A fluffy grey face appears at the entrance to the den. As the face warily protrudes further, it’s followed by two pointy ears, completing the heart-shaped head of an arctic fox cub. After a few quick glances left and right, the fox gingerly pads out to have a look around. It knows it’s being watched. Others soon join and they get started with the business of the day: playing. They aren’t disconcerted by the presence of eight humans sitting 300m away, with telescopes poised on their every move. In fact, the foxes’ playful rolling around and fighting might well be for their benefit.
This experience takes place just a couple of kilometres from Helags mountain station. Every summer, from July to the middle of September, experienced guides take visitors out on tours to see arctic foxes in their natural habitat.
During the summer, when days steal time for night, the lush green moorland is full of wildflowers and smooth, rounded peaks provide a dramatic backdrop. Helags, a 1,797m mountain with an almost vertical cliff face on one side, is the most prominent point on the landscape. The mountain station at its foot is far from roads and villages and the area around it has become a stable home for Sweden’s endangered arctic foxes.
“You’re not guaranteed to see arctic foxes, but in reality people see them on almost every tour. They aren’t really afraid of people. In fact they seem to be quite curious. They are wary and want to keep an eye on us of course, but they aren’t scared.”
Malin Larm is doing her PhD at Stockholm University under professor Anders Angerbjörn and is part of the Swedish arctic fox project, which Fjällräven supports. Her focus is on the relationship between tourism and arctic foxes. But she also used to work at Helags as an arctic fox tour guide. So her position is rather unique. She’s seen first hand the effect these tours have on people too.
“The people get really excited. It’s amazing for them to see. It’s such a privilege working as guide, exposing people to this experience.”
But with two tours per week for a couple of months a year, surely this must be having some kind of negative affect on the arctic foxes. “Humans do affect the foxes’ activity,” says Malin. “But so far we’ve not seen anything negative. The foxes become more active on the days when the visitors are there. They also don’t hunt on tour days, preferring to play around. But we think they compensate for being more active at the den during the day by going hunting at night.”
Malin studies this special relationship between human visitors and arctic foxes, but she’s also interested in the broader picture. When we visit nature we have some kind of impact, but does this need to be negative? Can we in fact get something out of it and can the landscape even benefit from our presence?
“Right now research broadly shows that experiences in nature, such as this, foster an environmentally friendly attitude in people. But we don’t know the extent of this effect. The empirical evidence lags behind the visions of what we believe to be true. So the aim with my research is to show what kind of effects being out in nature has on people and the impacts such experiences have on their views towards nature and wildlife. Preserving nature for nature’s sake is difficult to justify. But if we can prove there is some human benefit as well, then this kind of tourism could have huge potential.”
Find out more about Helags Fjällstation’s arctic fox tours here.
Text: Sarah Benton