Wolf folk animal of Estonia

Republic of Estonia celebrates its 100th independence anniversary (1918, 24th Feb) by proclaiming the wolf as its national animal.[1] That skilled predator was declared by Estonian Hunting Association and chosen by majority of local animal, wildlife conservation or just culture organisations such as Estonian Nature Society or Estonian Natural History Museum. Wolf is a natural part of our environment and leaves no one indifferent - Marju Kõivupuu[2] says, Estonian philologist and folklorist - The wolf is one of the most popular animals in our folk tales, there are over 500 names and stories written down about this animal. One of the most famous ones is the “Woman as Wolf”, early 19th century folktale, plotting about the transformation into a wolf (instead of a werewolf, like in case of the rest of Western Europe versions) and reflecting on the problem of women submission to the norms and values cultivated by patriarchal order.[3] In Estonian folk-astronomy there’s a certain - probably the oldest - astral mythology tale titled “Wolf alongside the Ox” (dimmer star Alcor near the bright star Mizar, Ursa Major constellation). The legend (published in 1898 by Jakob Hurt) states that a wolf attacked when Grandfather (the God) carried wood through the forest with his wain, so he harnessed it to pull the wain in pair with the attacked ox (opposite to the rest of Western Europe versions where a wolf is killing an ox, then is harnessed to the wain alone, instead of the killed animal).[4] Rooted in Slavic/Germanic lore and influenced by Baltic-Finnic heritage animal fables stay in the second group of Estonian manuscript archives, right after tales of magic.

Estonia astro fable Wolf alongside the Ox, illustration by Andres Kuperjanov, Estonian Literary Museum

Native bogs and forests are spontaneously called ‘wolf lands’. Ancient woodlands (pine, spruce, birch, aspen) which offered food and shelter to indigenous Estonians long before the agriculture was started, used to be a recurring motif in Estonian folklore. Whereas trees were (and still are) the source of livelihood, some of them became sacred - they were supposed to attract potential offerings for gnomes, fairies and other mythical creatures. The oldest sacred grove (established circa 2000 years ago) remains in Kassinurme Fort; the oak one - placed in Rakvere - once was dedicated to the ancient inhabitants and became natural monument among other sacred trees scattered all over the country.

Estonia forest Tarvasjõgi at Kõrvemaa Nature Park, Estonia /photo credit: Ireen Trummer/

Estonia is a former Soviet Union Republic (USSR) and current European Union member (since 2004). EU membership makes it, as a country, support consistent statement along with livestock protection/herd management (non-lethal prevention) and against the wolf population being regulated by hunters on their own.[5] However, it’s still allowed to hunt wolves from November (when offspring is able to avoid danger or escape) to February (when mating season is started) - wolf population was down from 500 in 90s. According to the new version of nature conservation law (updated in 2007) compensations for livestock damage caused by predators (paid by the state) took place of hunter interventions.
30% of forests is under protection (regulated by the Nature Conservation Act, since 2004) - 5 national parks (northern Lahemaa, southern Karula, western Vilsandi, Matsalu and transition zone Soomaa), almost 20 landscape parks and 40 nature parks.[6] An exemplary Soomaa National Park (since 1993) protects large areas of peat-bogs and a regular natural hydrological phenomenon called ‘Fifth Season’ - seasonal flood involving meadows, fields, forests, together with roads and houses (owned by prepared and accustomed residents).[7] The wild, mostly ancient forest covers almost 50% of the country’s area, being a home for prey-preator based ecosystems’ biodiversity and their chain-connected species - omnivore brown bear, dam building beaver, herbivore ungulates (elk/moose, deer, boar) and the carnivore Eurasian wolf, which menu are beavers/ungulates and predatory brown bear is able to compete. Soomaa wilderness biodiversity contains additionally hare, roe deer, lynx and mesopredatory fox. The flora counts approximately 200 multiple species.

Estonia fauna graph diagram source: YPEF

Estonia has been a wolf natural habitat for more than 10 000 years. Currently, the wolf population is stable, counting around 200 wolves, divided between 20-25 packs.[8] Population structure analysis demonstrated that wolf population shared between Estonia and Latvia is represented by four genetic groups. […] The range of spatial autocorrelation of 650−850 km suggests, that the genetic diversity of a given wolf population can be influenced by populations up to 850 km away. Various human-related factors are undoubtedly the main source of threats to wolf populations in Europe: the majority of populations face similar common threats such as overharvesting (including poaching), low public acceptance, conflicts due to livestock depredation, habitat destruction, barriers to gene flow and interactions with dogs leading to possible hybridization.[9]

[1] via European Wilderness Society May 12th, 2018
[2] Marju Kõivupuu publications list
[3] via Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics
[4] via Estonian Folklore archive
[5] via European Wilderness Society Dec 6th, 2017
[6] Portal estoński /Polish only/
[7] via Soomaa National Park guide
[8] report by nordish.info
[9] Grey wolf (Canis lupus) populations in Estonia and Europe: genetic diversity, population structure and hybridization between wolves and dogs (2016), University of Tartu repository, research by Hindrikson, Maris.