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Finland: Euroskeptics vs. the flying squirrel

Melanie Hall
July 2, 2019

With conservation blocking business, the flying squirrel has become a symbol of EU meddling in Finland. But environmentalists are working to win the creature Finnish hearts and habitat.

Siberian Flying Squirrel in front of house, Finland
Image: Benjam Pöntinen

With its big black eyes and mouth upturned into what looks like a smile, it's hard to imagine the cartoonishly cute Siberian flying squirrel provoking anger in anyone.

Yet in Finland, the palm-sized critter is not only seen as a scourge by landowners and developers, it has become a target for anti-EU anger.

The EU Habitats Directive protects the flying squirrel's environment — mainly economically valuable forests.

Read more: Mass deforestation: How trade fells trees in Brazil and Indonesia

Forestry counts for around a fifth of Finland's exports, and landowners have seen European conservation regulation as unwelcome interference from the EU. Building projects have also been stalled as the squirrels move into urban areas.

"When people talk about flying squirrels, they are not talking about the animal actually, they are using it as a symbol — it symbolizes EU power over local people," Maarit Jokinen, a researcher at the University of Helsinki who has studied attitudes towards the flying squirrel, told DW.

Flying squirrel glides from tree to tree
Flying squirrels don't exactly fly so much as glide, making a slow descent from tree to treeImage: Benjam Pöntinen

Flying squirrels vs. loggers

Despite its protected status, the creature's numbers in Finland have fallen by 40% over the last decade. Their biggest enemy is logging.

Flying squirrels use flaps of furry skin connecting their fore and hind legs to glide gracefully from tree to tree. But on the ground they are slow and clumsy, making them vulnerable to predators.

Clear-cutting — when an area of forest is razed completely — can create an impenetrable barrier for the animals.

Yet sympathy for the squirrels is in short supply.

The media has picked up stories of extreme cases of development being hampered by conservation concerns, under headlines such as "The flying squirrel stole the Christmas Spirit" and "a flying mitten that can move even motorways."

Protecting forests

Fixing the furry fliers' PR problem

Now, a new EU-funded project by Metsähallitus, a government enterprise that manages the country's state-owned forests, is hoping to turn things around for Finland's furry fliers — and that includes working on their public image.

Thanks to the Flying Squirrel LIFE project, the public can now see their shy woodland neighbors in action via a livestream.

And more directly, the project is working to closely involve landowners in plans to increase protected areas for the squirrels, rather than fighting them.

Conservationists on Juho Korvenoja's land in Rekijoki, Finland, make plans to protect flying squirrels
Conservationists on Juho Korvenoja's land make plans to protect the squirrelsImage: DW/M. Hall

Juho Korvenoja is the owner of an expanse of farmland and forest in the country's south. As part of the LIFE project, he has agreed to leave some of his wooded areas untouched for conservation. "It has been a long trip for the squirrel image-wise and I think there is a lot to be learned for the people who are trying to protect the squirrel," he told DW.

"The way to do it is to do it in cooperation, not dictating what to do for the landowners," he added.

Read more: As extinctions loom, biodiversity warnings fail to resonate with governments, media

Cooperation and regulation

Conservationists are learning to do just that, but some are also demanding tighter regulation of land where the airborne rodents make their home.

Currently, it is up to landowners to decide how much forest to leave unfelled around flying squirrel nesting sites. Andrea Santangeli, a researcher from the University of Helsinki, says the result is that too little is being left standing — and the authorities aren't monitoring the situation.

"My feeling is that it should be somehow regulated in a very clear and standardized way, rather than leaving the decision to the forest owners," he told DW.

Eija Hume in the forest
Eija Hurme says its rare for landowners to deliberately go after nesting squirrelsImage: DW/M. Hall

The Finnish Forest Association says landowners have been known to cut down trees that provide the perfect habitat for flying squirrels, to stop them making themselves at home in the first place.

Dogs for data

But Eija Hurme, head of the Flying Squirrel LIFE project, says ignorance rather than malice is usually behind trees with flying squirrel nests being felled.

Which is one reason her team are trying to gather more accurate data on flying squirrels. Elusive and largely nocturnal, they are notoriously difficult to get accurate population numbers on, which is why the project has recruited the help of tracking dogs.

Tanya Karpela in the forest with black and white dog called "Vihi"
Tanya Karpela with Vihi, who has been trained to track down evidence of flying squirrelsImage: DW/M. Hall

Tanja Karpela, who specializes in training dogs for scent recognition says using canines to find squirrel droppings is already making it easier to get an idea of their numbers.

Good neighbors

One place where the numbers are promising is Espoo, not far from Helsinki. Now thought to be home to around 800 flying squirrels, the city is held up as a model for the balance between conservation and urban planning.

Read more: Why nightingales love scruffy Berlin

Far from being a symbol of foreign interference, the flying squirrel can be a source of local pride, with cities like Espoo showing that "recreation and flying squirrels really go together," Hurme says.

In fact, she says being close to green areas where the fluffy gliders nest could even increase the value of a property, as buyers know that "if a flying squirrel lives there, no one is going to cut that forest, so then I will continue seeing this forest from my window."