Birdshooting of a Different Kind by Kotie Heroldt

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Birdshooting of a Different Kind by Kotie Heroldt: Hunting the western capercaillie in the Arctic Taiga

The western capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) inhabits the Taiga forests below the polar region in Europe and parts of Asia. It is a truly ancient species and a relic of the last ice age thousands of years ago. These birds are highly specialized herbivores that eat a variety of buds, leaves, berries (mainly bilberry of the Vaccinium genus), insects and grasses on the forest floor in summer, and in the winter mostly con- ifer needles and buds in the trees. The hens are ground-breeders and the chicks are sensitive to the weather. Cold and prolonged rainy weather in summer leads to high mortality among chicks. Males can weigh between 3 and 6kg and are twice the size of females (average 1.8kg) which makes capercaillie one of the world’s most gender-dimorphic bird species in terms of size.

Capercaillie mostly avoid young forests, their preferred habitat being old trees with horizontal branches for roosting. Adult males are territorial and may occupy ranges of 50 to 60 hectares, but during heavy snowfalls and storms, the ranges may expand to hundreds of hectares per bird. For many years, hunting a capercaillie was a dream for me; then my friend, Jorma Vainikainen, invited me to hunt it in his country, Finland. The hunting season for capercaillie runs from mid-September until the end of October – the start of the northern winter.

On 14 October I flew to Helsinki, then on to Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle some 800km to the north. Jorma was at the airport to meet me and fellow hunter, Dave Evans of Canada. We drove northeast to our remote camp Sotajoki in the Savukoski municipal district some 174km to the northeast.

Savukoski is Finland’s most sparsely settled district. Forestry is the region’s main economy and ­reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) farming is an important means of livelihood for the local Laps. The hunting area is 300 000ha in extent, comprising Taiga forest, marshlands and rivers. Taiga is the world’s largest land biome and forms 29% of the world’s forest cover, encircling the globe below the polar region. The temperature can vary between 10˚C during the brief ­summer and minus 50˚C in winter. Snow covers the area for about seven months of the year.

We began hunting about at 09h00 in an old forest along a slight outcrop. Antii Korhonen, one of our guides, took the lead and released his little Finnish Spitz. This dog’s origins can be traced back 8 000 years; it is a true Finnish bark-pointer breed. The walking was tough – you sink into the soft ground with almost every step. Every now and then we encountered open marshy areas in the forest, making water-­resistant boots and clothing essential. I was struck by the complete silence in  the Taiga forest. Not a bird could be heard or seen – by October they have mostly migrated south.

Read the full article in the March 2018 issue of Magnum.

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