At home I put out a range of seeds and fat balls to encourage the birds. We have bowls of hedgehog snacks and water. My husband’s office even keep their leftovers from meetings for our ‘fox box’ and any bones are kept to be taken to the bottom of the garden. I have snake and slow worm slates and tin. I have built stone walls for reptiles and woodpiles for bugs. All of this is to encourage the wildlife to visit our garden. My camera trap and my own sightings confirm that this works, we are always excited to see the foxes, rabbits, the occasional deer and badger, even our rat is a welcome sight.
So here I am in the wilds of Finland’s Taiga region feeling a little unsure about the local bear lodges using dog food to encourage bears to a hide in the forest. It is hard to be objective when there are at times twelve European brown bears within view from my small photographic hide and I found myself completely overwhelmed by the experience.
In the dappled late evening light of the Taiga forests, I watched groups of cubs play fighting with each other, rolling and tumbling while their mothers tucked into the handfuls of dried dog food that has been spread around the clearing. This has been going on for the past twenty years and the mothers are accustomed to this so, unusually, you can see more than one mother and cubs together.
At times, the cubs from different families were seen playing together. There was the occasional slapping of lips, which is an early warning sign bears use to warn others of them being uncomfortable with a situation, but generally, all was calm. At one point one of the slightly older cubs cuffed a lone female for coming too close and she soon moved on when mum came over. There was only one point where two teenage bears came to blows standing on their hind legs, tussling for a few blows before one decided it had had enough and slunk off. There was definitely a pecking order and the single younger bears tended to show up when the mothers and cubs were not around. Bears are not the only visitors with wolves and wolverine along with golden and white-tailed eagles also regularly seen.
I am a firm believer that conservation goes hand in hand with ethical tourism. The feeding only happens from May to mid-August in this region and the first lodge started these activities over twenty years ago. It certainly helps protect the local population of bears which are concentrated in the no man’s land area between the Finnish and Russian borders. Protecting the bears is great for the local economy but I am also aware that there is a hunting season looming, starting at the end of August and running into October and trophy hunting is something I find abhorrent. The lodges of the wild taiga region are doing all they can to encourage the shooting by camera as the best option. I am still not sure what side of this very fine line I am sitting.
If you would like to experience bear viewing yourself then there are a number of good lodges in the wild taiga area.
Most trips depart from the main lodge base camp at around 16:00 and drive out into the wilderness with a short walk to the hide. For those who simply want a taster then there are evening hides where you stay until around 23:00 and are pretty much guaranteed to see bears. In the summer months with very long hours of daylight, you will still be able to see clearly at this hour.
Those wanting to stay overnight can do so either in the larger hides for up to sixteen guests. These have long windows and camera slots for viewing with a row of chairs. A composting toilet is located in a separate room and for when you get tired there are bunk beds. This is a reasonably comfortable way to experience the night and in the morning you will return to the main lodge around 08:00 for a shower, breakfast and then a good sleep in the rooms here.
Finally, for the most committed ‘photographers’ hides are simple wooden constructions about two and a half meters by one and a half meters, with a bed, chair, camp toilet and six small windows along with five camera hatches. I was lucky enough to be on my own as it would have been cramped for two, you would certainly want to know the other person quite well.
Each lodge has its own range of hides and generally they are offered in woodland, swamp or with a lake view and most keen photographers will stay for at least three nights to experience all areas or combine a few different lodges to get different experiences.