected species in 1928 and 1940 in Sweden and Norway respectively the damage was already done. The population was down to levels so low that they had a hard time recovering. However, it was not until the 1980’s scientists at Stockholm University started investigating the matter. At first the approach was mainly scientific, to gather information about the animals and chart the population. What they discovered was that the arctic fox was unlikely to recover on its own and that action was needed in order to save them.

The reasons behind the demise of the arctic fox, besides the extensive hunting in the past, has been established as the competition from red foxes entering the territories occupied by the arctic fox and the collapse of the lemming population, a vital food source for the arctic fox. Since no one knows exactly what regulates the swings of the lemming population, feeding stations have been established so that the foxes have a stable food source at all times. In Norway a breeding program has been implemented, where foxes are bred and then introduced into the wild. Red foxes has also been hunted in order to reduce the competition for territory in some places. All these actions are aimed at growing the population to a level where they can handle swings between favourable and unfavourable conditions. So far the signs are encouraging, but there is still a long way to go before the arctic fox is ready to thrive on its own.

Getting to the land of the arctic fox is an adventure in itself. After an extremely cold summer the lake beneath the den was still frozen – despite it being well into August. After a bike ride, interrupted by frequent stints of pulling our bikes through deep snowfields, we were at a point where we started climbing higher up the mountain side.

The Arctic Fox

A strenuous hike later, Petter Braaten, who is overseeing the project in the Hardangervidda region, led us through the fog to one of the feeding stations that has been implemented. The station consists of a series of barrels, where the entrance has been made narrow enough for the small arctic fox to get through to the dog food inside, while it keeps the bigger red fox out. An examination of the pictures from the camera mounted above the entrance showed that the foxes had been there recently. This year’s pups seem to have survived, and, by the looks of their fat appearance, they had done so in style.

 

The Arctic Fox

 

A question worth asking is why the arctic fox should be saved. The issue of which animals are worth the time and effort of saving is a topic that has been heavily debated for a long time. This is a question without a simple answer. There’s the ethical, and emotional, answer that all animals should be allowed the chance to exist, and when you see pictures of these cute and cuddly looking animals it is hard to say that they should be left to their fate. Just ask the clothing manufacturer Fjällräven; their founder Åke Nordin was so enamoured with the little fellas that he used the Swedish name for the artic fox to name his company. The company also continue to be involved in the Scandinavian rescue program.

 

The Arctic Fox

 

A more pragmatic argument for saving these animals is the preservation of biological diversity, something that has been established as an objective by the European Union. Also, there is the esthetical reason, our experiences out in nature are enhanced by having a wide variety of animals and surroundings to look at. Whether these reasons are enough I will let each and every one of you to decide for yourselves. For me these reasons, and not least the last one, goes a long way.

As I made my way down the mountain I thanked my lucky star that my brand new boots, taken straight from the box and used on the mountain, had spared my feet. Also, I reminded myself that the good thing about trying to catch a glimpse of an animal that lives above the tree line is that even when you don’t there is still plenty to make the hike worthwhile. The views, the fresh air, and not least, the beer waiting down the train station all made the fact that seeing arctic foxes would have to wait until another trip a lot easier to bear.