Hunting is so popular in Finland that it can be seen as part of the country’s cultural heritage. SixDegrees looks into the activity, the reasons behind its popularity, and whether it continues to attract new generations.

IT PROBABLY doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that hunting is a common leisure time activity in Finland. The right conditions are clearly there, with vast wilderness and forests, and culture in which the countryside and nature tend to be appreciated – just look at the many people who regularly disappear to their summer cottages in the wilderness.

And yet the numbers may astound: there are 380,000 registered hunters in Finland, of which 310,000 pay the annual hunting fee that allows them to hunt that year. This means that about nine per cent of the adult population in Finland hunt actively. To put that into perspective, Sweden has double the population of Finland, but slightly fewer hunters.

One key reason behind the popularity is that hunting is very much an “everyman’s hobby”, as it’s pretty easy to take up as an activity. Taking the hunting exam is not expensive, and buying short-term hunting permits on the state land is also affordable. “In some of the more rural areas, it is also quite easy to get in hunting clubs,” says Kai Tikkunen, PR Officer at the Finnish Hunters’ Association. He also notes that in some places hunting and fishing are among the few leisure time activities that are available.

Moreover, peoples’ attitudes towards hunting are widely positive: according to the Finnish Wildlife Agency, only 13 per cent of Finns have a negative perception of hunting. Tikkunen also says that people are more and more interested in the origin of their food, and view local game as a more ethical alternative to industrially produced meat.

On the other hand, there are some who see hunting as a brutal activity. “I see this in certain anti-hunting groups on Facebook, for instance,” Tikkunen says. Yet he wonders how many of the people who oppose hunting accept factory farming and slaughtering in those conditions – seemingly a more inhumane way of treating animals. “In my opinion, one has to accept killing if one wants to continue to eat meat or fish, use leather products or even have cats or dogs, as also pet food requires killing.”

Although the tradition of hunting is deeply rooted in the Finnish culture, some aspects of it are evolving. In the past, the most typical way to pick up hunting was by following your father’s footsteps, with the tradition being passed on from generation to generation. This is still common, but now there are also more and more hunters who get the spark later on in life, for example from their friends or colleagues. Moreover, hunting used to be almost exclusively a male activity, but now there is an increasing number of women who hunt — though at 19,000, they are still a clear minority. Women most commonly start hunting because their significant others hunt, or because of passion for dogs, Tikkunen says.

Different weapons for different purposes

It is often said that due to the large number of hunters, there is also an exceptional amount of firearms in Finland. But this, Tikkunen says, is in fact a myth. There are European countries where for instance shotguns are considered agricultural tools and don’t require a permit. This means that they don’t appear in the overall statistics, despite being the most common type of weapon in those countries. Meanwhile, in Finland a permit is necessary for all firearms, making the figures more comprehensive.

Talking about guns and safety, Tikkunen points out that firearm owners are generally law-abiding people, since weapons can easily be taken away from you. “You can lose guns for speeding not to mention violence or threat of violence, drunk driving, substance abuse, and so on. So if a person has guns, it is a quite good indicator that their record is very clean.”

Legal firearms are actually used in a small minority of homicides, Tikkunen notes, as most homicides in Finland are carried out using a knife. In the end, the number of weapons is only one factor when considering safety: “A sane person with guns is less dangerous than a violent person with a fork.”

An active hunter typically has a need for numerous guns, as different weapons are needed for hunting different game. When measured by the number of catches, the most popular game in Finland are the mountain hare, black grouse, wild duck, common wood pigeon and raccoon dog. For instance, 160,000–210,000 mountain hares and 100,000–170,000 raccoon dogs are caught annually.

Yet economically, the most significant game animal is the moose. As the moose population causes damages in agriculture and also in traffic, it has to be controlled by hunting. This year the moose hunting season started in September and will last until the end of the year. This is a major event among hunters: about 100,000 are expected to participate in moose hunting during the period, and 58,000–85,000 moose are caught annually during the season.

The hunting seasons and number of permits that are given out for big game are decided according to the population estimates by the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institution. This is a careful process as hunting should be sustainable, but sometimes misjudgements happen: Tikkunen says that in the case of lynx, the population has grown rapidly in spite of hunting, and in some areas it is now a threat to the local roe deer and whitetail deer populations.

Lately there has also been some concern over the moose population in Finland: the number of male moose is too low in some areas to impregnate the females on time, says Klaus Ekman, Head of Media and Communications at the Finnish Wildlife Agency. However, according to Tikkunen, the situation can be normalised in the long run through normal hunting practices by shooting somewhat more female than male moose.

Various benefits

Though catching prey is seemingly the ultimate goal of hunting, it’s appeals go much beyond that. According to a recent report by Metsähallitus, hunting and fishing as activities have clear social, psychological and physical health benefits to hunters. Interestingly, the most notable benefits seem to relate to psychological wellbeing – something that also comes across in Tikkunen’s reply to a question about the reasons he hunts:

“Being in the wilderness is extremely important to me. Especially when I get to go somewhere where there are not that many people and where I can live in a tent, hiking or canoeing. This is vital especially in this hectic modern age.”

Tikkunen says he also likes the exercise you get when walking on swamps and up and down the hills, and he also values the localness of the food. “The fact that the meat on the plate was shot 2 kilometres from our house and not flown here from Argentina appeals to me.” Hunting also allows him to use food ingredients that are rarely available otherwise, such as heart, gizzard and bones.

When you also consider the excitement that arises when the sounds of the approaching animal is heard, and the appeal that hunting with dogs has for dog people, you start to have a fuller picture of the charms of hunting. “I think it is a very nice combination of many different things that make hunting a great hobby.”

The popularity of hunting grew for a long time until about 2010, after which there has been a slight drop. The Finnish Hunters’ Association estimates that the gradual decline will also continue. Although about 7,000 people pass the hunter’s exam annually, many hunters are in their 60s and above, and will start quitting in a few years. Other hobbies are also competing for attention: more and more people are moving to Helsinki, for instance, where there are no hunting grounds nearby, but plenty of possibilities for other types of activities, says Tikkunen. “In many homes, outdoor activities have also unfortunately been replaced by virtual reality.”

Teemu Henriksson