Natural Features of Malla Strict Nature Reserve

A short plant with long stamens in purple flowers.

The Young Scandinavian Mountains and the Old Bedrock

The billions-of-years-old Finnish bedrock meets the geologically young bedrock of the Scandinavian Mountains in the northwestern corner of the Käsivarsi region. The area's high fells were born during the folding of the Scandinavian Mountains hundreds of millions of years ago. The highest fells in Kilpisjärvi, such as Saana (1,029 metres above sea level), were formed of schistose rocks thrust onto the bedrock. The Malla Fells were born at that time too. The steep rock face of Saana Fell clearly shows the edge of the nappe formed in the folding process. The uppermost layers of its horizontal sediments are resistant to abrasion, thus protecting the layers beneath that crumble easily.

After the folding of the mountains, post-glacial land uplift and erosion have shaped the landscape to look the way we see it today. The formation of scree stone areas is a typical phenomenon in a harsh arctic climate. Due to changing temperatures, the surface of the rock shrinks, expands and finally cracks. Water penetrates the cracks, and when the water freezes, it causes the cracks to expand. Eventually, the rock will break into boulders that roll to the foot of the fells.

Arctic Climate

The area of the high fells lies exceptionally high above sea level, on the Finnish scale. There are about 40 peaks in the Käsivarsi area that are higher than a thousand metres. The proximity of the Arctic Ocean makes the climate maritime, or more humid, than in the rest of the Fell Lapland.

Biogeographically, the Malla area belongs to the zone that is influenced by both arctic and alpine factors. The habitat and occurrence of species are thus affected by the northern location and the relative elevation. For many plant species, it is specifically the altitude above sea level that determines whether the plant thrives or not.

In the Kilpisjärvi area, snow usually melts in the mountain birch forests in early June, and Lake Kilpisjärvi throws off its icy cover near Midsummer. Many lakes higher up, however, stay frozen until mid-July. The growing season is one of the shortest in Europe, only about 101 days; the average temperature in July is +10.9 °C and in January -13.9 °C, and the average annual temperature is -2.3 °C. The depth of snow is at its peak in April, at 96 cm on average. The cold is present even in summertime, as the bedrock in the summit area of Pikku-Malla Fell has at least a 45-metre layer of permafrost.

Kilpisjärvi Biological Station

Kilpisjärvi Biological StationThe flora and fauna of the Malla area have been researched for decades by Kilpisjärvi Biological Station ( run by the University of Helsinki. The core of the station's research activities consists of long-term follow-up studies related to climate, vegetation, small mammals, birds and carnivores. The station belongs to the Nordic SCANNET research station network.

Animals in Malla Strict Nature Reserve

Fell Birds

The special bird species found in the Malla and Kilpisjärvi area include the Gyr Falcon (Falco rusticolus), the Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus), the Long-tailed Skua (Stercorarius longicaudus), the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), the Eurasian Dotterel (Charadrius morinellus), the Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) and the Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus). Another bird living in the bare fell zone is the Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus).

The typical species in the Mountain birch forests is the Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica), Lapland's provincial bird. Nowhere in the world is there such an abundance of Bluethroats than in the Mountain Birch forests surrounding Lake Kilpisjärvi. With the Bluethroat is the singing and sputtering Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla), which is one of the major species in the forests of Lapland.

Most of the birds in the Malla area are migratory, but there are some overwintering species too. The Gyr Falcon, the Willow Grouse (Lagopus lagopus), the Ptarmigan, the Common Raven (Corvus corax), the Willow Tit (Parus montanus) and the Siberian Tit are able to survive the Yliperä winter without human help. There are 97 bird species that nest in the Käsivarsi area.

