Making money with raptors in Norway

December 15, 2011

Right at dawn, the first eagle lands outside. A magnificent adult Golden eagle! 15 metres away. Through my telephoto lens I can see straight into the amber-coloured, piercing eyes of the eagle. The eagle gaze is not easily forgotten. I have seen golden eagles thousands of times, but almost always only at rather long distance, through powerful  binoculars or telescopes. They are wonderful to see every time, but seeing them up close is a completely new dimension.

Only once before have I seen Golden eagles really close, and that was, just like now, in Norway. And just like now, sitting in a hide prepared by someone for this specific purpose: to see and photograph eagles at close quarters. The snow is falling outside, we are right above the timberline in the mountains, the Fjells, in pretty wild country, but only 1 hour from the Trondheim airport, and that included waiting for the luggage at the baggage belt, car transport to Stig Arves farmstead, riding the snowmobile up the old timber road, leaving our luggage in the little mountain cabin from 1908 and walking the 300 metres to the photo blind.

This is a kind of business venture that is completely new to the Norwegian countryside. Never before have eagles been so valuable to local farmers and land owners, not even during the times not that long ago when there was a bounty paid for their execution. But times are a-changing. The tide is turning towards new values in the countryside. Also here in Norway, the by far richest country in Europe, if not the world,  the countryside is being depopulated, and in some places also abandoned. Just like in the rest of Europe. And not only Europe.  Many are leaving the countryside for the towns and cities, not only for money, but for another life. And among those who choose to stay, because they love the countryside life, many now look for new ways to earn their living. Suddenly unexpected things become valuable. Like eagles.

The eagles here are very regularly landing outside the hide, on a daily basis, if there is some food put out to them, like the dead fox that lies there now. And here are other attractions as well, cherished by nature friends from across Europe: Siberian jays come in small parties off and on during the day, up right in front of the comfortable, warm hide, to eat some fat put our for them. A grey woodpecker does as well. At one point he sits 10 centimetres from the window and I look at it at point blank range. I have seldom been so close to a wild bird, let alone a rare woodpecker.

When the short winter day is over, darkness falls and we retreat to the old, beautiful mountain hut, built in 1908 built by local bird hunters of their time. They went here to drink cognac, smoke cigars and shoot ptarmigan, willow grouse and hazel hens. And of course to proudly kill eagles, falcons and owls, in order to keep the backcountry ”clean and peaceful”. Now the hut is again used by people who have come here to shoot raptors, but this time shooting with cameras instead, making the raptors more ”recyclable” – and much more valuable! Today this attraction has a market price of about 200 Euros per day per person. So far it is a side income for Stig Arve and for Svein Wik who run it together, but soon it might have developed into a full job or two. They have only just started. And when the wolverines that already visit here regularly, start coming more often, the site will be even more valuable. And then also the bears already live pretty close by… I have a strong feeling I will be back here soon, and that this old mountain hut will soon be frequently visited by people from all over Europe.

The goshawk hide

A few days earlier, I also spent a couple of days in a goshawk hide, organised by another ex-farmer, the veteran pioneer of wildlife watching tourism in Nord-Trøndelag: Ole Martin Dahle, ”The Eagle Man”. He began his venture into the wildlife watching business by showing people the local Sea eagles, at sea during summer, from his boat. Then that branched out into Golden eagle- and Sea eagle watching from hides in winter. And then to squirrels, crested tits, and a host of small birds from forest hides, and black grouse and capercaillie leks and gulls… And here we are now in his first goshawk hide. Only ten metres away sits a beautiful young goshawk, eating a grouse we put there for him. The yellow hawk eyes look straight into mine, through the camera lens. I see him, but he doesn’t see me.

Again, I have seen goshawks possibly a thousand times, but never before this close, and never before for five hours in a sequence. It is an extremely beautiful experience, a pure joy of nature and something with a market value of around 200 Euros too, per person, per day. Much more than the bounty once paid by the government if you showed up a dead goshawk. Ole Martin is since years back a full-time professional wildlife watching entrepreneur. He is now thinking of how to also make use of some of the other natural resources around his home – elk, roe deer, otter, fox, ptarmigan, lady slippers orchids, divers. He already made the local gulls very famous and well photographed. They follow his boat in great swarms. The gull and eagle boat trips cost c 300 Euro per person per day. When were ever gulls that valuable before? Ole Martin’s place is frequented by visitors from soon every country in Europe, and many of the World’s best wildlife photographers.

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