The cute creature Sweden wants to wipe out

Raccoon dog in SwedenImage copyright

They look cute and cuddly and are sometimes kept as pets – but raccoon dogs are a menace, threatening wildlife across Europe. Sweden is so worried about their impact that it has trained a team to hunt and kill the animals, with the unwitting help of creatures made to betray their mates.

It’s mid-April and on the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland, the ice covering the sea is still a metre thick.

It’s where Ludde Noren and Viktor Medstrom, two professional hunters from the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management have switched off their snowmobiles and are using GPS tracking equipment to try to detect signals of an unwelcome visitor.

The animal they are looking for is a raccoon dog, a fox-like creature native to East Asia that has a similar face to a raccoon but is a member of the canine family.

The beeps coming from the tracking equipment are weak, so it’s back on the snowmobiles to roar across the vast expanse of the frozen sea towards a small island.

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Ludde Noren (left) and Per-Arne Ahlen hunting raccoon dogs

Per-Arne Ahlen who leads Sweden’s project to eradicate raccoon dogs, is with them too. He says the animals were first released in the European parts of the former Soviet Union by biologists as a source of fur.

“Economic success 80 years ago, today an ecological disaster,” he says.

An ecological disaster, he explains, because raccoon dogs feed on amphibians and ground-nesting birds in wetland areas.

“Amphibian species can go extinct in areas with a high raccoon dog population,” Ahlen says.

Along with the Arctic fox, they reproduce more quickly than any other canine species. A million are born every year in Finland, and there are thousands more in Germany. They have been sighted as far west as France and the Netherlands, Ahlen says.

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Sweden’s plan to eradicate raccoon dogs began a decade ago, when they were first spotted in the far north of the country – now the animals are hunted to reduce the threat to biodiversity.

Some of the work is done from an office in Lulea, a city 900km (560 miles) north of the capital Stockholm. The staff there receive thousands of sightings from members of the public every year, which are then followed up by field staff.

There are also cameras on the main routes between Sweden and Finland which can detect raccoon dogs as they arrive in the country.

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And from their computers they are able to track the so-called “Judas animals”.

These are raccoon dogs that have been caught, sterilised, tagged and released.

Raccoon dogs stay with a partner for life and as soon as the Judas dogs are released, they go in search of a new partner.

When one stops moving, the office dispatches one of the six full-time field workers to see if it has found a new partner.

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