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“SJALDAN liggjandi ulfr laer um getr,” goes a passage in the Havamal, a medieval Norse poem: “The sleeping wolf seldom gets a ham.” The maxim, like the one about early birds and worms, is an exhortation against laziness, but it also conjures a vision of Norway as a land of untamed nature, where wolves chase boars through snow-bound forests. This may have been true in the 10th century, but today the country’s wild fauna are not doing as well. Wolves are rare, and the government is under pressure to cull them further. Another iconic species faces a different threat: chronic wasting disease (CWD), a sort of mad cow disease that can infect reindeer.
North American elk, deer and moose have been dying from CWD since the 1960s, but when the disease was discovered in Norway in March 2016 it was the first instance in Europe, and the first anywhere in wild reindeer. Like mad cow disease, it is caused when proteins known as prions take the wrong shape. The main commercial danger is to the indigenous Sami people, who herd domesticated reindeer. They keep their herds hundreds of kilometres from the wild ones, but scientists, who are unsure of the transmission mechanism, worry that the disease could make the jump. Norway’s agriculture ministry wants the wild reindeer culled to prevent that from happening.