While most Swedes head off on their summer holidays as soon as July kicks in, Anders Angerbjörn enters one of his busiest periods. Every summer, Anders – professor, researcher and arctic fox expert – and his team, head off into the mountains to take stock of the health of the Swedish arctic fox population.
The arctic fox has a special place in our hearts. For the non-Swedes among you, our name Fjällräven, comes from the Swedish word for artic fox (fjällräv). It was their ability to adapt to difficult mountain conditions, to be resourceful, but also their beauty and charisma, that led Fjällräven founder, Åke Nordin, to name his outdoor gear company after the humble little artic fox.
But despite being protected in Sweden since 193o, the arctic fox has had trouble recovering after a long period of over-hunting in the 19th century. And the shorter winters, brought about by climate change, haven’t helped their situation either.
Since 1995, Fjällräven has been collaborating with Anders and Stockholm University, spreading information, supplying equipment and donating money to the Swedish Arctic Fox Project.
Every summer, an intense period of fieldwork begins. Anders and his small team can’t do this alone. So they recruit a horde of around 30 volunteers to help count and tag the arctic foxes in different parts of Sweden.
In 2015, we ran a competition to fill five of those volunteer positions. Maria Koch, Niels Andreasen, Kate Fremlin, Arnatsiaq Qvist and Fredrik Pärson were chosen for this challenging but rewarding task.
“Documenting arctic foxes in the wild is the most physically demanding fieldwork in biology research at the university,” says Rasmus Erlandsson, a doctoral student studying arctic foxes and heading up the volunteer work. “It’s very demanding to travel long distances in the mountains. And you have to have lots of equipment, knowledge and discipline to be able to carry out the tasks at hand – whatever the weather.”
The volunteers soon learned first hand what Rasmus was talking about. 100-litre backpacks, loaded with around 30kgs of gear to be carried over many kilometres is not for the feint hearted – or feint minded. Add to this the weather, which can, at best, be described as unpredictable and, at worst, plain awful. Over the course of the 10-day long fieldtrip, the volunteers experienced high winds, rain and even sleet and snow.
But personal difficulties had to be put aside. There was a job to do!
Each volunteer was teamed up with a mentor – a more experienced volunteer who had conducted this kind of fieldwork before. However, it’s one thing to learn the right technique. It’s quite another to summon the patience and inner strength needed for this kind of work.
Last summer, many inactive dens had suddenly become inhabited. Great news for the arctic fox population! But this meant lot of extra work, which required walking long distance to observe dens further afield, carrying heavy cages and sleeping in shifts to make the most of the fox’s more intense hours of activity at dawn and dusk.
“Staying awake for hours in the middle of the night was a challenge for me. I needed to use an alarm that rang regularly to keep myself awake,” said Arnatsiaq from Greenland.
Kate, from Canada added, “I’m used to animals and working outside, but not to walking so far with so much weight.”
The long hours of inactivity, stuck in a tent with very little to do, was also a huge drain. “Being stuck in a tent for up to 36 hours due to rain, without the possibility of seeing any foxes or doing what we’d come here to do, was unexpected and difficult. This kind of work demands mental strength too,” said Niels from Denmark.
But there were once-in-a-lifetime rewards for all this hard work. When the arctic foxes did make an appearance, there was a flood of activity from the volunteers as they rushed to do what they’d come to do. What they’d be waiting to do. Getting to see beautiful arctic foxes and their cubs up close.
“Working with wild animals has been fantastic,” said Maria, who works as a vet in Germany. “We got so close and I’ve been able to learn a lot about how they live. I’ve really gained an understanding of the lives of arctic foxes and the challenges they face.”
Life in nature isn’t easy. The volunteers discovered that right from the get-go. But it’s not an easy place for arctic foxes either. Golden eagles, red foxes and wolverines are all real and present dangers. And lack of food, which is primarily lemmings and voles, also plays a big role in holding arctic fox populations back.
At one den, the volunteers found the paws of a fox cub, while the remains of an adult fox at another. “Life in the mountains is hard and death is constantly just around the corner,” said Rasmus. “You get used to it. But when you find a dead fox that you’ve previously marked, and maybe even observed several times afterwards, it becomes a little more personal.”
After 10 days of hard work, there are a lot of satisfied faces as the volunteers congregate back at Helags Mountain Station. The teams observed a record number of litters in both Helags and Vindelfjällen and all the volunteers were able to help mark the cubs, giving them some real one-on-one time with the foxes.
“It’s been fantastic. Holding a tiny arctic fox in my hands was really special. It’s given me a new perspective on my own everyday life,” said Niels.
As July 2016 kicks off, another round of volunteers are preparing for some close encounters with those cute, fluffy arctic foxes. What will this year’s results show? It’s been a challenging winter. Fluctuating temperatures, more rain than snow and low populations of rodents – the fox’s primary source of food – could all affect survival rates. But as Rasmus says, “this is the way it is” in the mountains.
We’ll be checking in with Rasmus and Anders again soon to see how the Swedish arctic fox population is doing after this summer’s fieldwork.