Dispute over flying squirrels brings work for Kuopio Administrative Court
By Martti Heikkinen
Manager Jouni Tiihonen, responsible for real estate in the City of Kuopio, is pointing at small animal droppings on the steps leading to the basement of an old school in Kuopio’s district of Levänen.
”They are flying squirrel droppings. They have been photographed quite a few times during this process”, Tiihonen says with a sigh.
Without these droppings, implying that the protected flying squirrels have visited the building, the ”unoccupied” school premises dating back to 1957 would already have been bulldozed to the ground.
Following a complaint made by environmentalists, the Kuopio Administrative Court is now to consider whether the breeding area and habitat of flying squirrels in the building should be added to the protection list.
The city has no use for the dilapidated building, which has been standing empty for the past three years.
The plots of land in the area have been zoned for business and warehouse purposes.
Actual school activities in the building came to an end more than a decade ago.
The City of Kuopio’s building inspector granted a demolition permit for the school in February 2008, and the building board approved it. Nobody appealed against the decision.
At that point, the advocates of the Siberian flying squirrel (Pteromys volans) woke up.
Last spring, two research workers came to the school to look for signs of the flying squirrel.
They found some droppings and traces of the creature’s urine in the attic of the school.
On the basis of these findings, the researchers said that the building has to be regarded as a breeding area and habitat of flying squirrels in compliance with the Nature Conservation Act.
In addition, two previous observations of flying squirrels had been made in the land surrounding the Levänen school back in the spring of 2007.
The demolition of the empty school collided head-on with the paragraphs of the Nature Conservation Act and the EU's nature directives.
Last winter, the City of Kuopio filed an application to the North Savo Environment Centre for an exceptional permit to pull down the building.
The environment centre granted the permit as standard procedure, stating that an empty school building could not be regarded as a breeding area and habitat of flying squirrels under the law.
However, a local ecological youth organisation entitled Savo-Karjalan luontopiiri appealed against the decision to the Kuopio Administrative Court.
The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation backed the organisation's appeal.
In its appeal, the youth organisation pointed out that according to the interpretation of both the European Commission and Finland’s Ministry of the Environment, the breeding areas and habitats of flying squirrels described by the Nature Conservation Act and the EU nature directives can also be found in buildings.
Conservationists are now demanding that the decision made by the North Savo Environment Centre be annulled, and the matter be subject to a normal exceptional appeals procedure, as stipulated by the Nature Conservation Act.
The Kuopio Administrative Court is to begin to handle the matter in late August at the earliest.
Another dispute over the nests of protected animals in a building that is to be demolished has surfaced in the coastal city of Hamina this summer.
The Environment Centre of Southeast Finland filed a request for a police investigation last month over the actions of the City of Hamina in connection with the destruction of the nests of common swifts at a school in Vehkalahti.
FACTFILE: Law protects habitats of flying squirrels
The Siberian flying squirrel (Pteromys volans) is an endangered, strictly protected species. In Finland its range extends from Southern Finland to the level of Oulu and Kuusamo.
The Finnish flying squirrel population is estimated to amount to some 143,000 females. The information is based on a count report on the flying squirrel population that was completed in 2006.
Even though the species is quite common, the report found that the Siberian flying squirrel is one of the most threatened animals in Finland.
In all examined areas, the numbers of these animals had declined. The flying squirrel is somewhat smaller than the normal squirrel.
A distinctive feature of flying squirrels is the furry glide membrane, a flap of skin that stretches between the front and rear legs. By spreading this membrane, the flying squirrel may glide from tree to tree.
The longest glide on record has been 78 metres.
Based on the Nature Conservation Act, the destruction of the breeding areas and habitats of flying squirrels is forbidden.
Logging and the declining number of trees with holes are among the greatest threats faced by flying squirrels in forests.
In addition to Estonia, Finland is the only member-state in the European Union where flying squirrels can be found. Hence the EU interest. As the name perhaps suggests, the animal is common in Russia, right through to the Pacific coast.
Knowledge of the habits of flying squirrels is still insufficient.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 21.8.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Empty nesting boxes still wait for flying squirrels in Vantaa (6.6.2007)
Score one for the Siberian flying squirrel (12.5.2004)
Siberian Flying Squirrel (Wikipedia)
MARTTI HEIKKINEN / Helsingin Sanomat