Last year, instead of enjoying my first summer in Stockholm I packed my backpack and left the civilization to spend three weeks in the Vindelfjällen mountains in the northern Sweden. I was working as a volunteer for the Arctic Fox Project.
The Arctic Fox Project is a conservation project led by scientists at the Stockholm University. During the 20th century, the population of arctic foxes declined significantly and at present there are between 130 and 200 foxes, which is not sufficient for a long-term survival of the population. Each summer, researchers take a bunch of volunteers to check fox dens and count how many foxes there are and how many had offspring.
Before packing my backpack, I actually had to buy it. I’ve never spent so much time outdoors and the only pieces of equipment I had were boots, a jacket and a borrowed sleeping bag. But writing about buying camping gear is not the topic of this post. The most difficult was to pack gear for all weather conditions from -5 to 25°C, food for 10 days and other equipment, and then be able to carry it around.
I was working with a Swedish girl Henrietta. We started our adventure in a small village Ammarnäs, hiking from a reindeer slaughter-house towards the first den and our first camping site. The first few kilometers were definitely the hardest of all. We were only getting familiar with the load of our backpacks and mosquitos that became our closest “friends” for the next three weeks. I was surprised how fast we reached the treeline and for the rest of the time we were hiking in alpine tundra.
On arriving at the first den in the late afternoon, we were welcomed by an arctic fox. Arctic foxes are more curious than red foxes because they don’t have so much contact with humans and don’t fear them. We picked a campsite at about 200m from the den, so that we don’t disturb the fox. For the next two days, we were observing the den, waiting for the fox to appear. The first evening we also discovered an amazing thing – the den was not inhabited just by one fox, but there were several cubs too! Spotting an arctic fox cub was one of the most wonderful things I remember. It is just so incredibly cute!
Arctic foxes are mainly active in early morning and late afternoon/evening, and they relax inside the den during the day. While they were inside, we went for shorter hikes to visit nearby dens. During these short visits, we observed a den for 30 minutes and if no fox appeared, we approached the den and checked for signs of recent activity like trampled grass or fresh scat.
When I was packing for the trip, I loaded my ebook reader with lots of books so that I have something to do during the days. It turned out to be a completely unnecessary as we were so busy that I hardly managed to read a few page when I finally lay in my sleeping back.
Except for observing foxes, we were responsible for checking rodents and birds living in the area. At each campsite, we put up 60 rodent traps and checked them every 12 hours, but after all those days we caught only a single lemming. The reason why it’s important to track lemming numbers is that they are the primary food source for arctic foxes. A decline in the lemming population means a decline in the arctic fox population.
Monitoring of birds is performed by line transects – walking in straights lines while one person is looking at the sky and commenting on all birds that fly in the sight and the other person is making notes and looking at the ground to find lemming nests or animal scat.
During those ten days in the field, we found two dens with adult foxes and cubs. Later we returned to one of the inhabited dens. It was time for the best part of the whole field work – trapping and tagging. We went there with Bodil, an experienced researcher, and Erika, an elderly freelance journalist. Our task was to catch all the five cubs and give them colorful tags.
We used a very strange combination of treats to make the cubs go into the folding traps – whipped cream spray and bacon. Once a cub walked inside and started to eat, the trap closed and we made behavioral observations. The next step was weighing, measuring, determination of sex and tagging. We gave each cub a special combination of tags into its ears so that later other scientists can recognize them.
It was probably a bit painful and stressful for the foxes, but when we caught the same cub for the third time, we concluded that it must thought that the cream and bacon were worth it and apparently we were not hurting them too much.
Have you ever done any kind of a volunteer work? Or longer camping in the mountains? Share your experience!