The Rewilding of Denmark: The Restoration of Jutland’s Little Wild Bog

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Denmark’s storied raised bogs – wet habitat that forms peat and is bereft of mineral salts – play host to unique flora and fauna and have a rich and varied history.  Once of mystical reverence, the bogs were later ravaged, first to farm, then for their cheap heating resource of peat. 

The first step that laid the foundation for restoration efforts in this particular bog that helped make modern efforts more feasible was the rejuvenation of Lille Sø, or Little Lake, in the 1920s.  Today, the bog restoration project of Lille Vildmose (LittleWild Bog) has achieved great success and has educated thousands as to the importance of this delicate habitat.  However, with these victories arise some ethical questions, as well as some resistance from a number of local stakeholders.

Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle. Credit: Frans Ritter

In the pre-Christian, Iron Age era, many of the bogs of Denmark were a revered place of occasional human sacrifice; bodies, almost impeccably preserved, have been found in modern times, throats neatly slit, hair turned red from the tannins of the bog water.  In more recent times, it was often the bogs themselves who became the sacrificed.  In the case of Lille Vildmose, the feudal 1700s brought hunger for agricultural land – and the subsequent taxes for a war-depleted king – which led to the construction of canals to drain the bogs and lakes that dominated this area in the Jutland region, a four hour drive or a short flight to the area northwest of Copenhagen.  During the German occupation of WWII, over a thousand workers slashed chunks of peat from bogs for a cement factory and other local industry, bereft of fuel because of the insatiable demands of the war machine.  

Hj vildmosevej ny høste.
Hj vildmosevej ny høste. Credit: Jens Peter Jensen

Life+ Project and the Regeneration of the Raised Bog

The original canals were ambitious, hand-cuts swaths that led to the Kattegat Sea which separates Denmark from Sweden. Today, the very same canal, Hovedkanalen, or the Main Canal, that drained the waters of the four original lakes, is being sealed to halt further drainage of Birkesø, Birch Lake, the third and final lake to be restored.  It is anticipated that this will greatly assist the continued revival of the bog.  The main mission of current and previous restoration efforts in Lille Vildmose, has been to “prevent the existing intact bog from further degradation and to improve the conditions for the bog to regenerate,” Peter Hahn, project manager of the Life+ project in Lille Vildmose via the Danish Nature Agency, explains.  He adds that a related aim “is to improve the conditions for a range of rare species – birds, plants, animals – and habitat types that Lille Vildmose is designated for.”  He notes, in addition to desiccation resulting from the many years of intentional drainage, that the overgrowth of trees is a significant threat to current efforts.  To prevent this, the services of a number of species have been employed.  During a visit to the site in the summer of 2017, cattle and horses could be seen grazing in various areas, gnawing on unwanted vegetation that, unchecked, could proliferate within the bog.  To this end, roe deer, along with red deer, both indigenous species, have provided additional management.   But what has drawn the most attention has been the introduction of a majestic animal long absent from the Danish landscape: the moose. 

Moose Bull - Frans Ritter
Moose Bull, Credit: Frans Ritter

The Moose:  A Symbolic Conservation Management Tool

Emblematic of far northern forests, it has been approximately 5,000 years since moose have ambled around the periphery of Danish forests, munching prodigiously on the shoots of young trees, leaves, and other varieties of vegetation.  It is surprising then, that this is the very first time that moose have been introduced as a conservation management tool in Denmark.  Previously, indigenous European bison and Konik horses have been commonly used.  Hahn stresses that the effectiveness in culling the vegetation is primarily what led to the mooses’ selection, not charm and history.  However, he notes that its’ long-ago presence in Denmark was a factor in selecting it over non-indigenous species.

The media – and consequently, the public – has noticed.  The number of annual visitors has swelled over a five year span from a modest 38,000 to 74,000.  Mette Vesterhaab Nielsen, a biologist and nature interpreter and guide at the LilleVildmoseCenter, shared her surprise at the media attention, both domestic and international, garnered by the arrival of the moose.  She credits this coverage with facilitating much needed attention from the local community to the center’s education and communication efforts. 

However, all this attention does not come without risk, both to the animals and to their human fans.  The over 6,000 followers of the Facebook page Vild Med Lille Vildmose (Wild About Lille Vildmose) recently reminded one another to keep a respectful distance from the moose.  During a summer 2017 twilight visit, it was alarming to personally witness a young woman gamely approach a bull and heifer, trailed by their calf, to get a better photograph. 

Golden jackal.
Golden jackal. Credit: Carsten Clausen.

