Over the centuries, many people have worked in the forest. For many years, forest farming was just another chore – or one of many chores – that had to be done. You rarely needed to fell a whole tree. More often it involved cutting and pollarding leaves for feed, gathering windfalls and fallen branches for firewood, chopping stakes for fences or herding animals between grazing lands.

Taking care of wood was a major part of everyday life for forest farmers. In April, it was one of the most important chores on the farm. Agriculture had not yet started, and forestry was over for the season. The wood had to be taken home so it could dry over the summer. Sawing and splitting the logs was women's work, and like many children, I had to stack the wood.

Farmers created the landscape. At the start of the 20th century, hundreds of hectares of forest had been put to the plough before once again returning to forest.

The farmer's landscape

The farmers created the landscape which, for a long time, looked very different to the landscape as we know it today. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the line between field and forest wasn't as sharp as it is today. Mixed forms were common and created gentle transitions. Trees often grew in fields and meadows, and provided leaves for feed, with ash being one of the trees that cows preferred. Further away, the forest grew more dense but deciduous seedlings were grazed before they were able to establish. Only when forests were far from a village were they left relatively untouched.

Everything changed in the 19th century. The dividing lines became clearer. Emigration from the farms due to agricultural reforms meant that many meadows, paddocks and outlying farmlands were put to the plough. Arable land increased from 800,000 hectares at the beginning of the century to about 3.5 million by the end. The number of farmers rose from 205,000 in 1809 to 270,000 by 1910. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest, as well as outlying farmlands, had become arable land before the trend was reversed in the following century and the poorest land was reforested.

Forests become valuable

Historically, Swedish forests have been divided into three different "realms." In Bergslagen, the mills owned large forests that initially supplied wood to the mines and charcoal to the smelting houses, before they became leading exporters in the early 19th century. When exporting was no longer viable, the companies moved up to Northern Sweden where they depleted the virgin forest around the turn of the 20th century.

In southern Sweden, it took a long time before forest farming became an industry. Wood and forest grazing dominated well into the 20th century. In the interwar period, more forest owners began to realise that forests could be valuable. The first Forestry Act was introduced in 1903 with the message that forest owners should promote forest regeneration after clearing. The message was well received.

New Forestry Act in 1948

World War II was followed by several decades of regulatory economics, even in peacetime. This also included a new Forestry Act in 1948, which was focused on forestry producing as much wood as possible to meet industrial needs. Forests could not be cleared while conditions for growth were still favourable, but they should be thinned to enable better growth.

At the same time, the definition of forest land was changed. Heathland, marshes and meadows with some tree cover were defined as forest rather than farmland. The owner was thereby required to reforest them. By 1990, more than two million hectares of old farmland had been reforested. The State subsidised planting on one-tenth of this area. But no one spoke about nature conservation until the 1970s.

Land and forest

When forest grazing ceased, the link between agriculture and forestry was broken. The industries were no longer as intertwined as when cows grazed among the pines and pigs rooted for acorns.

However, the connection lingered on. The government's view was that forestry was the natural complement to agriculture. Essentially, all forestry work was carried out in the winter during the off-season for agriculture and, therefore, the government decided that no land could be sold without including sufficient forest to keep the farmer busy all year.

What was the right amount of forest for one farm? In a circular from 1938, the authorities prepared a time estimate based on the length of the growing season in different parts of the country – from 250 days in the far south to 122 days in the far north. In addition, farmers needed 115 days for animal husbandry and maintenance. The forest area was calculated to ensure it kept the farmer busy for the rest of the time. In the south of Sweden, in the Söderslätt agricultural district, there was no time available for forestry, but in the north, forestry was expected to provide three to four months' work.

Blamed for lack of forest

The image still lingered of farmers and their cows as destroyers of forests. The returning boom for the forest industry after the war raised concerns that forestry production would not suffice when mills returned to full capacity. Forest industry unions in particular launched an attack on private forestry. It was alleged that the farmers were not harvesting enough and that their forests were more poorly managed. That the government should force timber from the forests, through mandatory laws or financial controls – or by nationalising the forests.

In the early 1970s, many voices warned that wood's time was soon over and that it would be replaced by plastic, concrete and other materials. Therefore, we should chop it down while it still had some value. If farmers couldn't understand that, we should force them. Roine Carlsson, Chairman of the Swedish Paper Workers Union, (who went on to become Minister of Defence): "It is not a given that the person owning the raw material should determine its price or to whom it should be sold."

The new Forestry Act in 1948 focused on forest management producing as much wood as possible to meet industrial needs.

Rescuing diversity

From 1948 to 1993, forest policy entailed increasing micro-management. It also led to a more uniform landscape under the catchphrase of "Birch begone!" At least, in the format it reached many of the forest farmers, even though the forest managers responsible argue that they never expressed themselves in such an unnuanced fashion. But it seems that somewhere along the way, the nuances were lost.

The dispersed forest ownership rescued diversity – not just biodiversity but also that of forest management itself. New methods are easier to identify than old, should some stubborn forest owners decide to manage their trees according to their own opinions. The forestry districts meant that small forest owners could also take advantage of mechanisation from the 1960s onwards. This was what the government realised when the 1993 Forestry Act provided much greater scope for individual forest owners' to manage their forests.

Author: Gunnar Wetterberg