Molly Doubleday, RSPB
I always feel lucky in having such an incredible job and when I found out I was being funded to go to Finland for a week I was obviously thrilled. I got this opportunity through Erasmus Arch network (more info here https://archnetwork.org/about/). The theme of the trip was forestry and I was keen to learn about how capercaillie fit into this industry and Finland’s culture in general. Finland has approximately 300,000 capercaillie or ‘metso’ which is the Finnish name. That is far more than our 1000ish birds! I will explore and compare factors that could explain this difference in this series of blogs.
A capercaillie’s home
Capercaillie live in pine forests as they eat pine needles through the autumn/winter. They also require a good understory of ground cover (i.e. blaeberry) and ideally some boggy areas to provide food for the spring/summer. Capercaillie prefer large areas of forest that are linked (as opposed to fragmented pockets) as they are do not usually disperse large distances. A key difference between these two countries is that Finland has approximately 75% forest cover compared to only 13% in Scotland. Forestry is a key industry in Finland and the extent of trees is remarkable which is surely a reason that this country can support such high numbers of capercaillie.
Another key note is that Finland has apex predators (e.g. wolves, lynx and bears) which prey in the deer. Deer management is required by humans in Scotland as otherwise overgrazing would prevent any forest expansion and result in little ground flora. This can be very resource intensive and difficult to get the right balance between preventing overgrazing and also not reducing numbers so low that little grazing means heather grows to become ‘rank’ (very high) which will outcompete blaeberry. I observed far less rank heather during our forest trips in Finland which suggests that deer numbers are at an optimum level – at least in the areas I visited!
Forestry methods used in Finland have intensified over the last few decades. This means that clear-felling is often used which means large areas of forest are cut down during a short time frame. This is opposed to maintaining continuous tree cover through thinning trees or felling small areas that are spread out. This means that large areas of habitat are reduced quickly and forest can become fragmented. This is even more of an issue when considering lek sites where these birds gather to mate. Capercaillie tend to return to the same lek area each year if conditions remain suitable and in Scotland these sites have a good degree of protection e.g. all that habitat cannot be removed. However, this is not always the case in Finland where lek sites have been abandoned due to clear-felling.
However, capercaillie do have more protection in the context of National Parks in Finland. We visited two of these parks which have been designed since 1982. These parks differ to those in Scotland as people do not live and work in them like they do here so they are purely focused on protecting the wildlife whilst allowing some managed recreation. These parks are extensive so provide some safe areas for capercaillie as these forests are protected. There is also increasing awareness of the importance of lek sites so these have begun to get more protection.
So, although Finland has significantly more habitat, these birds face their own challenges. In fact, capercaillie are declining in Finland with some populations reducing by 80% with unsuitable forestry work being one of the major threats. This trip just reinforced that wildlife conservation is never simple…
The predator question
Finland is home to apex predators (e.g. wolves, bears, lynx) which helps suppress deer numbers to a more natural level which minimises the habitat damage that deer can have e.g. overgrazing of key capercaillie food species. These apex predators should also suppress mesopredators (i.e. those ‘mid-ranking’ animals such as foxes) through competition and direct predation in some cases. A significant threat to Scottish capercaillie is predation by these generalist mesopredators. Their numbers can be very high as there are no top predators to control them. In some areas, predators are controlled by humans in the attempt to protect capercaillie e.g. culling of foxes and crows. However, the situation gets more complicated in Scotland when some of these predators themselves are also protected e.g. pine martins and badgers. This has led some researchers to question the role of predator control at all as other species may just benefit e.g. taking out foxes may increase pine martin numbers. It’s all a complicated mess that has once again resulted from humans meddling.
The situation isn’t quite as simple as I predicted in Finland. I thought the predators would all sort themselves out so be at a natural sustainable level. However, predation is still an issue in some capercaillie areas. This is partly due to the encroachment of predators from other countries such as golden jackals and racoon dogs. At least Scotland has less of an issue with this due to its island status. Another consideration is that these apex predators in Finland are not evenly spread across the country as habitat suitability varies and humans can suppress populations through hunting and persecution. This is especially the case with wolves which have an uneasy relationship with residents as they are perceived as a threat to livestock so are often driven to restricted areas and remain in relatively low numbers. There is currently no predator control issued purely for the protection of capercaillie. Although predation is unlikely to have the same level of impact in Finland, it will be important to monitor predator numbers and distribution as this may start to drive a serious decline in some capercaillie populations.
The hunting paradox
It was rather a shock to me walking into a hunter’s lodge and seeing a stuffed capercaillie hanging from the wall. This was joined by stuffed wolves, lynx and a bear skin. I am not naïve to the concept of killing animals. In fact, it is something I sometimes have to actively recommend in my job, especially concerning reducing deer numbers to give capercaillie the chance to breed. It isn’t my favourite part of the job, especially considering the fact that I’m vegan. However, it is something I have come to terms with as I see it as human’s responsibility to clear up the mess we have made of our ecosystem. It is sadly vital if we want to save capercaillie from extinction in Scotland.
So, culling for conservation purposes isn’t unusual. Hunting for sport is a different idea that I haven’t really been exposed to. It was an uncomfortable morning for me sipping tea with oat milk next to a stuffed wolf but important as hunting is a huge part of the Finnish culture. We were given a presentation from a local hunter who said that approx. 80% of Finnish people were supportive of hunting. He neglected to say where he got that statistic from and what the other 20% thought but it was still driven home that hunting is a giant industry.
Capercaillie have no legal protection in Finland and are a popular game species. They are often viewed in this context which was a feeling I got from many Finnish people, not just the hunters. There are some limitations to this hunting as it can only be done outside the breeding season and is now prohibited in some areas where there have been severe declines. The hunter we spoke to viewed this hunting as sustainable and capercaillie numbers to be stable. However, chats with our wildlife guides revealed that they thought hunting was a real pressure on these birds. Either way, populations are declining and hunting should be considered as a contributing factor.
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. You are always in or near a forest in Finland. Perhaps the hunting itself intensifies this respect due to the time spent in the wild. An interesting paradox.
All in all, I learnt a huge amount from this trip. I expected to learn about the natural world but didn’t expect to come away with a real understanding of how people live in this country. So like Scotland yet significant difference that made this experience so thrilling. We had the best student hosts whilst we were there and I have no doubt that we will be friends for many years to come. Hopefully we can show them to our little Scottish world soon.