Beasts and prey

The most visible mammals in the Malla and Kilpisjärvi area, in addition to the Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus), are the numerous small mammals. The four to five-year cycle in the population dynamics among voles and Norway Lemmings (Lemmus lemmus) directly affects the occurrence and population strength of the birds of prey and mammals preying on them. In good vole years the predators nest successfully, whereas in poor vole years the young of the predators starve to death. When small mammals abound, the populations of the least Weasel (Mustela nivalis), the Stoat (Mustela erminea), the Fox (Vulpes vulpes) and the rare Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) thrive. In peak years, the Rough-legged Buzzard, the Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus), the Snowy Owl and the Long-tailed Skua also achieve the best nesting results. Of the large carnivores, the Wolverine (Gulo gulo) and the Lynx (Lynx lynx) are regular inhabitants of the Malla area.

Norway Lemming

The Norway Lemming is a typical mammal of the high-fell area, and it is well adapted to the bare fell conditions. The Lemming finds shelter against the cold and the predators by burrowing into snowdrifts. If the food supply is sufficient - that is, if there is enough moss in the late-melting snow beds - the Lemmings will breed under the snow. After several years of abundant food supply and constant reproduction, the Lemming populations sometimes become so large that there is no more living space and the Lemmings leave their habitats in search of new ones. The latest huge peak in the Lemming population, and the subsequent migration, occurred in the 1970s. In 2007 the number of Lemmings increased again, and they started to move as if in anticipation of a migration. Even though Lemmings were seen further south than usual, the migration died down before becoming the kind of huge migration extending to Forest Lapland as seen before.

Butterflies in Malla Fell

The lush meadow vegetation in the Yliperä fell region's calciferous soil sustains specialised butterfly species that only feed on certain fell plants when they are young. The grub of the Polar Fritillary (Clossiana polaris), for example, feeds on the Mountain Aven (Dryas octopetala) and the White Arctic Mountain Heather (Cassiope tetragona). The butterfly species found in the Kilpisjärvi region total 340, and the only Finnish occurrence of sixteen of them is in this area.

The butterfly species in the fell meadows use the precious few moments of warmth that open the window of opportunity for reproduction. Thanks to the midnight sun, the butterflies are able to fly day and night during the favourable season. Many moths and geometrid moths only fly after midnight, however, when the sun has disappeared behind a fell. Insects in the fell areas are often dark and furry in order to gather and keep as much of the warmth of the sun in their tiny bodies as possible. During the short summer, the flying season of the butterflies is usually in July.

Species in the emblem of Malla Strict Nature Reserve

Glacier buttercup

Chosen as the emblem of the Malla Strict Nature Reserve, the glacier buttercup (Ranunculus glacialis) is a plant that grows in mountain ranges and Arctic regions. In Finland the only place where the glacier butter grows in in the high fells of Enontekiö. The glacier buttercup is a threatened species of plant that grows in snowbeds and meltwater creeks of the alpine and subalpine zones. It survives in harsh conditions like few other vascular plants can. Indeed, the glacier buttercup has set records in the elevation and northern latitude of its growing sites. In the Alps, the glacier buttercup can grow at elevations of over 4,000 metres. The glacier buttercup is a protected species and picking them is prohibited. 

The glacier buttercup is well prepared for the slow onset of summer in snowbeds. Its buds are ready to open the moment that its bed is finally exposed. The snowy white flower turns red as it ages.

Climate warming is a problem for this high fell species. The glacier buttercup has adapted to life in the subalpine zone without having to compete with other species. When the climate warms, other species will begin spreading to higher elevations, but there are no higher growing sites in Finland.  

Read more on the range of the glacier buttercup in the Atlas of the Distribution of Vascular Plants in Finland (, in Finnish).

Labrador Tiger Moth

The rare Labrador tiger moth (Grammia quenseli) also appears on the emblem for the Malla Strict Nature Reserve. It can be seen flying about the Malla Fells on sunny days in June-July. The species can be easily identified by the light yellowish net pattern on its dark forewings.

Like the glacier buttercup, the Labrador tiger moth is a species found in the Alps and northern fell regions, but its habitat is at a lower point above the treeline and at the top of fell birch zone. The Labrador tiger moth spends two winters as a larva and one as an adult. The larvae feed at least on the Alpine lady's-mantle, but not all of the plants it normally feeds on are known. 

