This is one of two trip reports that I did not get round to publishing from my time training in Finland. In May 2015, we spent a week on Jungfruskär Island, which is situated in the archipelagos to the south west of Finland. We were here to do some conservation work and study the local flora and fauna. The college has a deal with the Forest and Parks service that allows the class to stay on the island and use the facilities in return for doing some conservation work.
Jungfruskär is nestled in a labyrinthine of over 8400 islands, more than any other archipelago in the world. The national park includes 2000 islands and rocky islets, shaped by the ice sheet during the ice age and the sea.
When viewing the island from the sea, it looks fairly barren. But, this a small rocky outcrop on the cusp of the boreal zone, boasts and abundance of species and lush herb rich forests. There’s a special blend of windswept coniferous and low deciduous forest, injected with a rich mix of herbaceous flora, grasses and shrubs, signifying a more fertile soil than the usual acidic soil of most coniferous forests. The island boasts hundreds of species of trees and plants, 132 breeding bird species and 25 species of mammal.
During World War II, cannons and barracks were placed on Jungfruskär as its military importance increased. The Finnish Defence Forces occupied the island up to 1977. Permanent inhabitants left the island in 1983, and at the turn of the century, the island was brought under the control of Metsähallitus (Forestry Commission).
We took numerous ferries to get to Jungfruskär, with the last boat leaving from Korpoström. We braved gale force winds, rain, and turbulent seas, taking one of the most enjoyable boat rides I’ve ever been on. The boat was crashing violently up and down, carving its path through the choppy seas. Me and a few others braved the deck and were sprayed continuously by a barrage of foaming waves drenching us to the bone. We were screaming like excited school kids, holding onto to side, onto each other, struggling to stay on two feet.
The wet weather only lasted for the crossing, and the rest of the trip was sunny and warm. As mentioned, we were here to study and to do conservation work for the national park. The ranger, Jean-Erik was perhaps the most steely faced man I have ever encountered, even the Finnish guys were aghast at how unemotional he was. Henkke, our tutor, said he had only seen him smile once.
Each morning we did 2 to 4 hours conservation for Jean-Erik. This generally consisted of meadow clearing, ‘tidying’ up certain areas of forest and some log splitting. This was done to maintain certain habitats that harbour rare flowering plants. It sometimes felt a bit odd intervening with the natural growth cycle by trimming and removing species such as willow, ash, juniper and birch. However, only small pockets of the island that were conserved in this way, and these ‘pockets’ formed a habitat that harboured a huge range of wild flowers and orchids that would be not be possible otherwise.
Flora and Fauna
After conservation work we spent an hour or two exploring the island, being skilfully guided by our personal walking encyclopaedia – our tutor Henkke. Clutching an assortment of bird and plant books, with binoculars swinging round our necks, and our trousers tucked into our socks (to protect against tics) we certainly weren’t winning any awards for style.
Walking through the coniferous and deciduous woodlands we would pause by certain tree and plant species that we needed to study for the upcoming exams. These walks would be interjected with Henkke suddenly stopping and pausing, like a dog that had just found a scent. We would all stop and listen to the bird song he had picked up, or peer through our binoculars trying to find it in the trees or on the seas. This happened many times, but the most notable occasions were hearing a marsh warbler, and seeing a golden eagle.
The marsh warbler imitates over 70 songs, all learnt in its first year of life. This small migratory bird learns half the songs in Europe, in its first summer and half in Africa, in its first winter. We knew we had spent a long time learning about nature when all of us were so excited to hear and find this little bird in our binoculars.
The golden eagle was something else though. We were walking through a grassy meadow carpeted with wood cranesbills, light dappled through the canopy of grey alder and silver birch above, providing shade from the hot morning sun. Suddenly, about 30 m away a gigantic bird with a wingspan of over 2m took off, rising up through the trees and out of site. Although just a short glimpse, the shear size and beauty of the bird was breathtaking, and the fact that a bird like that settles here was a true reminder of just how rich the biodiversity was on these islands.
After the conservation we would spend some time studying and preparing food, doing tic checks and going in small boat trips to nearby islands. Each evening we would watch the sun melt into the sea from the veranda, whilst swallows would majestically perform their aerial acrobatics all around us.
On one particular night, we saw noctilucent clouds. Noctilucent or ‘night shining’ clouds are only visible in the short summer nights of latitudes of 50 – 65°, after the sun has set. They are the highest clouds in Earth’s atmosphere, located in the mesosphere at altitudes of around 76 to 85 kilometres. They are particularly interesting as they are not fully understood, only being recently discovered meteorological phenomenon; there is no record of their observation before 1885. Some theories believing it is linked to pollution and others to the world wars.
Due to the large number of birds and animals, tics ravaged these lands, and each night we had to perform daily tic checks. For some of the guys, this seemed to be the highlight of their trip, as they effortlessly stepped back into their grooming ways of apes and chimps, proudly standing in front of each other completely starkers, meticulously checking every nook and cranny for little blighters, before carefully removing them. The island was teaming with them, and the record for one day was well over 10!