In Foreign Parts: A walk into the weird world of the lemming

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I spotted the first one at an altitude of about 900 metres. We had left civilisation – if the Norwegian tourist cottage with a latrine that defies the Geneva Convention qualifies as such – hours ago. And here it was, a strange animal with golden fur and black markings on its back, skittering along the path just ahead.

The creature looked like a common-or-garden chick and certainly ran like one, always slightly off-balance, a comical character straight out of a cartoon; an implausible cross between Tweety and the Road Runner.

Anne, my Norwegian wife, who exudes wisdom about her native wildlife and even claims to be able to distinguish between footprints of the local wolves and bears, said I was hallucinating. There were, of course, no chickens in these parts, but I was adamant that what I had seen was no grouse.

The argument resolved itself very soon. Another of the creatures turned up just a few strides ahead, still looking like a fat chick from behind, but very obviously a rodent in its facial appearance. We were entering the realm of the lemming, Anne declared, in the year of the lemming.

The last lemming year in Sylan, the gloomy mountain range that straddles the Swedish-Norwegian border, had been 1981, we were to be told at one of our stop-overs.

Our four-day hike, through the wilderness where a Swedish king tried to invade Norway in 1718 and lost his entire army, filled us with deep foreboding. We had budgeted for reindeer, storms, twisted ankles, inflamed joints and blisters, but for a plague of lemmings we were totally unprepared.

For years, they are invisible. Then, a happy constellation of mild winter, a dearth of predators and an abundance of food triggers a population explosion in the mountains. Now the bogs of Sylan are teeming with lemmings. In the autumn, they will be streaming down in search of dry land, armies of lemmings crossing rivers, roads and fields. Into the towns they will go, as though lured by a mute Pied Piper, invading schools and hospitals. No doubt some will even be spotted falling off cliffs, thus perpetuating the myth of the only member of the animal kingdom programmed to self-destruct.

They don't really commit suicide, professional lemmingologists insist, but from what I saw of their weird habits I am prepared to believe that lemmings thoroughly deserve their reputation for eccentricity. First, they did seem to be trying very hard to be squashed under our boots. In their colours, they stick out on the greenish-red moor like a sore thumb. Their camouflage is hopeless, their survival instincts pathetic. I do not see why, for instance, they should have been running towards us when they appeared to feel threatened. At other times, they merrily chased one another from one hole to the next, paying not the blindest bit of attention to us. They acted like hamsters on ecstasy.

They were obviously dying in droves. As we climbed higher towards the towering peaks of Sylan, we saw more and more dead ones, some strewn along the paths, others floating in streams. This was quite a mystery. We had observed those still alive swimming quite competently, though usually aimlessly, in circles. Perhaps they got tired and drowned. My son Thomas ventured that maybe they tied stones to their necks to hasten their passage to lemming heaven.

I remembered the computer game I used to play a few years ago. The object of the exercise was to get as many live lemmings out of a sticky situation as possible. These virtual lemmings, apart from the ones whose destiny was to blow themselves up for the sake of their comrades, were an intelligent, versatile race. They could climb, dig, wield a pick-axe and parachute. Sadly, the Norwegian variety we encountered was rather inferior.

Only one we came across acted in any reasonable manner, suddenly rearing up and hissing while baring its beaver-like front teeth when our daughter gave chase. Sarah screamed and ran away. Round one to Lemmus lemmus. Unfortunately for lemmings, diminutive humans find this kind of behaviour extremely entertaining, which only succeeds in goading people into endless lemming hunts.

Hunting is a favourite pastime of Norwegian children in lemming years. They chase the little animals in the belief that, if they harass them long enough, the lemmings will explode with rage. Biologists say this is just another old wives' tale, although it has been documented that lemmings in distress are prone to sudden heart attacks. For the benefit of animal lovers reading this, I wish to point out that on their four-day hunt, my children did not lose a single lemming this way. They captured just one, briefly imprisoning it in Sarah's hat, but it managed to escape.

Nevertheless, we must have done something terrible to them, because the lemmings did eventually exact their revenge on us. Anne had forgotten her childhood taboo that you do not drink water from mountain streams whenever it is a lemming year. Since so many lemmings contrive to drown, the water is poisoned. We drank, oblivious to the danger, and very soon our stomachs were churning over like tumble-dryers. We limped into the Swedish mountain hostel holding our bellies, happy to discover that conveniences were much more contemporary there than on the Norwegian side.

Back in Norway on the evening of day three, I declined dinner, and not just because raisin soup and Lapp stew – bits of indeterminate meat, potatoes and vegetables boiled together – was on the menu for the second time. The symptoms, thankfully, abated on day four, fortunate because ahead lay the longest walk of the entire trip, and at its end, the evil privy that we had fondly left behind.

We arrived too late for our third helping of Lapp stew, and drove straight off towards the only café in the area, about 100 kilometres away. Our greatly misunderstood furry friends will be following soon, leaping into the fjords in a heroic effort to keep the legend of their kamikaze species alive for another generation.