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The Arctic fox

The Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus Linnaeus, 1758) was extensively hunted for its winter fur. You can find more information about the species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and on the websites of the Norwegian Polar Institute and MOSJ (Environmental Monitoring in Svalbad and Jan Mayen).

On our page, we provide you with a glimpse into the historical archives. What do the documents of old tell us about the Arctic foxes around Svalbard?

Arctic fox. Photo by Kay Reimer Jul 2018

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23. November 1596

Den 23. November wast goet tamelijck weer, met een z.o. windt, ende alsoo de gheleghentheyt sich begaf dat de Vossen meer als voor heen haer vertoonden, soo namen wy de gheleghentheyt waer, ende maeckten eenighe sprenghen van dicke plancken, daer wy stehen op leyden, ende bestakent rondtom met eijnde van sparren inde grondt, datse daer niet onder deur mochten graven, ende vinghen alsoo altemet sommighe Vossen.

De Veer, G. (1598). Waerachtighe beschryvinghe van drie seylagien, ter werelt noyt soo vreemt ghehoort. (V. Roeper & D. Wildeman, Eds.) (Facsimile 1997). Franeker: Van Wijnen.

The 23rd of November was good and fair weather, with a south-easterly wind, and it happened that the Foxes showed up more than before, so we took the opportunity, and made some traps of thick planks, on which we put stones, and covered them all around with sticks in the ground, so that they could not dig under them, and so caught some Foxes.

Although this took place on Nowaja Semlja already, it showed that the Dutch used a manner of fox trapping that is in use in Svalbard to this day, albeit without the use of sticks around the so-called dead-fall or figure-4 trap. In his account, Gerrit de Veer (1598) even includes an illustration of this.



Likewise there is a very high Mountaine on the east South-east point of this Iland: which, because Master Welden and I got two Foxes neere it, I called it Mount maleperdus, alluding to the name in the merrie booke of Reinold the Fox.

Jonas Poole. Diuers voyages to Cherie Iland. In: S. Purchase (1625) Purchase his pilgrims. The third part. p. 559

Jonas Poole already reported seeing Arctic foxes on Bear Island (Bjørnøya, the southern most island of the Svalbard archipelago) in 1604. This quote proves that by 1605, there were human-fox interactions and records the first foxes consequently losing their lives. In addition, the naming of Mount Maleperdus is an example of historical place-name evidence that is all the more important in place where certain species have since disappeared.



Der Beren Fußstapffen sahen wir an den Uferen des Eises / weil sie ihre Nahrung im Wasser von dem Aaß der Walfische suchen / zur Gesellschafft spatzieret Reinhart mit / seine Nahrung fält hier schlechter von den Vögeln als bey Spitzbergen / weil die hier eintzeln fliegen.

Martens, F. (1675). Spitzbergische oder Groenlandische Reise Beschreibung gethan im Jahr 1671. Hamburg: Gottfried Schultßen. P. 31

We saw the bears‘ footsteps on the edge of the ice, trying to find their food in the water and off the carrion of the whales. Reynard walks in their company. He has more difficulty to get his food here than on Spitzbergen because the birds fly less frequently.

It is a fascinating observation. Whalers became more ship-bound over time and their sights of Arctic foxes became fewer, but it is still the case that the animals follow polar bears out onto the sea ice in winter in order to feed off the bears’ leftover prey. However, Arctic foxes cannot swim and have to be back on land before the melt sets in. Or else drown.

Sie bläffen / daß es von ferne lautet als ob ein Mensche lachet / daher die Fabel entstanden / als wenn der Satan des Orts die Walfisch Fänger außlachte / welche des Reinhartd Stimme nicht kennen.

Martens, F. (1675). Spitzbergische oder Groenlandische Reise Beschreibung gethan im Jahr 1671. Hamburg: Gottfried Schultßen. P. 72

They bark so that from a distance it sounds like someone is laughing. This is how the fable came about that the satan of the place laughs at the whalers who don’t know Reynard’s voice.

We cannot resist a little folklore and superstition.