A Tale of Two Forests – Comparing Forests and Conservation in Finland and Scotland

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By Chris Tilbury Assistant Warden, RSPB Abernethy.

In September 2019 a group of seven people from various Scottish conservation and forestry organisations travelled from Scotland to Finland, as part of the ARCH network programme. We spent a week with three forestry students who showed us around and told us about how forestry and conservation functions in Finland. We visited two national parks, as well as natural history museums and hunting clubs to learn something of the Finnish people’s relationship with the natural world.

At RSPB Abernethy one of our key management objectives is to regenerate the forest, doubling the area of wooded land over the next 200 years. The reserve contains the largest remaining remnant of the Caledonian Pine forest, of which only 1% remains from the days when it spread across the Highlands. Finland, at a relatively comparable latitude and with large areas of ancient pine forest, presents a good example of how forests can be managed and maintained for both conservation and commercial reasons. This report looks to compare the forest at Abernethy with forest in Finland, near the second city of Tampere, over a selection of comparison criteria.

Visitors

A major issue facing conservationists in Scotland is the conflict between wildlife and humans. Of course, we want people to be able to enjoy our natural places and to engage with nature in a way that promotes learning and respect however, the area of forest that we have left in Scotland is miniscule. At Abernethy, where we have species that are both critically endangered and incredibly susceptible to disturbance, we face a constant battle in trying to promote responsible access to our visitors. Too often, we come across dogs off leads roving through sensitive areas of the reserve and people off paths, or camping in remote woodland, often having cut down trees for firewood. Mountain bikers create their own trails through the woods, often using them at night, and litter is becoming an ever-worse issue. With such a small area of forest, it is inevitable that these activities cause a certain amount of disturbance.

In Finland it seems slightly different. The two national parks that we visited, Seitseminen and Helvetinjärvi, are both heavily wooded and home to many of the same species we find in Scottish forests, including capercaillie.

A red house

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On arrival at both, we found good parking areas with toilet facilities and excellent information boards with maps and clearly marked walking trails. It was obvious that these were places that people were encouraged to visit, to enjoy nature and to connect with wildlife. As we walked the trails, we encountered no litter and saw no human damage to the habitat. Our guides informed us that in Finnish culture there is an ingrained respect for nature and that (generally speaking of course) for a person to purposefully damage the environment would be rare. During our trek we passed a couple of designated camping sites, with a fire site and firewood provided.

A wooden bench sitting in the middle of a park

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This struck me as a really good idea as it gives the landowner a measure of control over where fires should be made – on Abernethy we find a lot of fire sites, often on peat or in sensitive areas. We try to stop all fires in the forest area during dry spells but perhaps a well-placed, designated fire site could provide a more effective compromise?

Finland, like Scotland, has open access (known as everyman rights) so people can, in theory, go wherever they choose. In Scotland, this is often cited as a problem for sensitive species or habitats due to disturbance. In Finland, because there are so many marked walking trails and clear camping areas, there doesn’t appear to be the same level of “off-path” hiking. Indeed, we saw no signs of visitors having made their own tracks away from the main trail, something that we encounter a lot at Abernethy.

A picture containing bench, wooden

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Hunting

One of our days was spent at a hunting club, south-west of Tampere. We met a member of the club, Tapio, who gave us a talk on how hunting works in Finland. It was really interesting to hear his thoughts and learn a bit more about the Finnish relationship with hunting. It is clear that hunting is a massive tradition and is an important part of Finland’s culture and history and that most landowners practice it. However, it is more than just a sport. In Scotland, where deer numbers are unnaturally high due to the absence of natural predators and the desire for good hunting stock, many estates employ stalkers to control the population. In forestry areas, Red and Roe deer are shot to protect young trees for timber production and on conservation-based estates, deer are controlled to allow forest regeneration to occur. There is, of course, also the trophy hunting industry, where paying guests can shoot deer. In Finland they have issues with the introduced White-tailed deer however, there are no stalkers or paid hunters. The number of people hunting for leisure, often on their own land, keeps the numbers down naturally. Every hunter is required to pay for a licence and must pass an exam. For those who want to hunt big game such as elk, wolf or bear (only a certain number of these species can be shot each year) there is a further shooting test. The government use the fees from the licences and from a tax hunting clubs must pay to compensate land-owners for any deer or predator damage. This deters illegal hunting. Interestingly, the government places no limit on the amount of birds or deer that hunting clubs can shoot but recently, many clubs set their own limit on capercaillie after concerns about a drop in the population.

Scotland’s hunting culture is largely based around trophies and the “sport” side. Grouse and pheasant shooting are carried out on burnt heather moor where unnaturally high numbers of both species are fed and medicated. There have also been many documented cases of raptor and other predator persecution on such estates. This type of hunting, alongside deer, undoubtedly contributes significantly to the economy but also takes a toll on Scotland’s natural areas. Tapio, our guide at the hunting club told us how this kind of shooting is frowned upon by hunters in Finland and is not considered part of the hunting culture due to its unnatural processes and the lack of required hunting prowess!

A house with trees in the background

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Forest Structure

Walking through the forests at the national parks, it was clear that they were somehow different to those in Scotland. Scots Pine was the dominant species (although there are native spruce in Finland), interspersed with some Birch and Rowan and the shrubs and wildflowers on the forest floor were mostly the same species in both. It took a while to realise but eventually it was clear – there were two main differences. First, in Abernethy Forest, the trees are largely of the same age, having started life as a plantation. The long, thin trunks are visible almost from floor to canopy because there are very few younger trees in between. In Finland this younger growth was much more evident. The forest seemed much fuller and richer because there were trees of different sizes, heights and ages jostling each other at all different heights. Second was the deadwood. Whether it was tall, standing snags or huge, fallen trees, large detached branches or scatterings of detached canopy branches, deadwood was everywhere. The forests here hadn’t been managed as plantation for many generations so the deadwood had never been removed, meaning there was a huge variety in the size and age. Studies have shown how important deadwood is to the ecology of many habitats. It becomes food for many species of fungi as well as many beetle larva, forming the base of many important food webs. At Abernethy we are actively trying to produce more deadwood by leaving felled trees and ring barking some standing trees but the amount of deadwood is still dramatically less than that in Finnish forests. I was interested to learn that the forests in Finnish National Parks aren’t managed at all – they are left to nature.

A tree in a forest

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Conclusions

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.

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