By Eeva-Liisa Hallanaro, M.Sc., Environmental Expert
Published July 2011
Finland is by nature such a complex and diverse country that it is not easy to describe in a single word – except perhaps “contrast”.
The most obvious contrast is between the annual seasons. The same lake where people come to swim and sail in summer forms a perfect skating rink or skiing arena in the winter. Warm, light summer nights gradually lengthen, until the snow settles and the late dawn merges colourfully into the early sunset during the midwinter season known to Finns as kaamos.
The country’s population is concentrated in the south, especially around the Helsinki region, which is home to about a million people. At the other end of the country lie the vast unpopulated forests and fells of arctic Lapland.
But the scenery also changes on a smaller scale. Water is never far away. Dense forests always await somehwhere nearby. And there is also sure to be open bog or farmland within easy reach. All of these landscapes are part of Finland’s varied natural scene.
Finland is so far north that it lies on the same latitudes as Alaska or Central Siberia. About a quarter of the country is north of the Arctic Circle.
Considering this location, you might think that the country consists of cold arctic landscapes roamed by polar bears. But the truth is fortunately quite different. The ocean current known as the North Atlantic Drift brings so much warmth to Finland that average temperatures in the south are around +5°C, and even up north they are only a couple of degrees below zero.
The winters are nevertheless so cold that every single lake freezes over during the coldest months. The coastal waters of the Baltic Sea also typically freeze over, and snow covers the ground for several months.
But on summer days, temperatures can rise up to 25 or even 30°C. The growing season for plants is still comparatively short, however, averaging just 3–4 months.
Over the ages, nature has adapted to Finland’s pronounced seasonal swings. Most of the country’s plants and animals lie dormant through the winter months, and three-quarters of bird species are migratory.
On the world map Finland also lies between east and west, and the climate combines continental influences from the east, and maritime influences from the Atlantic to the west.
This factor is also evident in Finland’s flora and fauna. Finland is home to species associated with the taiga of continental Eurasia, such as Ural owls and Labrador tea, as well as maritime species including many waders and water birds.
During the last ice age Finland was completely covered by a thick continental ice sheet. This slowly moving mass of ice wore down the rocks and cliffs, and carved out lake basins. Meltwater rivers inside the ice deposited long ridges of sand and gravel which now stand above the surrounding landscape as eskers – the longest of which extend for tens of kilometres.
Eskers are not very high, seldom rising more than a hundred metres. Finland’s landscapes generally do not feature massive elements such as high mountains, steep sea cliffs or wide rivers. The scenery tends to be gentler, featuring subtle variety on a smaller scale.
The relief becomes higher heading eastwards and northwards. The greatest differences in altitude are in Lapland, where many fell-tops rise above the tree line.
Soils are generally thin, with an average depth to the bedrock of just seven metres, because of glacial erosion. The archaic mainly granitic bedrock is visible in many places as rounded and smoothed down rocky outcrops.
Because of the poor soils and the short growing season conditions for farming are not very favourable. By European standards the country is sparsely settled, with an average population density just a tenth of levels in Germany, Britain or Italy.
Finland is Europe’s most forested country. About 70% of the land is covered with trees. Most forests are coniferous, as the country lies at the western edge of the coniferous taiga forest zone that stretched off eastwards through Russia and Siberia.
Forests are still natural in the sense that hardly any non-native trees have been planted. The dominant trees are Scots pine, Norway spruce and birches, though forests are also dotted with aspens, alders and rowans.
Even though they feature few tree species, forest habitats can very greatly. Over a small area spruce thickets may alternate with sunlit pinewoods, marshy hollows and open bedrock.
Many forests are so damp and their soils are so peaty that they can be described as mires. Different kinds of mires cover about a third of Finland. About a sixth of this area consists of treeless bogs. About half of Finland’s mires have at some time been drained to improve timber production.
Four kinds of grouse can be found in Finland’s forests and bogs: capercaillie (pictured), black grouse, hazel grouse and willow grouse. A fifth grouse – the ptarmigan – lives on Lapland’s open fells.
Forests and bogs are mainly owned by local farming families, who manage their forests and harvest timber according to fairly strict rules governing forestry practices. Finland does not have monotonous regimented forest plantations of a single tree species. Many foreign visitors mistakenly assume that Finland’s forests are completely natural, but the reality is that they have been continuously exploited in many ways for centuries.
About 8% of the country’s forests are protected. Most of the larger protected areas are in the north.
Finland is reputed to be the Land of a Thousand Lakes, but in fact the country has tens of thousands of lakes. Most of these lakes are small and shallow. Lakes have an average depth of about seven metres.
Even in the largest lakes, like Saimaa in the southeast, open waters are broken up by many islands and peninsulas. It’s not always easy to say where one lake ends and another begins.
The same is true of Finland’s intricate coastline, which features around 95,000 sea islands, most of which are small rocky skerries. Sailors say that the waters of the labyrinthine Southwestern Archipelago are some of the most navigationally challenging anywhere in the world.
The total length of the coastline has been measured at 40,000 kilometres, including the shores of islands. The lakeshores are even longer – totalling about 130,000 kilometres. This means that the country has approximately 32 metres of shoreline for every inhabitant. People are used to having open water always somewhere nearby.
This abundance of water is also good for birds. In the summertime huge numbers of wetland and water birds breed in Finland, including many duck and wader species, and huge cranes.
And of course wherever there’s water, there are also fish. Finland has 61 native fish species, mostly freshwater fish. One unusual feature is that many lake fish can also thrive in the coastal waters of the Baltic Sea, where salinity levels are low.
