Majestic fjords, minimalist design and a bit of wildlife? Most people wouldn’t associate animal watching with Northern Europe, yet the region is home to a surprisingly diverse range of wild animals not found anywhere else on the planet. If you’re an animal lover (who isn’t?) you just might want to squeeze in some animal activities when in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland or Greenland. Below, our top 10 animals not to miss when in Scandinavia.
If Europe were to have a Big Five list, the polar bear is sure to check in at number one. Native to the Arctic Circle, these fury white marine mammals are the biggest bears and the largest land carnivores in the world. Inhabiting icy locales can’t be easy which is why polar bears have the thickest furs found in the bear species. Their fur even coats their feet which gives them warmth and traction on ice. Being carnivorous, polar bears feed primarily on the fat of seals, though on occasion they are known to prey on beluga whales and young walruses.
Where to spot them: Polar bears love ice and what country is icier than Greenland, which holds almost 2 million square kilometers of polar bear playground. Although numerous in number, these carnivorous beasts are not exactly lurking around for public consumption. Your best bet to glimpse your first polar bear would be at the hard-to-pronounce settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit. Go there in April or May, as that’s when the ice breaks up and the bears start searching for food. Alternatively, polar bear enthusiasts can head to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, where vast areas of barely populated icy terrains play natural habitat to a significant polar bear population.
Arctic foxes (also known as Polar fox, snow fox and white fox) are a close second on the list of iconic Arctic species, if not for their mesmerizing beauty, then definitely for their ability to survive the frigid Arctic temperatures which can dip as low as -50°C. These captivating creatures have beautiful fur coats which turn white in winter and blue-grey in the summer. This natural camouflage allows them to blend in with the environment and hunt for food, which tends to be lemmings, birds, fish and rodents. Being omnivores, your average Artic fox has no qualms about eating vegetables when available.
Where to spot them: Snow foxes can be found in Iceland, Greenland, Sweden and Norway but if you want to save yourself the effort, you’d do well to stop by the Saltfjellet-Svartisen National Park, Norway’s largest and most varied national parks. As well as being home to the Svartisen glacier, the place is home to a sizeable population of Arctic foxes. Further south, closer to the Swedish border lies Borgefjell National Park, yet another place to spot snow foxes. If you’re in Iceland, the Arctic Fox Centre in Sudavik Westfjords will give you the full Arctic fox experience.
Cute, white and furry, the stoat is a creature that ticks all the right boxes when it comes to Scandinavian animals we love. It is sometimes referred to as an ermine because of its pure white winter coat which was historically used to make robes for European royalty. These small mammals belong to the Mustelidae family and feed on voles, mice, hares and birds.
Where to spot them: Denmark, Sweden and Finland are home to the stoat where they are particularly fond of inhabiting forests.
Once on the brink of extinction, the Eurasian lynx is back in business as the third largest predator in Europe. Similar in looks to a domesticated cat (a huge one at that) the Tiger of the North is distinguished from the other cat family species by its short stubby tail and long tufts of hair sticking out like antennas at the tips of their ears. The lynx is a solitary animal that avoids humans and hunts at night, catching hare, wildfowl and even reindeers.
Where to spot them: Lynx are frequently found in many areas of Sweden, especially in the counties of Småland, Halland, Västergötland, Sörmland, Uppland and Östergötland. Neighbouring Finland has seen an increase in the lynx population since 1991 so you’re bound to get lucky over there. If you’d like to see them in a more contained setting, head over to Polar Park, home to a family of three lynx’s, a father, mother and a daughter born in 2009.
The wolf has long been at the centre of many religious beliefs, myths and folklore, brought on by their not-so-peaceful interactions with human beings. But tumultuous history aside, did you know wolves were also one of the first wild animals to be tamed by man? These cannibalistic animals are a little like the Usain Bolt of the animal world in that they can run up to speeds of 45 miles per hour to catch their prey, which includes deer, moose and elk. Unlike the lynx, the wolf is a social animal, usually traveling in packs of 10-15.
Where to spot them: This feared yet magnificent creature can be found in the Boreal forests of Scandinavia. After being gone for nearly 200 years, it’s been reported than wolves have officially returned to Denmark, with a wolf being spotted in northern Jutland, the first in the country since 1813. Spotted a wolf in Sweden? Chances are you’re in the Central Sweden as that’s where the largest number of wolves reside.
What do we know about reindeers beyond their association as Santa Claus’s faithful mode of transport? Well for starters, they’re a species of deer native to the regions of Scandinavia. These folks are social animals that live in large herds and feed on lichens, grasses, ferns and other shrubs. When winter comes, the fur on their bodies grows thicker and even covers their antlers.
Where to spot them: It is estimated that there are about 30,000 reindeer in Norway with the majority of them inhabiting the Svalbard archipelago. An overwhelming number of Norwegian reindeers are owned and domesticated by the indigenous Sámi people but the wild ones can be found in the central Norwegian national parks of Hardangervidda, Reinheimen, Femundsmarka and Rondane. Reindeer are a common sight in Finnish Lapland and in fact, it’s possible for you to go on a reindeer sleigh ride around the area.
Another animal belonging to the deer family is the moose. The tallest of all the deer species, moose are identified by their huge palmate antlers (which can spread 6 ft from end to end for males), long faces and muzzles that dangle over their chins. Their diet consists mostly of grass, shrubs and pinecones. Unlike reindeers however, moose are solitary animals who are rather sedentary and only provoked to action if angered or startled.
Where to spot them: Moose are commonly found all throughout Sweden though not always trotting around in plain sight. The largest moose can be found at Sarek National Park in Swedish Lapland. Norway has its fair share of moose, with most of them inhabiting the areas of Dalen and Lom (Oppland area).
Often called the clown of the sea, puffins are pelagic seabirds that feed primarily by diving in the water. Puffins are similar to penguins with their black backs and white underparts but it’s their brightly coloured bills that make them distinguishable, even from afar, nevermind their bright orange legs and red and black eye markings. While they spend a good amount of time at sea, these birds still feel the need to flap their wings and have the ability to reach speeds of 88 kilometres an hour.
Where to spot them: Iceland has two islands, Akurey and Lundey which have considerable puffin populations. In fact Akurey has the largest puffin colony in Europe. The island of Skrúður is home to the biggest cave on the East Coast of Iceland, which is home to a sizable puffin colony.
You don’t need to be an avid birder to appreciate the majestic beauty of the snowy owl, a large diurnal white Owl with a rounded head, catlike yellow eyes and black bill. First discovered in the northern parts of Europe, the regal snowy owl survives on lemmings. In fact, it is their food of choice, with most snowy owls consuming up to 1600 lemmings a year. Young snowy owls start with darker plumage which lightens as they get older. Females can be differentiated by the colour of their plumage which contains more flecks of grey.
Where to spot them: Consider yourself very lucky if you can spot these elusive birds, usually found in Sweden, Greenland and Iceland.
Rounding off the list is the harp seal, a species of earless seal native to the northernmost Atlantic Ocean and parts of the Arctic Ocean. These guys prefer to spend most of their time at sea, feeding on fish and crustaceans. When on land, heals get around by pulling themselves on their front flippers. During mating season, male harp seals dance to get the best mate.
Where to spot them: Norway, Greenland (near Jan Meyen Island) and Iceland.