The very marvellous and wonderful EU has been funding an exchange programme for nature professionals in Scotland for over a decade and, this year, I have been fortunate enough to take part in a study visit to Finland. And here’s a blog of the experience …
Arriving back in Glasgow in the same overcast drizzle as we left Tampere, and with an autumn chill in the air, I reflect on the similarities between Finland and Scotland. Certainly the weather had been very Scottish over the week of our visit – some rain, some sun, and a constant need to pack an extra layer just in case. The forests we saw, too, felt very similar to the remnant of Caledonian pine woodlands, with Scots pine and an understory of the familiar species: cowberry, crowberry, blueberry, the same mosses, and having the same timeless, almost sacred, atmosphere. On the days we visited the old growth forest national parks we could have been wandering in parts of Abernethy Forest, RSPB’s second largest reserve and one of Scotland’s largest fragments of Caledonian forest.
But it is the scale that is different. Whereas Abernethy covers 14,000 hectares, only around 4000 hectares of that is forest. And the Caledonian forests of Strathspey and Deeside represent an absolutely tiny fraction of the forest that once covered Scotland, with only one per cent of the original forest surviving. In Finland, however, the forests go on for hundreds of miles. To get to Seitseminen National Park we drove over an hour without a break in the forest at all. Finland is Europe’s most heavily forested country with forest covering three-quarters of the land area.
Most of Finland’s forests are managed for timber, whether owned by companies, individuals or the state and, in contrast with commercial forestry in Scotland, seems far more suited to native flora and fauna. Rather than dense forests of Sitka spruce with an understory shaded completely out and the chemistry of the soil changed by the needles, as we have in Scotland, the mix of Finnish native trees Norway spruce (Finnish spruce to the Finns), Scots pine and birch allows a natural fauna and flaura in the forests with natural understory trees and shrubs, berries and prodigious quantities of mushrooms.
“We have around 500,000 capercaillie in Finland ” said Tapio Vähä-Jaakkola, our host at a local hunting club, as our jaws dropped. My colleagues Chris and Molly from RSPB work on capercaillie and the population in Scotland is in a pretty sorry state, having dropped to around 2000, from an estimated 20,000 in the 1970s. Capercaillie populations are healthy enough for Finns to hunt tens of thousands of them a year. “Most of the capercaillie hunting takes place in Northern Finland”, Tapio said later. In the 10,000 hectares of forest controlled by the Metsästysseura Haukka Ry hunting club, they hadn’t shot capercaillie for many years “Last year we calculated that there were enough capercaillie for us to hunt two.” Behind him on the wood panelled walls of the Lodge a stuffed capercaillie hung by one leg, perhaps one of these two unfortunates.
As we explored, we tried to see the differences from the point of view of a capercaillie. Apart from the scale of the woodlands, there was also a vast amount of blaeberry, capercaillie’s preferred food and almost no heather, which tends to outcompete blaeberry in the Scottish context. With only small patches of open ground and raised bogs where heather could grow it seemed that it couldn’t make headway in the forest, unlike in Scotland’s natural and semi-natural Caledonian pine woods where moorland generally surrounds the much smaller woodlands. RSPBs research has also shown that capercaillie chicks are vulnerable to chilling if there is a wet June when they are moving through vegetation, especially if disturbed, and Finland has a much dryer climate. The heavy declines of capercaillie in the 1970s and 80s in Scotland are attributed to the rise of the deer fence and, apart the motorways, which were flanked with deer fencing, we didn’t see deer fences, even where farmland abutted right next to forest.
Everywhere we went, we met people who worked in forests or had deep connections to the forest. Of course our hosts, the three students Wille, Jussi and Kati, were studying forestry at the University of Tampere, but most of the people we had a chance to make conversation with also had their own forests.
We had the privilege of visiting the small patch of forest that Wille’s father, Juhani Soininen, owned to talk about hunting the white-tailed deer (and to taste a particularly succulent slow roasted haunch). This species is native to North American and is a relatively recent invader, five individuals having been brought to Tampere by Finnish hunters in the 1930s. Since then they have multiplied into a population of over 100,000. Kati, another of our student hosts had spent the summer working in her family forest of 100 hectares close to where she grew up.
One of the most interesting conversations about forestry we had was with the owner of the house we were staying in. Tapio Rautaneva, his eye glinting, revealed that his father was one of the men who had brought the very first five white-tailed deer to Tampere, “He’s got a lot of answer for”, he said. He had also worked with UPM as a senior landscape architect tasked with making the forestry more biodiverse, while also keeping the commercial side healthy. He recommended felling in small units of 1-2 hectares and letting natural regeneration happen which turned out cheaper that clear felling large areas and also is far better for wildlife. He told us of felling done in the 1960s where thousands and thousands of hectares of forest in Lapland was clear felled. “There still isn’t any forest there even today” he said.
When Tapio left the forest industry twenty years ago, frustrated at not being able to persuade the other forest companies to also do more for biodiversity in the forests, he took 100 trees from his own forest and built the very house that we were renting for the week, milling all wood on site to make everything, from beams and structural wood, to cladding and panelling. “I didn’t build the stair case though,” he said as we admired the handiwork, “that was done by a friend who is an expert in that”.
