In Search of Arctic Foxes
Posted on 12th March 2023 at 13:14
The most exciting aspect of a research project for me, and I’m sure for many others, is the fieldwork, and I wish to share with you my insights and experience from carrying out fieldwork to study arctic foxes (Fjällraven in Swedish).
I moved to Sweden in 2018 and with that I was able to do my Master’s thesis in the summers of 2019 and 2020 in the Swedish Mountains studying, in part, arctic foxes. My professor and I drove up to a town called Ammarnäs in Västerbotten, Sweden, we checked into the field centre at the bottom of the mountain range and prepared ourselves for the work ahead. I was going up the mountains alone where I was to spend 6 – 8 days at a time on the tundra. I would then come back to the field station for a night to restock on food and equipment before going back up. Between the two summers I did this for 13 weeks – an epic amount of time to spend alone in such a vast and changeable environment!
When we first arrived, the town of Ammarnäs was getting ready for their summer party; flowers blooming everywhere, Potato hill had been planted and started sprouting, there were boats and people fishing in the river, a normal busy summer day in a mountain town. But when I climbed the mountain, a 6-hour walk with all 30kgs of my gear, to my camp at around 1000 meters above sea level, it changed… In 2020 I was wading through 3 foot of snow in 25°c weather – a bizarre combination of cold and too hot! Of course this was all hard work, heavy backpacks, steep climbs, and difficult terrain, but if it had been easy I might have valued less the view when I hit the top and first looked over the ridge down on to the vast tundra valley that was my home for the coming weeks.
Within the valley I would walk approximately 30km a day as my experiment was spread over a series of lakes and wetlands and the foxes were further apart still. When investigating a fox den, I would approach, as best I could, with the wind in my face for the foxes sense of smell is fantastic and even at a distance of a few kilometres they would detect me and hide. I would aim to stop 2km from a den and spend the next 2 – 6 hours counting cubs, successful hunting trips by the parents, and any other predators in the area – one time I saw a wolverine!!! I would then slowly approach closer and from 500m away start a disturbance behaviour protocol for a fellow researcher who wanted to see how different arctic foxes reacted to humans approaching the den.
Lemmings are the primary prey of every predator on the tundra, and this little trouble maker came into my tent and stole one of my biscuits! Good thing they are cute! © Andrew Barrett
Those hours sat in all weathers just watching these beautiful, enigmatic animals play and hunt and do what they need to survive are some of the most meditative and relaxing hours I have enjoyed in any work I have done. To watch something beautiful simply exist, no sense of time beyond the light and less light periods of the arctic midnight sun, no clocks on the wall of the den to say it’s dinner time but the constant activity of trying to feed 3-8 cubs… it makes you slow down. From this I understood something that has been said to me by many people, in many ways over many years, from my scouting time as a child to my field work and surveying as a university student:
Slow down to nature's pace.
If we approach nature as humans, from our busy, sociable, lives we will miss what we are looking for. If we are out of sync we cannot see what nature has to show us.
If anyone wants to talk about this project you can find me on Facebook and Instagram @whitewolfwildlife and on LinkedIn as Andrew Barrett. Happy to connect and may the coming field seasons bring you peace and success!
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