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A walk in the woods: summarising the state of Swedish forests

By: Karin Berqvist

Almost 70 percent of Sweden's land area is covered by forests. In this article, the writer explores the significance of these forests for people, communities, and biodiversity as well as highlighting how they are utilised and managed today.

Autumn 2023: It’s Saturday morning and I’m walking through the forest towards a pine bog with about twenty other people, all with magnifying glasses hanging from lanyards around their necks. We are members of a botanical society and today we are going to learn how to identify different species of sphagnum moss.

Around Sweden, several hundred thousand people are probably out in the forest at the same time as us. In a survey conducted by Statistics Sweden in 2022, 40 percent of Swedes (16 years and older) said they had spent some of their free time out in the forest and countryside every week during the past year [1].

Visiting the forest is easy for us, as we live in a heavily forested country. Almost 70 percent of the land area is forest land, at least according to the generous definition of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which includes clearings.

Sweden’s “Right of public access” also gives residents the right to walk on private land in the countryside and pick berries, mushrooms and many other plants.

Recreation is an ecosystem service that is associated with the forest and is probably undervalued economically. Stepping through soft moss, filling jars with berries and baskets with mushrooms, listening to the hammering of a woodpecker and smelling the perfume of wild rosemary and bog myrtle naturally make us feel good, but also have measurable benefits for our health.

A meta-analysis of 21 studies [2] has shown that, compared to a control group, “forest therapy” lowers our blood pressure and the concentration of cortisol in saliva (biomarkers of stress).
Several studies have also shown that people perceive old-growth forests as having a greater recreational value than younger forests that are harvested regularly [3].

Unfortunately, old-growth forest is not as easy to find in Sweden as intensively managed forest.

Sweden is one of the world’s largest producers of pulp, paper and sawn timber. According to statistics for 2020, Sweden is the fourth largest exporter of pulp, paper, cardboard and sawn timber in the world (after Canada, Russia and the United States). According to the forest industry’s trade association, 69.5 million cubic metres of the raw material that came from Swedish forests was domestic and 6.3 million was imported in 2022. In the same year almost 96 million cubic metres of forest were harvested in Sweden.

Clear-cutting has completely dominated Swedish forestry since the 1950s, as it does today, while many other EU countries have more or less abandoned it. In 2022, only about 3 percent of Sweden’s productive forest land was used for continuous cover (clear-cut-free) forestry [4].

Productive forest land is defined as land that on average can produce at least one cubic metre of wood per hectare per year. Out of 27.9 million hectares of forest land in Sweden, 23.5 is classed as productive forest land. Almost half of this productive land is owned by individuals/family enterprises, while private limited companies own a quarter. Public limited companies and the state together own 20 percent, much of which is located in the northernmost part of the country.

Back to autumn 2023 and our moss hunt. We tread between pine trees of various ages and sizes. The terrain is slightly hilly, but quite easy to navigate. Here and there, a blanket of star-tipped cup lichen lights up a rock face. Goldcrests chirp and we even hear a crossbill. It feels like we are in a vast wilderness in the far north of Sweden. But we are just 25 kilometres west of Stockholm. The mix of trees also breaks the illusion of northern latitudes. There are not only aspen but also oak dotted here and there among the pines, and on a steep slope some sturdy small-leaved lime trees (Tilia cordata) with yellow autumn leaves reach towards us as we tread the path beneath them. We are in the boreonemoral forest.

Swedish statistics on forest protection divide the forest into five natural geographic regions that reflect county boundaries [5] (see map): mountainous forest (9 percent of forest land), northern boreal forest (25 percent), southern boreal forest (36 percent), boreonemoral forest (26 percent) and nemoral forest (4 percent).

According to the EU’s biogeographical classification, Sweden’s land surface is divided into three regions: alpine, boreal and continental (see map). The majority of forests are located in the boreal region. Spruce (Picea abies) and pine (Pinus sylvestris) are by far the most common tree species in Sweden. Barely 19 percent of the timber stock consists of deciduous trees – up from 15 percent in 1990. Since then, some requirements have been introduced into environmental objectives to promote deciduous trees and forest certification criteria. The most common deciduous trees, measured as timber stock, are birch (Betula pendula and Betula pubescens), aspen, and alder (Alnus glutinosa and Alnus incana), which grow throughout the country, and in southern Sweden oak and beech.

During our moss hunt we repeatedly have to wait for a few stragglers. Our guide, who tries to maintain the pace, grunts “Where are they now?”.

“They’re huddled around a log,” someone says.

There are plenty of moss-covered fallen dead trees here, and for those with a keen interest in mosses these are not easy to ignore. Dead wood is vital for many of the species of moss in the forest, and for many lichen, fungi and insects.

