Lovelorn lemmings on the move, but not overly friendly
Up in Nuorgam, in Northern Lapland, the largest lemming migration for 20 years is under way
By Mikko-Pekka Heikkinen in Utsjoki
The Teno River flows past evenly under a midnight full moon. A couple of hundred metres away - on the far shore - is Norway, and we are standing here on the northernmost riverbank in Finland, at Nuorgam in Utsjoki.
The glittering surface of the water is broken by a wiggling line. It is approaching us.
The small furry rodent appears to be in a considerable hurry to get on dry land. It finds a round rock just above the water-line, curls up into a furry ball, and settles down to get its breath back.
What a little cutie! A veritable poster-boy for the rodent kingdom.
A camera flash starts strobing, and the lemming strikes a pose. Perhaps the swim has temporarily extinguished its vim and drive.
Oh, wait a second. There's another one. And a third. And a fourth.
Right now the north of Finnish Lapland is witnessing the biggest migration of Lemmus lemmus, the Norway lemming, for twenty years or so. They set off in the summer from the fells of Northern Norway and headed downhill and down south.
You can now see lemmings in the northern districts of Utsjoki, all the way from the village centre up to Nuorgam here, where the density is at its greatest. Lemmings have also been spotted further east, in Sevettijärvi and in the Näätämö River valley.
In the course of one day and two late evenings, we saw dozens of lemmings in Nuorgam. They were scampering around in the underbrush, paddling in the Teno River, and lying squished one-dimensionally on the highway.
The rodents are moving individually. There are not so many of them as yet that one could speak of swarms or packs or herds of them, or whatever collective noun one uses to describe lemmings en masse.
Last week around 50 lemming turned up drowned in local salmon-fishing nets, and at the weekend, one of the creatures bit a woman from Nuorgam on the ankle. A week or so back, so I'm told, a group of around a dozen lemmings clutched onto the rudder of a rowing boat in the middle of the river, by way of taking a breather from their cross-border swim across.
"Good boy, Ringo!" calls Kyösti Alaraudanjoki encouragingly to his Karelian bear dog.
The young dog is poking at a tussock in a stand of stunted birch trees behind Alaraudanjoki's home. Two angry lemmings are revealed from the grassy hump. They do not appreciate the dog's company one bit.
One of the lemmings squeaks loudly and bares its teeth defiantly as the dog tries to pick it up in its jaws. Boy, this little critter has balls of brass!
The lemming's bad temper has a sexual background. That male's playmates may well be other males who have decided to up and change scenery, because the local females cannot get around to mating with all the willing lemming studs, especially if there are a lot of suitors, as there are now.
When the males are not, as it were, "getting any action", they feel like taking off. And they are not in the best of moods when they meet somebody.
Kyösti Alaraudanjoki notes that if his dog is off the leash, it will find lemmings constantly. A good hunting dog will prize out a hundred lemmings a day in the fells.
Alaraudanjoki goes on to say that the lemming season in Nuorgam has been going on for a couple of months now. There is a steady supply of little corpses on the lawn, and the birds spread them around. Any of the exotic Disney appeal of the feisty rodent has long since vanished around here.
"We could manage perfectly well without them", grunts Alaraudanjoki.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 31.8.2007
More on this subject:
FACTFILE: Rodent visitor from the north
MIKKO-PEKKA HEIKKINEN / Helsingin Sanomat