Even by Finnish standards, the country’s northernmost province, Lapland, is sparsely settled. Lapland accounts for about 28% of Finland’s total area, but only 4% of the population.
Lapland’s natural features include vast areas of wild forest, open fells, flora and fauna adapted to the harsh arctic conditions, and greater variations in relief than anywhere else in the country. Seasonal variations are also even more pronounced here. The deep snows and darkness of midwinter contrast dramatically with the light, mild summers of the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Lapland has both forest-covered hills and open fells. Even the highest hilltops are only about 1,300 metres above sea level, but this far north the tree line is so low that many fell-tops are treeless.
Heading down the hillside, the first trees to be encountered are low mountain birches, interspersed with a few pines. Only below this sparsely wooded zone can true forests be found, dominated by pines or spruces. Open bogs can be found among the forests, including some very large bogs in low-lying areas.
Almost 30% of Lapland’s natural habitats are protected, including Finland’s largest national parks – three of which extend over more than 1,000 square kilometres. The traditional local livelihood of reindeer herding can be practised in almost all of Lapland’s protected areas.
Other traditional practices including hunting and fishing are still important in Lapland, alongside the more recently developed tourism industry.
Finland is one of the most rural countries in the EU, since more than a quarter of the population (1.5 million people) live in rural areas. Most of these rural residents are not farmers, however, as many people live in the country but work in towns. Finland today has almost 63,000 working farms, with an average cultivated area of 35 hectares. The share of organic farming is double the EU average.
Almost every farm includes some areas of forest, as well as fields. The countryside is characterised by a patchwork landscape of forests and fields, also dotted with lakes.
Since soils and other physical conditions tend to be unfavourable, fields have only been created in the best possible locations, and they consequently tend to be small. The largest areas of open farmland can be found in SW Finland.
Finnish arable and livestock farms tend to be small-scale family operations. It has been said that Finland is a country where every cow still has a name.
Nature has also successfully established a foothold in towns and cities, which by European standards are mainly small, and offer easy access to natural green areas. Few cities have larger landscaped parks, but almost all urban residential areas lie within a short walk of natural forests criss-crossed by footpaths, cycle paths and skiing trails.
Many towns also have waterside locations enabling residents to go swimming in the summertime within a stone’s throw of the town centre.
Finns see themselves as people who still live very close to nature. There’s a lot of truth in this, since even those living in urban areas like to spend time in natural settings: walking, skiing, or just spending time at their out-of-town holiday homes.
Heading off to the holiday home is a deeply rooted tradition among Finns. There are almost half a million second homes for a national population of just over five million. These retreats vary greatly in size and facilities. Older holiday homes tend to be small and modest, but more recently built cottages are true second homes, fitted with all modern conveniences. About half of the country’s holiday homes are habitable in winter.
Finland’s liberal rights of common access to the land enable everyone, including foreign visitors, to roam freely through forests and other natural areas on foot or on skis and even pick wild berries and mushrooms, regardless of who owns the land. Hunting rights and the right to fish with nets or lures are tied to the ownership of the land or fishing waters, however.
Finland’s 37 national parks, with their extensive networks of trails, are vey popular among hikers. Most of these parks are fairly small, less than 100 km2, and their primary purpose is to protect nature and biodiversity.
In addition to these national parks, Finland also has many other kinds of protected areas, including the wilderness areas of Lapland and mire protection areas. The first nature reserve was established in 1916 up in the high hills in the northwestern corner of Finnish Lapland.
Animals only returned to Finland fairly recently after the continental ice sheet receded from Fennoscandia at the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago – though they were helped by a subsequent warm climatic period lasting four millennia.
Relieved of the massive ice sheet, the land began to rise gradually, alternately opening up and closing natural waterway connections. When the vast Saimaa Lake System, in SE Finland, was cut off from the Baltic Sea, salmon and ringed seals were also marooned, and they have survived in the lake to this day.
Other Finnish wildlife specialities include arctic animals and species associated with coniferous taiga forests. The fells of the far north are still home to the critically endangered arctic fox, which may vanish altogether from Finland if the climate warms. Another rare and exotic inhabitant of Finnish Lapland is the pure white snowy owl.
Finland is particularly well endowed with owls. Ten species can be found here, also including great grey owls and hawk owls.
Another exotic animal, the flying squirrel, makes its home across most of mainland Southern Finland wherever there is enough undisturbed mixed forest.
One of the country’s most impressive four-legged residents is the elk. Elk can be seen anywhere in Finland, where they thrive so well that due to the scarcity of their natural predators they must be hunted to control their numbers.
Large carnivores are generally faring well in Finland, where there are plenty of undisturbed wild areas and abundant prey. Finland is home to all four of Europe’s large predatory mammals: brown bears, wolves, lynx and wolverines.
Finland’s predators have not always had it so good, however. They used to be widely persecuted here, as in other countries, especially in the 1800s and early 1900s. Persecution has since declined, but conflicts still arise at times, especially in Lapland, where wild predators often kill reindeer. Wolverines particularly have a bad reputation in this respect.
In recent decades the populations of large carnivores have been purposefully restored, and their numbers are now stable. Finland is home to more than 1,600 bears, about 150-160 wolves, nearly 2,500 lynx and 150–170 wolverines.
But anyone out walking in the forests is very unlikely to see any of these animals. All four species are wary of people, and seek to avoid us whenever possible. The best way to see them is to join a guided wildlife watching excursion. This typically involves spending the night in a simple hide out in the forest.
Many birds of prey have also become more common in recent times. Numbers of white-tailed eagles, for instance, have soared since the 1970s to about 1,000. These majestic birds today occupy some 300 breeding territories around Finland.
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