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May 6

The Great Scandinavian Musk Ox War

For decades, Sweden and Norway have been arguing over musk oxen citizenship.

Two musk oxen in Norway's Dovre mountains.

Two musk oxen in Norway’s Dovre mountains. (Photo: Norway University of Science and Technology/CC BY 2.0)

Last month, a lonely musk ox named Brutus wandered far from his herd in Sweden and stole the country’s heart. Brutus was hoping to find a mate, but his roaming took him so far afield that there were no females within miles. Local and national news organizations covered his plight. Myskoxe.se, a Swedish website dedicated to musk oxen, is keeping detailed track of his journey, posting brief updates and paparazzi-style photos. “Brutus is out hiking,” they wrote on September 12. “What he has in mind—it is not known.”

Sweden loves Brutus because he’s big, shaggy, and lovelorn, with the limpid eyes and curved horns of a classic Hollywood bad boy. But they also love him because he’s living proof that, 45 years ago, the country got one over on one of their neighbors. Brutus is the descendant of a group of oxen that defected from Norway in 1971, defying all convention and providing Sweden with some measure of closure after decades of musk-ox related strife. 

The story of the Great Scandinavian Musk Ox Rivalry begins about 11,000 years ago. Up until that point, musk oxen ranged throughout the Northern Hemisphere, munching on grass and lichen and standing around looking stately in the snow. But as the Ice Age slowly ended, thaws and hungry humans drove them out of much of their habitat. By the 1900s, the world’s only musk ox herds were in Northern Canada and Greenland.

A small herd of musk oxen in their homeland, Northeast Greenland.

A small herd of musk oxen in their homeland, Northeast Greenland. (Photo: Hannes Grobe/CC BY-SA 2.5)

Also in Greenland were a number of Norwegian hunters, taking advantage of their country’s claim on the eastern half of the land mass. These hunters killed enough musk oxen that Denmark, which had claimed the western half, got angry with them, saying they were on track to drive the animals to extinction. Hoping to save face, in the 1920s, a polar researcher named Adolf Hoel made a suggestion: why not bring some musk oxen to Norway, a place which, given its climate and general superiority, they might like even better than Greenland? “These measures to translocate muskoxen will partially disarm [this] criticism,” Hoel wrote. “We will show with it that we don’t only slaughter, but that we too support cross-border idealistic cultural work.”

Hoel’s case was bolstered by a couple of fossilized musk ox vertebrae that had been uncovered during the digging of the national railroad. “In the minds of people in the 1920s and ’30s, there was this idea that the musk ox was a Norwegian animal,” says Dolly Jørgensen, an environmental historian at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden. “Because Norway claimed East Greenland, and there were musk ox in East Greenland, that means the musk ox are Norwegian.” Hoel, then the head of what would become the Norwegian Polar Institute, began fundraising, writing to shipping companies, chocolate factories, and the Crown Prince. Over the course of a couple of decades, he and his successors managed to bring dozens of musk ox calves into Norway, letting them loose in Svalbard, and in the Dovre mountains, near the border with Sweden.

For years, the musk oxen wandered around Norway, munching and multiplying and frightening the occasional hiker. Then came the winter of 1952. Maybe the herds were hungry, or maybe they were just bored. For whatever reason, a small group crossed the frozen swamps on the Norway-Sweden border and ended up in Kiruna, where they were spotted by some Swedes.

A musk ox distribution map. Red represents the species' natural range, while blue denotes introduced populations. Note the broad swath of red in Greenland, and the small blue dots in Sweden and Norway.

A musk ox distribution map. Red represents the species’ natural range, while blue denotes introduced populations. Note the broad swath of red in Greenland, and the small blue dots in Sweden and Norway. (Photo: WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 3.0) 
Norway tried to be understanding, but they were crushed. The wandering “must be condemned as disloyal,” wrote John Giæver, a researcher with the Polar Institute, even if “it is in principle totally natural.” His interlocutor, from Denmark, razzed him a bit, replying that “it isn’t unreasonable that the musk oxen are dissatisfied with the situation in old Norway, when you consider that they are condemned to live in seclusion.” But Giæver stood firm: the crossing was “a sorry end to this experiment,” he wrote.

Sweden, meanwhile, was overjoyed. The country had their own history with musk oxen—in 1899, a geologist named Alfred Gabriel Nathorst had imported dozens of them, hoping to establish a domestic population and leave the country flush with meat and musk ox wool, which is hypoallergenic, waterproof, and very soft. That experiment had been a failure on all counts—the kidnapped calves didn’t take well to farm life, and were constantly raging in their pens, butting their owners and succumbing to various livestock diseases. By 1904, they were all dead.

