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Musk ox close up

musk ox

The mighty

There are just a handful of wild musk oxen in Sweden. Penny Bunting finds out more about this magnificent mammal

The musk ox was once quite widespread in Scandinavia. Around 30,000 years ago, during the last ice age, they would have been a relatively common sight – wandering across the northern regions of Norway and Sweden alongside wooly rhinoceros and mammoths.

Although musk oxen are still widespread in Greenland, Alaska and parts of Canada, catching sight of one of these stunning animals in Europe is something of a challenge these days – largely due to a history of over-hunting by people. With only around 250 individual musk oxen present in the Dovrefjell region of Norway – and a mere handful in Sweden – it's unlikely you'll come face-to-face with one while out for a hike.

They are truly Arctic animals, well-adapted to their extreme environment with a superbly insulated, long, thick coat of dark brown hair and woolly undercoat. In fact, they have the warmest wool in the world – it's much warmer than sheep's wool and can grow up to 70cm.

If you do come face-to-face with a musk ox, be very careful. This is an immense, powerful creature. And although they are normally shy, and will only charge if they feel threatened, if they do decide to charge they can be very dangerous.

So if you want to see a musk ox, it's recommended that you take a tour with a specialist. Not only will your guide know the best places to see these magnificent mammals, but they will ensure that you can observe them at a safe distance that will keep you out of danger and also avoid causing undue stress to the animals.

Close-up view

To get a really close-up view of a musk ox – in a safe and secure environment – we headed for the village of Tännäs in the Härjedalen region of Sweden.

Welcome to Tannas sign

A short drive from here is the Musk Ox Centre – or Myskoxcentrum – home to a small family group of musk oxen that lives in a huge, natural enclosure.

The centre's breeding facility was opened in June 2010. Alongside breeding and research, the centre aims to spread knowledge and understanding of the musk ox and its situation in Scandinavia.

Our guide, Hielke Chauldron, has worked at the Musk Ox Centre for eight years and has an extensive knowledge about these fascinating creatures.

We started our tour by climbing up a tall wooden viewing tower. This looks west across a vast, unspoilt landscape that stretches all the way to the Norwegian border. It's within this mountainous area that Sweden's tiny population of wild musk oxen live, Hielke told us.

These animals are descendants of five individuals from Dovrefjell in Norway, who wandered across the border in 1971.

To begin with, this little group of animals thrived – and by the 1980s there were 30 musk oxen living in Sweden. But then their numbers declined, and now there are only around 11 remaining on the Swedish side of the border.

One cause for this decline is people. Eager to see the spectacular creatures in the wild, tourists took snowmobiles and helicopters to get as close to them as possible. Musk oxen can't run fast – they are cumbersome and heavy and have short legs – so they can't escape easily from real or perceived threat. The resulting stress causes the animals to lose weight from the fat reserves that are essential for winter survival. And if they do become frightened and run away, a pregnant cow may lose her calf.

Musk ox
Danger musk ox sign

From the viewing tower we headed into the 15-hectare musk ox enclosure, through a series of secure gates that keep the animals – and visitors – safe. We climbed up a ramp onto a large platform that gave us great views across the musk oxen's home – a natural habitat of trees, fells and rocky outcrops, much like the landscape they would inhabit in the wild.

There were no musk oxen in sight. Hielke poured feed into the troughs below the viewing platform, shaking the bucket as he did so to attract their attention.

Look harder!

We waited, standing in anticipation, and scanning the trees to the rocky horizon. But no musk ox appeared. Hielke shook the bucket again, calling out to the animals. But there was still no sign of them.

Musk ox approaching through trees

So while we waited, Hielke told us more about these magnificent creatures. Musk oxen usually live in groups of 20-30 individuals, and can live for 16-18 years. In summer they move into the lush river valleys, where they feed on grass, lichens and mosses – they spend 24 hours a day eating to build up those vital fat reserves that will keep them going through the winter.

Then Hielke looked around the enclosure once more.

“Can anyone see a musk ox?” he asked.

We scanned the landscape again, but could see nothing.

“You need to look harder!” said Hielke.

We heard him before we saw him, a low, mumbling growl drifting through the trees. Then we saw the dark bulk of the eight-year old male – a 400kg mass of long, straggling fur lumbering slowly towards us. His head was crowned with distinctive, curved horns and dwarfed by his immense, powerful shoulders.

Musk ox at viewing platform

The female followed a short distance behind him, her three-month-old male calf at her side.

The three animals came close up to the viewing platform to feed – they were just a few metres away from us. We had an amazing view of them – the sort of experience that we could never have had in the wild.

After 20 minutes or so, the family wandered slowly off – retreating into the trees and out of sight.

It had been a privilege to see three musk oxen at such close quarters – and we left hoping that the work of the Musk Ox Centre and others will help to ensure a long-term, secure future for this remarkable species in Scandinavia's wild places.

A visit to the Musk Ox Centre can be booked through the excellent Funäsfjällen Tourist Office at Rörosvägen 30 in the centre of the town of Funäsdalen near Tännäs. Housed on the ground floor of the Härjedalens Fjällmuseum, the tourist office is packed with information and the friendly staff can help plan your activities when staying in the region.

Where to stay

The wonderful Tännäskröket Ski Resort in Funäsfjällen is close to the Musk Ox Centre and is a great place to base yourself for a summer visit to this beautiful region of Sweden. A range of stylish – and great value – self-catering cabins and apartments are available; there's a restaurant on-site and good hiking opportunities right from the doorstep.

Green Adventures May 2017