Everywhere we went and whoever we spoke to, we found people with an intimate connection with their forests. Our guide at Helvetinjärvi National Park, Reine Kallio, explained how the forest holds a special place for Finns, and that they come to the forest alone to think and to spend time. When he was fifteen he had headed off into the forest for two weeks alone. We met a group of hunters going out together into the forest to practice for a championship for pointing dogs, with three beautiful blue Picardy spaniels and two Hungarian vizlas. They are out in the woods every weekend and some evenings, and it seems to be a very sociable experience. As we left the hunting lodge to head away we saw a family with two small children arrive and head off into the forest: the children wearing bright coloured waterproofs and clutching baskets for collecting mushrooms and berries.
Our time at the hunting lodge demonstrated another commonality between Scotland and Finland, which is the need to control the numbers of herbivores. Despite Finland still having wolves, and lynx, species that were lost to Scotland in the seventeenth century, and over a thousand years ago respectively, these species are heavily controlled to avoid conflicts with people. “Wolves kill many hunting dogs” said Tapio, which people don’t like. We later learned that hunters in Finland use dachshunds (their legs being so short that they can never run fast enough to catch the deer) to find and herd the deer towards hunters, they will be out in the forest alone and the barking attracts the wolves that will sometimes kill them. “At present we have 300 wolves in Finland and if we were to naturally control the numbers of moose without hunting we would need 10,000” explained Tapio, “and wolves are kept out of the reindeer herding and farming regions of Finland entirely.”
The combination of commercial forestry, the use of naturally regenerating forest when it is felled in small sections, and the low levels of predators, means that there needs to be a large number of white- tailed deer and moose shot each year. Traffic accidents are an issue too with 5200 traffic accidents related to white-tailed deer in 2017. Unlike Scotland, however, there are no full time paid stalkers in the country. This role is fulfilled entirely by individuals, like Wille’s father attracting deer to a clearing on his land using apples and oats, and shooting them from a hide, and by the hunting clubs. For example, the club we visited that has 10,000 hectares of forest to shoot in, had 150 active members and a target of 1000 white tailed deer for the year.
The membership of the club seemed healthy, but Tapio told us that there were more middle aged and older hunters now, with fewer young people getting involved. He speculated that there will be a need for full-time paid hunters in the future if the trend continues.
Finland has a very interesting history, some of which we gleaned through visits to the Museum in Tampere and the Serlachius museums in Mänttä. They are proudly independent, having gained their independence in 1917 after more than a hundred years of being part of Russia and previous to that being part of Sweden.
Our guide at the Gösta Serlachius Museum of Art, was very interested in comparisons of Scotland with Finland and asked what we thought about Scottish independence (a question we dodged in the interests of group harmony). He told us a little of the story of Finnish independence through the art at the museum. “Finnish artists painted independence at a time when it would not have been permitted to write about it” he explained showing us a picture called ‘Finnish Soldiers in the War of 1808 – 1809’ by Albert Edelfelt, which depicts two young soldiers marching. He explained that the picture was interpreted as speaking about an independent Finland.
Another painting that could have been painted in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, was also depicting Finnish independence, he said. The light was returning to the land as the clouds cleared to the right of the frame. “The Finnish artists painted Finland and wrote music as if she were already independent and this contributed to the formation of Finland as a nation” he said. We all vowed to listen to Finlandia in the minibus on the way back to the accommodation.
The last exhibition we saw, by American artist Matthew Day, was also the perfect note on which to end my time in Finland. This study visit has marked the my week of working for RSPB on a role leading on all aspects of connecting people with nature: education, media, visitor experience, fundraising. As I look towards the start of a new role working on climate change, the visit has allowed me space to think; to untangle the threads of my mind from the work of the last seven years and to allow me to get into the right place for starting afresh in an area of work that will be new to me.
Matthew Day’s exhibition was challenging and themed around a post-apocalyptic world where humans have made the world uninhabitable. It was almost entirely unrelentingly grim, however the last piece, as you turn to leave, shows a colourful and beautiful scene.
In relation to climate change, holding on to a hope that we can change the future that is marked out as CO2 levels rise, is vitally important, and this is what I took away from the exhibition.
Lastly, on a different note entirely, one very concrete learning point I am taking home is about the wonderfulness of Finnish sauna culture. Scotland, being a country of wet cold weather, long dark winters and lots of beautiful lochs, seems set up for saunas. And it seems almost unbelievable that Scots themselves would not have independently stumbled upon the concept. We were fortunate enough to have been introduced to Finnish sauna culture by our hosts, and were able to take full advantage of staying in accommodation right on lake Toutonen with a sauna in the garden (as well as one in the house).
The camaraderie of a sauna, combined with the wellbeing of getting unbearably hot and then plunging into freezing cold lake water surrounded by trees and rocks and stars, is almost beyond description. I believe that sauna is something that Scotland should embrace and I have decided to pioneer the movement by building a portable sauna in a horsebox, to tour some of Scotland’s most picturesque (and freezing) lochs. Watch out Loch Garten, Loch Lomond and Loch Awe, we are on our way …..
We were staying here: www.lomamokille.fi