Now, 50 years later, the musk oxen were coming over of their own accord—and from Norway, the country that had asserted such a strong claim on them in the first place. It was a sweet, musky victory. Within five days of the oxens’ crossing over, the Swedish government declared them officially and legally protected. They even rubbed it in a bit, writing to the Polar Institute that “the musk oxen’s appearance in Lapland is very pleasing, and [we] will do everything in our power to promote the Scandinavian musk ox population’s growth.”

Lapland, Sweden, nary a musk ox to be seen.

Lapland, Sweden, nary a musk ox to be seen. (Photo: SteenJepsen/CC0)

But even this wasn’t enough for the fickle beasts. By the spring of 1953, the herd had crossed back into Norway. Now it was Sweden’s turn to pine. “Having the musk oxen, for even such a short time, whet the appetite of Swedes for the animal,” writes Jørgensen. They asked Norway if they could buy some calves from them, but Norway refused. It hardly mattered: by the late 1950s, that whole herd was dead, too.

Determined to stick to their plan, Norway kept importing calves, building up new musk ox herds throughout the mountains. And driven by who knows what plan of their own, some of these musk oxen once again defected. In 1971, a five-strong herd decided they had had enough of Norway, and wanted to see what the grazing was like over in Härjedalen, a small mountain town in Sweden.

Once again, the oxen spent the winter accidentally crossing a boundary they were totally unaware of. And once again, Sweden freaked out. “Such a tourist attraction is something one could not even have dreamed,” one local paper enthused. Another published an editorial cartoon in which a muskoxen shouts “Ah! Cloudberries!” while excitedly prancing across the border. A mere two days after the herd was sighted, a Swedish hotel called Hamrafjället began advertising day tours to the nearby mountains, which they had already rebranded as Muskoxen Land. “There were lots of people trying to see them, these five animals,” says Jørgensen. “It really didn’t work very well, because it was difficult to figure out where they were.”

Also once again, Norway wasn’t having any of this. Norwegian patrons of the hotel were peeved, insisting “It is [Norway] which is ‘Muskoxen Land.’” The country’s press was also skeptical, referring to the oxen as “emigrants,” and asserting that they were “visiting the border.” “What you kind of get is this language about, ‘Well, yes, they may stay in Sweden,” says Jørgensen. “‘But if they don’t like it there—which may very well happen—they can find their way back to [Norway] in the summer.’ The overall message is like ‘Huh, that’s kind of weird. They don’t really belong there.’”

A musk ox goofs around at the Swedish captive breeding facility.

A musk ox goofs around at the Swedish captive breeding facility. (Photo: Dolly Jørgensen)

Unconcerned with patriotism, the little group of musk oxen carved out happy lives in Sweden. At one point, the refugee herd numbered a respectable 30, and the environmental ministry considered separating it into two herds, to properly spread the newcomer around the country. In 1984, Sweden put a musk ox on a postage stamp, as part of a mountain-themed collector’s set. “In 1971, the musk ox came back [to Sweden],” explained the accompanying press release. “The occasion can be seen as a return to the fold.”

The musk oxen of Sweden and the musk oxen of Norway have almost everything in common—but because they are citizens of different nations, they lead different lives. “This animal, who has no nationality one way or another, is instantly given one by the people around them,” says Jørgensen. These days, if you’re a Norwegian musk ox, you’re a beloved tourist attraction, the centerpiece of the country’s many “musk ox safaris.” You’re also protected, so long as you stay within a certain boundary. (If you go outside of it, you’re shot, and served as an appetizer at a state-owned hotel.) In other words, you’re a wild animal, part of a national heritage that, although constructed, now seems totally natural.

If you’re a Swedish musk ox, things are a little different. Maybe you live in the captive breeding facility, which boasts a gift shop full of wool clothing, and a viewing platform to accommodate the many curious human visitors. Or maybe you’re one of the wild ones—in which case, even though there are only 11 of you, you aren’t listed as endangered. As Jørgensen says, “the musk ox doesn’t count as Swedish under the rules.”

Or maybe you’re Brutus, and you just want to find love. That guy was last spotted in Sonfjället, which means he’s inching further and further west. Maybe he has headed back to Norway.

Naturecultures is a weekly column that explores the changing relationships between humanity and wilder things. Have something you want covered (or uncovered)? Send tips to [email protected].