A pine tree, perhaps 15 metres tall, stands in front of us with an elongated, vertical slash in its bark, exposing the wood. This is a scar from the heat of a forest fire. It is a sign of the high nature value of this forest, as burnt forests are becoming increasingly rare and are home to many species that can only be found there.

The signs of fire, dead wood, and trees of different heights all point to the fact that we are surrounded by a highly biodiverse forest that should be protected. But we can rest assured that this forest is already protected. It is part of a nature reserve.

Across Sweden, 7 percent of the forest land (5.9 percent of the productive forest land) is strictly protected, according to the definition of the EU Biodiversity Strategy [6, 7]. But this protection is unevenly distributed. Only 3 percent of the boreonemoral forest, where our moss hunt takes place, is strictly protected. The average figure for the country as a whole is higher because just over half of montane forest land is strictly protected, while only 4 percent of nemoral forest, 3 percent of northern boreal forest and 2 percent of southern boreal forest are strictly protected.

8.9 percent of the total forest land in Sweden is formally protected, according to Statistics Sweden. Formal protection includes strictly protected forests as well as areas where there are special protection agreements. 61 percent of the formally protected forest land is in the mountainous region.

In autumn 2023, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and the Swedish Forest Agency assessed how much primary forest and old-growth forest in Sweden lacks strict protection [7].

The starting point is the guidance issued by the European Commission in March 2023 [8] to enable member states to effectively identify and protect primary forests and old-growth forests. The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 calls for 30 percent of EU land area to be protected, of which one-third should be strictly protected. All remaining ancient and natural forests in the EU should be strictly protected.

Because the definitions of primary forest and old-growth forest are similar, both the EU and the Swedish authorities have taken the practical decision to include primary forest in the classification of old-growth forest.

The Swedish authorities have compiled existing older data from field inventories and surveys of continuous growth forests. Based on these, they assess that the area of old-growth forest in the areas covered by the data and which lack strict protection corresponds to around 8–10 percent of all forest land and around 6–8 percent of productive forest land. There may also be other natural forests without strict protection outside these areas, although not to the same extent.

As much as 35–40 percent of old-growth forest in the areas covered by the existing data is estimated to be in mountainous forests, about 30 percent in northern boreal forests, 20–25 percent in southern boreal forests, just under 10 percent in boreonemoral forests and a few percent in nemoral regions.

Our moss hunt is over and we have been able to identify more than 20 species of sphagnum moss as well as a few other moss species along the way. The diversity of species often brings to mind tropical rainforests. But when it comes to mosses (leaf mosses, liverworts and hornworts) there are almost as many species in Sweden as in Costa Rica. Can we sustain this diversity?

The forest is one of the most important environments for mosses in Sweden and they are severely impacted by clear-cutting, as are many other organisms. According to a summary published in 2022, clear-cutting poses a threat to several hundred of Sweden’s threatened species [9]. At the same time, 97 percent of managed forests are harvested by clear-cutting.

Hopes are currently pinned on the EU, but we cannot count on Sweden’s politicians. Between March and June 2023, the EU Council of Ministers adopted three legislative proposals for forests: the new LULUCF Regulation on carbon sequestration in forest soils; the Deforestation Regulation to prevent trade in goods such as coffee and soya, which can lead to deforestation or forest degradation; and the Regulation on the restoration of degraded land. On each occasion, Sweden voted against or abstained from the proposal.

The Swedish government justified its decision not to support the LULUCF Regulation on the grounds that “the proposal as it has been finalised entails significant restrictions on Swedish forestry”.

1. SCB (2023).
2. Qiu Q, et al. The Effects of Forest Therapy on the Blood Pressure and Salivary Cortisol Levels of Urban Residents: A Meta-Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Dec 27;20(1):458.
3 Edwards DM, et al. “Public Preferences Across Europe for Different Forest Stand Types as Sites for Recreation.” Ecology and Society 17, no. 1 (2012).
4. Forestry Commission (2023).
5. Swedish Forest Agency, Swedish Environmental Protection Agency: Forestry Organisation’s evaluation of the effects of forest policy – SUS 2001.
6 European Commission. Criteria and guidance for protected areas designations. SWD(2022) 23 final.
7 The Swedish Forest Agency, Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. Primeval forests and natural forests – compilation of data and assessment of areas. Knowledge base for the Environmental Objectives Committee. SKS: 2023/3258. NV-02484-23.
8. European Commission (2023). Commission Guidelines for Defining, Mapping, Monitoring and Strictly Protecting EU Primary and Old-Growth Forests.
9. SLU Artdatabanken, WWF. Forest species threatened by modern forestry.


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