‘We are basically starting from scratch’: Restoring Finnish river ecosystems | Re-wild

VSjumping into trees isn’t how most people would expect a river restoration project to begin, but Janne Raassina – who deftly uses a chainsaw to cut down four or five designated logs around the Särkkäjoki river in the most remote east of Finland – explains that rotting wood is going to be extremely useful to the ecosystem.

“It’s a huge buffet for insects, and it’s something that’s been missing in our nature for 100 years,” he says. “We are creating the food chain from scratch.”

Finland is the most forested country in Europe, with around 76% of its land area covered in trees. However, this impressive statistic masks the ecological damage inflicted by the forest industry over the last century or so.

The old shoots are almost entirely gone, replaced by the skeletal monocultures of commercial plantations; today, less than 5% of Finland’s forest cover is over 120 years old. It’s a pale imitation of the lichen-laden, berry-filled forests of old – and wildlife has suffered.

The rivers were another casualty of Finland’s rapid industrialization. As early as the 1850s, before the era of road and rail, its waterways were developed into open channels to create a vast river transport network. Rapids have been removed and bends straightened to allow logs to float hundreds of miles downstream for processing. The supply of dead wood that would once have fed the rivers has dwindled as surrounding birch, pine, and spruce have been cleared.

Although timber floating ceased in the 1980s, its legacy of sterility persists: the diversity of habitats that would have existed in the meanders and wetlands of a natural river system never returned, and the logging industry continues to deprive these ecosystems of their dead wood. Studies of individual rivers have shown, in some cases, the complete decimation of once thriving fish populations.

The stream flowing in front of us looks quite healthy, but, says Raassina, it is ecologically dead. All the creatures you’d expect to see here – including fish, mayflies, and other insects – are gone. A survey of tributaries of the Lieksanjoki River failed to find a single brown trout. “We are basically starting from scratch. Our nation has been so myopic,” Raassina says.

He and his two contractors, Janne Ratilainen and Henri Leskinen, were tasked with bringing this 12 km (7.5 mile) stretch of the Särkkäjoki back to life, as well as 1.5 km from another stream, the Rännänjoki, which crosses Finland from Russia. Both flow into the larger Lieksanjoki River in the North Karelia region of eastern Finland.

Janne Raassina and her colleagues move stones from the shore into the water. Photograph: Sophie Yeo/The Guardian

As well as adding dead wood to the water, restoration work has included adding gravel to the river bed, recreating old spawning grounds for fish, and moving rocks from the bank into the water. to hide juveniles from predators. “Fish have all the instincts, but nowhere to exercise them,” says Raassina.

Some might hesitate to call it rewilding; with the need for chainsaws and lots of manual labor, no one would suggest they take a hands-off approach. However, the focus is ultimately on creating an ecosystem that will sustain itself over time, without requiring constant intervention.

Raassina’s enthusiasm for the concept is immediately apparent: he showed up for the day wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap, both emblazoned with “Rewilding” in a catchy sans comic. “I think rewilding is a really good term. I couldn’t find better in Finnish,” he says.

While the initial focus is on creating healthy habitats, the ultimate mark of victory will be whether the trout will return there. Ideally, these would repopulate the river on their own, but given the absence of the species in the vicinity, it is likely that they will need to be reintroduced.

This is a small start for a monumental task. The country has about 650 rivers. About 90 of them are major rivers that flow into the sea or cross borders; the rest are tributaries. But the Finnish public has embraced the task of restoring the river. Because 60% of Finland’s forests are divided among hundreds of thousands of private landowners, it created a lot of work for Raassina, who initially turned down the project because he was too busy.

What makes this project remarkable, however, is that state-owned forestry company Metsähallitus is at the helm. It owns nearly a third of Finland’s land, and without this powerhouse on board, efforts to revive the ‘land of a thousand lakes’ will always be piecemeal. If the agency can be convinced of the value of this work, the potential of Finland’s river systems is enormous. Metsähallitus has worked on water-based restoration projects before, but this is the first time he has explicitly addressed the small creeks and their watersheds that crisscross most of the territory.

“Metsähallitus is known for restoring swamps and marshes, but not so much streams, rivers and lakes. But increasingly, attention is also turning to these aquatic ecosystems these days,” says Arttu Kuiri, who designed the North Karelian part of the program. He adds that each of Finland’s smaller rivers would benefit from restoration, but with funding of just under €1 million they had to settle in nine river basins.

“People are starting to understand that clean rivers and waters are like the heart and lungs of the country,” says Kuiri. “Finland really has nothing but nature, and if we want to spoil that, it won’t end well.”

The scale of the damage means large-scale restoration of the river will not be an easy task. In Särkkäjoki, Raassina points out that a layer of sediment has accumulated on one of the larger rocks. It’s barely noticeable – a thin layer of soil – yet it points to another major problem: soil erosion. Finland’s vast bogs have been carved up by drainage ditches over the years, destabilizing its once waterlogged soils in the name of timber production. If the country is to regain healthy rivers, it will be essential to look beyond the banks and to the wider landscape.

Kuiri agrees on the need for humans to set the wheels in motion. “We had good rivers and they have been healthy, but in a hundred years we have done them so much harm. We have to revoke that – and the stones won’t move on their own.

For now, in North Karelia, the Särkkäjoki seem to have lost a fight with a particularly industrious beaver – and that is of course the point. The chainsaw did its job.