Staff blog: Pining for pine or mourning for moor?

Mike Daniels, Head of Land Management, reports on his recent visit to South West Norway in search of Scottish – Nordic similarities

Mike norway pic detail

It has become fashionable in recent years to compare Nordic countries to Scotland. And usually the Nordics come out on top – in standard of living, childcare, education, quality of life etc. On the face of it, environmental management in Norway concurs with this narrative. The Norwegian models of forestry (where land owners are required to ‘ensure adequate regeneration after felling’) and deer management (where local ‘communes’ set deer cull targets) have been held up as exemplars to their Scottish equivalents – ensuring delivery of environmental  benefits trump (or equate to) private interests.

Ecologically at least there is a remarkable similarity between the Highlands of Scotland and SW Norway. Geology, rainfall, wind speed, temperature and latitude are almost identical, but environmentally, the comparison ends. Our study group (including staff from Woodland Trust Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Plantlife Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Borders Forest Trust as well as a forestry lecturer and a deer manager) found huge contrasts in habitats, management and ownership of land.

The story of woodland expansion in SW Norway is incredible. In the last century, due to a combination of reductions in sheep grazing, reductions in human population and low deer densities, SW Norway has seen a massive increase in woodland cover (on virtually identical geology and climate as the Highlands), putting a lie to the theory (maintained by some in Scotland) that trees simply can’t grow in these conditions.

There is also a natural tree line (something – with the exception of a few tiny examples – entirely absent from Scotland) with vast swathes of montane scrub and their associated rich flora and fauna – a habitat Scotland is struggling to restore tiny patches of.

Land ownership and management is completely different too. In the areas we visited ownership consisted of relatively small parcels of land (as opposed to big estates) and land managers did not classify themselves by one land use. Instead they gained income from a combination of woodland management; agriculture (with a small number of very healthy looking sheep and cattle); tourism and hunting – all underpinned by the ubiquitous woodland. The ever present trees provide a back drop to this diverse economy – from a range of timber products ( firewood to saw logs); through shelter and forage for livestock; attractive scenery and tourist log cabins (built from local timber of course); and shelter and forage for large healthy deer to be hunted .

Local authorities and decision making is just that – local. Over the years in Scotland the amalgamation of tiers of local government have left us with council areas equivalent to the size of small countries rather than small communities. By contrast the Norwegian communes are of a small enough scale to make genuinely local decisions but powerful enough to be respected by central government. As a result there is a much stronger connection with the local environment and the decisions that affect it.

Of course all is not sweetness and light. We heard about conflicts even with these small communes – about developing ski-ing infrastructure; hydro developments; and predators – especially big carnivores cause considerable tensions. And some bemoan the loss of heather habitat to trees – while we pine for pine they mourn for moor. However, what is striking is that with a richer, more wooded environment and a more localised focus on managing it – the local opportunities for nature and people are so much more varied than the ‘blasted moor’ we think of as home.

Over recent years John Muir Trust staff have benefitted from a European Union Erasmsus + fully funded scheme of study tours. Hosted in Scotland by Archnetwork and managed by a consortium of NGOs and government agencies including the Trust, the scheme has seen Trust staff visit Slovenia, Slovakia, Latvia, Romania, Estonia, Finland and Norway.