About 143,000 females live in small spots of forest.
An estimated 143,000 female flying squirrels live in Finnish forests. According to a survey published by the Ministry of the Environment on Thursday, the population is dispersed into small enclaves in different parts of the country.
The most viable habitats are in the coastal areas near Vaasa in West Finland, and in the southwest. The population is fairly sparse in North Karelia, Kainuu, and North Ostrobothnia.
The survey is the first study aiming at a comprehensive analysis of the number of flying squirrels in all of Finland. According to the study by Dr. Ilpo K. Hanski, the population has declined significantly since the 1940s, and continues to do so.
"All surveys suggest that the population was many times greater 50 - 60 years ago. The number of flying squirrels now is small by comparison", Hanski says.
"No areas have been found where the population would have remained stable, or grown."
Modern forestry methods, which have encroached on the habitat of the small mammals, are the greatest cause for their decline. The flying squirrels thrive in old-growth mixed forests with an abundance of spruce, where the elusive creatures can build nests inconspicuously.
Forests of that type have been felled since the 1960s, and it will be decades before the areas will be suitable for flying squirrels again.
Hanski says that the only way to reverse the situation is to change forestry methods, and to make sure that there are enough appropriate trees with good holes for nesting.
The reduction in the number of flying squirrels and the splintering of their habitat are seen as serious reminders of the state of Finnish forest nature, says Tapani Veistola of the Finnish League for Nature Conservation.
Taking a different view, the .......
...... Finnish Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners (MTK) wants to remove the flying squirrel from the European Union's nature directive, noting that the population is larger than previously estimated.
"The new estimate on the number of flying squirrels calls for a re-evaluation of the methods used in protection", says Markku Tornberg, a leading figure in the MTK.
Heikki Korpelainen of the Ministry of the Environment notes that the flying squirrel is protected, not because of the number of individual squirrels, but because the species has declined.
"The study has confirmed the perception of the spotted nature of the area of distribution. On the basis of this information, it would not be justified to remove the flying squirrel from the nature directive, or from the list of endangered species", he says.
Finland is responsible for keeping the animal on the European map, as Finland and Estonia are the only countries in the European Union in which the flying squirrel is known to live. There are a few hundred individuals in Estonia. The flying squirrel is believed to have disappeared from Latvia and Lithuania.