Features

Christmas Day Special

Click here to see photos of the trip to Lapland

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The Mooney Goes Wild show has a soft spot for Nordic countries. "We have visited Iceland on no less than five occasions and several programmes have featured the Scottish highlands, the nearest thing to an Arctic habitat in our part of the world". Says Producer/presenter Derek Mooney. "It never ceases to amaze me how plants and animals can live in such places and how they adapt to suit their surroundings. When it comes to survival of the fittest the wildlife of the Arctic is the ultimate test"

On Christmas Day Mooney Goes Wild teams up with UK tour operator Discover the World ( www.discovertheworld.co.uk ) for a special edition of the show to be broadcast on Christmas Day.Derek and the team of Zoologist Dr Richard Collins and Biologist Terry Flanagan travel to Jukkasjarvi, in Swedish Lapland, 150 kilometres inside the Arctic circle, for an encounter with some of the world's most resilient and remarkable creatures.

Jukkasjarvi is just 11km from Swedens most northernly town, Kiruna. Kiruna was originally an Arctic outpost. In 1890, an extraordinarily rich vein of iron ore was discovered there. Mining companies built a railway and the modern town, with its population of 26,000, developed. Over 200 million tonnes of ore are mined there annually, but nowadays the town is best known for its earth and space research institutes; up to twenty space rockets are launched from Kiruna each year. Scientist monitor changes in the Earth' s magnetic field, seismic activity and cosmic rays coming from space.

The place is so far north that, from the 9th December to the 5th of January, the sun never rises above the horizon. During the faint daylight of the eternal night, Lapland is bathed in a beautiful, snowy-white, twilight. The Aurora Borealis can be spectacular on clear nights.

Kiruna is the seat of the Swedish Sami Parliament. The Sami, speak a language, which is related to that of their cousins the Hungarians, but totally unlike any of the other tongues of Europe. They are, traditionally, a nomadic people whose economy, even their lives, depend on Reindeer. About a third of Lapland is set aside for Reindeer herding. There are about 300,000 Reindeers in the Swedish part of Lapland.

Lynx Reindeer occasionally eat the magic mushroom, the Fly Agaric, which contains LSD and Lapp herders are reputed to drink Reindeer urine to get high. The resulting high-jinks, by both man and beast, are supposed to be the basis of the Santa flying sleigh legend.

Intoxicants are hardly to be recommended for the northern hemisphere's most travelled land mammal. Siberian Reindeers can move 1,000 kilometres on their annual migration, occasionally covering up to 150 kilometres in a day. We had Reindeer in Ireland just after the ice age. When the ice melted, around 13,000 years ago, grasslands covered much of the country and Ireland probably resembled present-day Lapland, a perfect habitat for Reindeer.

Drunkenness is a Nordic failing. Even Elks have been known to get drunk. Fallen fruit can ferment under the snow; Elks eat the fruit and get maith-go-leór. The Elk is the world's largest deer. Specimens can weigh up to 850 kilograms, although the biggest ones are found in America.

Being big has its problems; you must eat a lot to keep a huge body going. Elk can't waste time ferreting out juicy tit-bits and have to make do with whatever food is readily available. They consume huge amounts of birch shoots, which are low in nutrients and take days to digest. To get a top-up of essential elements, an Elk must dine out occasionally. Water plants are the usual choice for a celebratory meal and Elk are excellent swimmers, but the ideal food is fruit.

If there were an equivalent of the Miss World contest for deer, Elk would be eliminated long before the bikini stage. This is an ungainly looking beast, with a big angular body held aloft on long spindly legs. They have enormous horse-like heads with short palmate antlers. A beard grows from a bump on the neck. The bump is actually a heat exchanger; heat is extracted from the warm air coming from the lungs and used to heat up the cold air going in.

The Americans refer to the Elk as a 'Moose', which is a pity, as it leads to confusion. In America, 'Elk' refers to a different species, one which the native people call the Wapiti. Most experts consider the Wapiti to be the same species as our Red Deer.

But Lapland is the home of many other iconic animals. The Arctic Fox is smaller than his Irish cousin, with a magnificent coat of thick white fur in winter. Foxes live in pairs, or small groups consisting of an adult male, several vixens and their cubs. Arctic Foxes don't hibernate. They survive by scavenging and digging up food, which they have buried during the Autumn.

The wolf is a most maligned animal, but wolves have never been known to attack people, without provocation. The threat which they pose to livestock has been grossly exaggerated. They mainly eat small or medium-sized animals.

The Wolverine is one of Lapland's most elusive predators. Despite the name, it is not a relative of the Wolf, but of Weasels and Badgers. This giant version of our Stoat, weighing up to 30kg, looks rather like a small bear, with a large bushy tail. (Bears have very short tails). It is trapped for its fur in the past and is deemed to be a pest. It can be killed under licence in Finland, but, in Sweden, Wolverines have full legal protection.

Two species of cat live in Lapland. The Wildcat is a relative of the domestic cat, which is descended from its North African cousins. The Lynx is an elegant, short-tailed feline with pointed tufts to its ears.

But Lapland also has a host of, equally distinguished, smaller creatures. The most famous of these is the Arctic Lemming. Bigger than a mouse but much smaller than a rat, it looks like a tiny Guinea-pig. Lemmings are said to indulge in mass suicides. Their populations are cyclical; numbers increase spectacularly in two-year or four year cycles. When their population expands, they migrate en mass. Being good swimmers they enter water readily. Lemming jumping into rivers on their migrations have given rise to the suicide myth.

About Discover the World
UK tour operator Discover the World offers a range of unique and unusual specialist holidays through seven very different worldwide travel programmes. Its in-depth specialist knowledge of all the countries to which it operates, together with a close working relationship with local and international conservation groups, underlines its responsible attitude towards tourism. The group incorporates Arctic Experience, Absolute Sweden, Wildlife Encounters, Discover New Zealand, Discover the Bahamas, Pole to Pole and Discover the Living Planet. From the tropics to the poles, the diverse selection of holidays it offers never fails to impress.

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