Swedish naturalist Conrad Quensel discovered the Labrador tiger moth in Enontekiö in 1791. The discovery was the first in all the world. In 1793, Swedish entomologist Gustaf von Paykull also described the Labrador tiger moth as a new species and named it Grammia quenseli. The species name is a tribute to the first discoverer of the moth. The determination and naming of the species were a success, because the Labrador tiger moth is known by its original name to this day.

Vegetation in Malla Strict Nature Reserve

The lush vegetation and the abundance of species in Malla Strict Nature Reserve result from the altitude differences that are huge on the Finnish scale, from the humidity brought by the proximity of the Arctic Ocean, and from the calciferous bedrock originating from the crumbling schists of the mountain folds. Those schists have emerged from the ancient seabed sediments that now offer their nutrients for the present fell plants to use.

Fell plants live in extremely harsh and varying conditions. The temperatures stay low even in the summer, and the growing season is short. The wintry snow cover offers protection against the drying effect of frost and wind but also shortens the growing season, if it stays on for too long.

Mountain Birch Forests

Mountain Birch forests may be found as high as 600 - 650 metres above sea level in Kilpisjärvi. The Mountain Birch (Betula pubescens ssp. czerepanovii) is the dominant species in the area because Pine does not thrive at this latitude. The best Mountain Birch forests are found on the calciferous slopes of Malla and Saana, and resemble herb-rich forests with their tall herbage. Elsewhere, the Mountain Birch forests are more barren, and their field layer is dominated by dwarf shrubs.

The Alpine Zone

Further up, you find the bare alpine zone, where trees no longer survive, and hardly even shrubs. There are hardly any annual plants either, as the short summer makes the ripening and sprouting of seeds much too uncertain. The dominant plants in this zone are thus dwarf shrubs and other low, dense plants whose underground parts are well-developed. These include the Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea) creeping along the ground, the Diapensia (Diapensia lapponica) and the Alpine Azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens).

The soil being calciferous, the vegetation on the meadows and in places with late-melting snow beds is quite unique. The Net-leaved Willow (Salix reticulata) is a small, ornamental and shrub-like willow that only grows in a nutrient-rich soil, like the one in Malla Strict Nature Reserve. Plants on the rocky walls include the Rock Speedwell (Veronica fruticans), the Green Spleenwort (Asplenium viride) and the Alpine Woodsia (Woodsia alpina).

The Subalpine Zone

The zone from the Mountain Birch forest up to about 950 metres is called the subalpine zone. There you can still find the Alpine Juniper (Juniperus communis ssp. nana), shrub-like willows and Bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus). Above this zone is the midalpine zone, characterised by grassy heaths and snow-covered areas. The White Arctic Mountain Heather (Cassiope tetragona) is the dominant dwarf shrub in that zone. Meadow-like vegetation is particularly common in the areas with late-melting snow beds, on stream banks and at the foot of steep rock walls. On the meadows in the subalpine zone you will find Globe Flowers (Trollius europaeus) and Wood Cranesbills (Geranium sylvaticum), whereas further up you can find the Stiff Sedge (Carex bigelowii), Sheep's Fescue (Festuca ovina) and Highland Rush (Juncus trifidus).

Fell Tops

On the fell top areas, at an altitude of more than 900 metres, there are hardly any dwarf shrubs left; it is the realm of the White Arctic Mountain Heather. Some snow-bed vegetation also thrives there, such as the Snow Buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis) and the various Saxifrages (Saxifraga sp.) It is vital for the fell plants to get their flowers out as soon as the snow melts. They prepare for this during the previous summer so that their buds are ready, waiting for the next summer.

Rare Plants

The Northern Milkvetch (Oxytropis lapponica) is one of the rarest plants in Finland, and it is also rare in all of Scandinavia. Its only discovered habitat in Finland is in the Malla area. Other Malla rarities include the Lapland Rhododendron (Rhododendron lapponicum), the Glacier Crowfoot (Ranunculus glacialis), the Oneflower Fleabane (Erigeron uniflorus) and the Narrowleaf Arnica (Arnica angustifolia). There are 434 vascular plant species found in the Kilpisjärvi area, 28 of which are only found in this area in Finland.