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Hunting ethics

Whether they’re hunting moose in Sweden or deer in the upper Great Lakes states, modern hunters are grappling with ever-changing ethics and taboos that change with time and culture.

A recent study finds that Sweden’s hunters and hunting groups are slowly changing their ethics as they adapt to modern international influences such as invasive species, well-traveled hunters, and hi-tech cameras, smartphones and other gadgets.

In other words, Sweden’s hunters are debating many of the same issues confronting hunters in Wisconsin and across North America. That should surprise no one, given our ever-shrinking world.

The study’s author, Erica von Essen, at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, notes that Sweden’s hunters and their tradition-bound ethics aren’t immune to globalization and modernization. They also can’t stop worldwide businesses from putting price tags on all natural resources, whether those gems are mined, stalked or commercially processed.

Von Essen’s study appears in the 2018 “Human Dimensions of Wildlife” journal. She notes that despite strong outside forces, Sweden’s modern hunting culture crafts “a system of do’s and don’ts … that cut across class, locality and background” with a logic that wasn’t simply “sifted from the clouds.”

Even so, Sweden’s hunters seem no closer than ours to defining a universal set of hunting ethics and converting them into enforceable, widely accepted laws. Maybe that’s because Sweden’s hunters are struggling with many of the same issues vexing North America’s hunters, whether it’s distrusting outsiders, baiting game animals, controlling feral hogs, or settling boundary disputes involving wounded game.

And, just as rural Wisconsin hunters often blame problems on outsiders from Milwaukee, Chicago and Madison, Swedes often denounce Finns, Danes, Italians, Spaniards and North Americans. Swedes view “sportsmanlike hunting” as their identity, but think hunters from other cultures lack those traits. As one respondent said of Germans: “They go for the horns. Whereas for Swedes, out of custom and culture, meat is what matters to us.”

Sweden is also struggling with an ever-worsening problem from beyond its borders: wild boars. Swedes realize this exotic species causes severe crop damage, but worry that efforts to control boar populations “corrupt a lot of the hunting today” and bring out “the worst side of hunters.”

Because they consider boars a pest or varmint, Swedish hunters sometimes do things they would never consider when hunting deer or moose. That includes shooting recklessly, baiting with high-starch processed foods, leaving carcasses in the woods to waste, calling off tracking efforts on wounded boars after short distances, and relying more heavily on technological aids such as lights and traps.

Swedish hunters likened their more “extreme measures” to those used in North America. “People talk about (wild boars) like shooting rats; they just want them gone,” one respondent told von Essen. “It’s become more like a kind of clean-up pest control and less like a hunt; a bit like getting an ant infestation in your house.”

In turn, that house-cleaning attitude leads to relaxed rules and ethical standards because Swedish hunters often view boars as “more like funny black dots” than living animals. That attitude surprises no one who’s watched U.S. cable-TV shows in which the host shoots wild boars in Texas while swooping down on them in helicopters. Using such tactics on deer, bears, elk or pronghorns would violate game laws and bring certain prosecution.

Likewise, Swedes consider baiting and feeding taboo when hunting native wildlife because it involves “obvious deception for the sake of recreation,” von Essen wrote. She said one hunter considered baiting/feeding “more calculated butchering than hunting.”

However, even though Sweden’s landowners also own the property’s wildlife, today’s younger generation of Swedish hunters are less protective of property boundaries than are their parents, especially when it involves wounded animals. One hunter told von Essen that an animal’s welfare overrides property rights: “Ideally I should call (the landowner), but the best thing to do might be to go in and euthanize it and then get in contact. As a rule I’ve done that. It’s better for the animal that I put it out of its misery first.”

Von Essen also reported that the “sanctity around private property and patrolling one’s borders from neighbors had declined in recent years” in Sweden. As one hunter told her, “It’s gotten loads better now that the older generation is dying out.”

Maybe so, but Sweden’s rural hunters and landowners also worry about a newer, younger generation of city-based hunters who want to maximize their shooting and harvesting. One respondent told von Essen that urban hunters treat “hunting like golfing,” while another said: “Everything has to happen right now. Fire off a shot and be home by noon.”

These conflicts, contradictions and inconsistencies in hunting ethics and taboos aren’t unique to Sweden, Wisconsin, North America or the modern era, of course. They also can’t be written off as fickle rules and decisions that vary infinitely by individual and situation. Something tells me that hunting’s unwritten rules have forever baffled anyone who tried to condense and codify them.

And that challenge only grows as societies abandon their rural roots and apply urban sensibilities to ancient, traditional hunting practices.

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Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors recreation in Wisconsin. Write to him at 721 Wesley St., Waupaca, WI 54981; or by e-mail at patrickdurkin56@gmailcom.

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