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The Great Musk
By Toril Moan
The musk lived in Scandinavia and Northern Europe many thousand years ago, but most probably because of human hunting, became extinct. It became also extinct in Russia and Alaska and the animal was soon only found in Canada and on Greenland.
The musk was thought died out until a German expedition discovered live musks on Greenland in 1869. The animal was a popular prey for professional hunters, and was also sold to animal zoos for extreme prices.
The musk came again till Norway for the first time in the 1920s. A group of animals were put on an island by the coast, but this project was not successful since the musk can’t manage in a coast-climate. In 1930 the first group of musks came to Dovre Mountain, they quickly reproduced.
During the Second World War they temporarily became extinct again, probably because people hunted them illegally for food. Between 1947 and 1953 a group of musks were for a second time put on Dovre mountain: 23 animals altogether, and this herd has survived until today.
For a long time the herd simply maintained its number, or increased only slightly. All the time until 1990, the herd has varied between 30-60 animals, but after this they increased significantly, and there are now about 100 animals.
Dovre Mountain is an excellent habitat for the musk. The pasture is good, and the animals are in perfect condition. At Dovre the animals becomes sexually mature at 2 years old, instead of 2-4 as in arctic areas.
The musk is often described as something in between a sheep and an ox, and the Latin name Ovius actually means “sheep-ox”. The Eskimos however put at more appropriate name for the animal: Oomingmak, which means “the bearded one”.
The horns and the smell is the same as sheep, goat and ox. The fur is similar to that of wild sheep. Same as the cow, the musk has four lactating teats. The musk-wool furthest to the skin is accounted as the finest wool known when it comes to isolation.
In spite of similarities to both sheep, goat and ox, it is a common agreement that the musk is closer to the sheep and goat than the ox.
Mating period of the musk is in august and September. In this time the herds are lead by a dominant bull. Each herd consists of cows and some young animals. The bull mates with the cows of the herd when it is time. Other grown bulls are not tolerated near the herd during this period, but they often come to challenge the leading bull.
This is done by a known ritual, where the bulls try to appear as threatening as possible in front of the other. They make themselves taller and bigger then normally, walk on straight legs, and try to show the rival their sides. If one bull has already noticed that he is inferior to the other, the duel can be ended by his retreat. If this doesn’t happen, they enter into next phase: the animals back to each end with their head swinging from side to side. When they are about 30-40 meters apart they stop, lower their heads and gallop towards each other at high speed. Without hesitation or slowing down, they burst together, head to head. In silent weather, this burst can be heard from far distances. On some occasions these fights go wrong, and a bull gets lethal damages to the head. This “head-bursting” can go on for several rounds, until one bull retreat.
During the winter, the musk tries to use as little energy as possible. They graze on grass, and stays on one pasture for a long time. They try to move around as little as they can. When a snowstorm happens, it actually lets itself be covered, often a whole herd together, and takes advantage of the isolating abilities of the snow.
As protection strategy against predators and other dangers, the animals pull close to each other, form a ring with their heads outwards. If the predator comes to close, one of the large bulls will strike. Usually the main enemy of the musk is the wolf, but during the winter the wolf will not waste energy going after a whole herd of musks.
When the spring comes in the end of April, the musk seeks down towards the valley, where they can find areas without snow. And later in Mai the calves will be born. The calves from last year will stay with their mothers until the new one arrives, and some times the mother must be hard and brutal before the calf understand that it has to manage on its own from now.
Later in the spring and early summer the musks start to shed their wool, and large pieces are left in scrubs and bushes. Some birds actually use this wool for isolation in their nests. The summer is used to store fat for the winter, and the days are divided into grazing and resting periods. And after this the yearly cycle repeats itself again…
Weight of a musk bull: 300-400 kg
Weight of a musk cow: 100 kg less
Height of a bull: 145 cm
Height of a cow: 130 cm
Length of a bull: 230-250 cm
Length of a cow: 210-230 cm
Cows normally get calves every year, twin-birth can occur. They are pregnant for 8-9 months. The musk only grows at summer, and the horns of the calves are not visible the first summer at all. Next summer the horns stand straight out, bended slightly downwards. The third summer they are more bended down and forward. The fourth summer they get their characteristic look with fully-grown horns. After this there are no visible changes in the grown animals. The musk lives for about 20 years.
Many people think that the musk is dangerous, it is not afraid of humans as most wild animals, but they will not attack either. If a person comes too close, they will start their defence routine by pulling together. If the person do not move away, a so called “skin-attack” may occur, where one bull races towards the person, but stops some distance away. The general minimum distance that should be kept is 200 meters. Only two people are known to be killed by musks in Norway. It has also occurred that lonely young bulls has strayed into areas with houses, but none of these has ever attacked.