I went to Finland with an idea to compare the forests there with those in Scotland and, more specifically, with that found at Abernethy. It became apparent, however, that such a comparison was unrealistic. The context of the forests, geographically, culturally and historically, are totally different. Finland is roughly 5 times the size of Scotland and is 75% forested. The population is approximately the same in both countries. This has meant that huge areas of Finnish forest are never, or incredibly rarely, disturbed by human activity. Historically, effectively all of Scotland’s forests have been managed as commercial plantations, especially following the Second World War. This meant a huge reduction in the size of the forest and large areas of forest consisting of uniform trees the same age and size. Finland has greater areas of old growth, natural forest which has never been managed by humans. Culturally, the natural world appears to garner much more respect in Finland than in Scotland with visitors much less likely to actively damage the forest or wilfully disturb wildlife. Regular fire sites and camping huts mean that visitors have designated places to eat, sleep and light fires. Much of the way the Finnish people treat and manage their forests provide a glimpse of how Abernethy could be however it felt to me that we are simply a couple of generations behind.
An openness of this kind to new ideas could be key to the sustainable development of Transylvannia and many other places like it. Outsiders could come to live in these remote regions, enticed by the free land and materials, and make a commitment to work the land – undertaking to do the hard graft, and to learn from the community, before these skills are lost. There is huge interest from people in the UK and beyond, who recognise this need to get back to the land, who would undertake this – within a system they can trust, and that works for everyone. If the new road leads to developments in infrastructure which eventually allow faster internet, then a whole new raft of possibilities open up to people working part time on the internet for some income, but remaining committed to small scale farming practice – knowing its value from having seen the results of over development in their various countries of origin.
What beguiled me on this trip was that it was evident from every Finnish person I spoke too that they had a deep respect for nature. This included the hunters. Even the predators were an important part of their mythology. For instance, people used to collect the first droppings that a bear produced after hibernation and kept them in a pouch to wear so that they would have the strength of a bear all year. Another indication of this respect was the almost total lack of litter found in natural places which can be a real problem in Scotland. Our student guides just didn’t understand why you would leave rubbish behind. Solo walks in the forest were common and important to people of all ages. My impression was that the Finnish culture still maintained a real connection with nature whilst some urbanisation in Scotland may have severed this connection.
“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.”
Estonian runic singing began to decline as European influences took prevalence. When I heard this I was reminded of a passage in a book called ‘Soil and Soul’ by Alastair McIntosh, when he described a ‘loss of cultural self-confidence’ that occurred in Gaelic culture with the advent of television and radio. The singing that used to accompany activities such as weaving, rowing and ploughing gradually fell silent.
This trip has inspired me to finally bite the bullet and sign up to Gaelic classes (a part of my own heritage that was not passed down by my great-grandparents). On the Sandwood estate where I work we are also developing a plan to gather unrecorded Gaelic place names from older members of the community, to see what more they can tell us about the area’s people, history and ecology before they are lost forever. This trip has inspired me to believe this is a project well worth undertaking.