Returning and Invasive Species and Ethical Considerations

While there have been other interesting wildlife appearances in Lille Vildmose of late, Hahn nevertheless insists that, “It has never been the aim to reintroduce species to Lille Vildmose just to increase the biodiversity.”  However, Vesterhaab Nielsen cites the appearance of a golden jackal in August of 2016 as a notable positive surprise.  “We were certain that the wolf would be the first (canid) to visit Lille Vildmose.  The golden jackal has been recorded only a few times in Denmark.  It may have taken up permanent residency in the area around Lille Vildmose,” she added. 

Some new arrivals are less welcome.  The mårhund, or raccoon dog, seems to have settled in the area. A native of East Asia, it is considered among the most destructive of invasive species in Scandinavia.   The infiltration is commonly believed to be largely the result of animal rights activists releasing the animals from fur farms in Eastern Europe.  Extremely adaptable, these prolific breeders present a hazard to native bird, amphibian, and small mammal populations, even those hatched or birthed on small islands within the lakes.  As a result, the raccoon dog is frequently trapped in the area.  The animals are either euthanized or become part of the Judas Project.  In this initiative, a group of sterilized raccoon dogs are released back into the wild after being equipped with a GPS device.  In looking for a life-long mate, the Judas Project animals lead researchers to wild raccoon dogs which are then captured and euthanized. 

The guide during the summer tour also acknowledged the ethical and sustainability issues that the possible emergence of a wolf population could present, as the highly intelligent animals would soon realize that some of their prey is currently fenced in, resulting in an uneven struggle between the wolf and other species.  Vesterhaab Nielsen did acknowledge that while it can be, “challenging to get through with the facts and statistics (to the public) concerning the consequences and benefits of the arrival of the wolf,” its rare reappearance in other parts of Denmark leaves her “energized by (this) interesting platform (from which) to discuss rewilding and nature management on a bigger scale.” 

Green Swamp/Grøn sump
Green Swamp/Grøn sump. September 2017. Credit: Jens Peter Jensen

Resistance and Obstacles to Rewilding and Conservation

Notably, a wolf pack could possibly heighten tensions between Lille Vildmose and its supporters and some who have been less than fully supportive of the center and the overall ongoing restoration project.  Though isolated, there has also been some costly vandalism on site.  Though neither Hahn nor Vesterhaab Nielsen would comment on an incident that took place in early September of 2017, local news outlets reported that four construction machines were targeted.  A lookout tower that provided a raised, unobstructed vantage point to observe the deer herds and other wildlife was also impacted.  The windows had been smashed for a second time, forcing its closure.  The damages suffered by the local government exceed 10,000 USD.  It remains unknown whether it was simply wanton vandalism or the more organized efforts of saboteurs with a particular grievance against the efforts underway at Lille Vildmose.

While there is far less remaining to preserve at Store Vildmose/ Big Wild Bog, what remains, near the city of Aalborg and just north of Lille Vildmose, also calls for careful collaboration with local entities.  Only about a sixth of the original raised bog remains; the majority has been subjected to extensive agricultural endeavors and peat excavation.  While there are no immediate or specific nature restoration initiatives currently in place, Hahn shared that a process has begun between local municipalities and a peat excavation company, along with the Danish Nature Agency.  With funding from the EU, the hope is to begin a coordinated effort to develop a plan for nature restoration in the area that would harmonize with local interests.  There is optimism that at the very least, the conditions in the remaining shred of the bog can be improved. 

However troubling and expensive the vandalism may be, and despite concerns about the appearances of a number of potentially problematic species, the delicate balance of the life within the preserve is constant. The efforts at Lille Vildmose remain enthusiastic. Vesterhaab Nielsen and her colleagues continue to shepherd school children and other guests through the visitors’ center and the increasingly pristine preserve.  In the meantime, the regenerating bog and lakes of Lille Vildmose beckon tourists and provide a respite for local bird, nature, and photography enthusiasts who independently document every mood and season of the preserve.  As the rewilding of Denmark continues, hope remains that a balance can be struck, recognizing a shared vision that meets the needs of municipal interests and economies, while ensuring a wild Denmark returns to flourish in local communities.

Melissa Lease headshotOne day, Melissa Lease hopes to live George Eliot’s homage to autumn, and “…fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”  Until then, she’s experiencing the best (and the worst!) the four seasons of the Northeastern U.S. has to offer,  with her partner and their “Boxfordshire” terrier (boxer and Staffordshire).  In the nearer future, she hopes to hike Iceland with a friend and explore the Azores and Cape Verde with her partner, a native of Denmark.  



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