Foto: Anna Theander

The Church of Sweden and the forests

The reason the church owns the forests

The church’s properties comprise churches, cemeteries, land and forest. In total this is about 400,000 hectares of productive forestry and 95,000 hectares of agricultural land – circa 1% of all land in Sweden.

Since the Middle Ages

The church’s ownership of the land dates back to the Middle Ages. Sweden’s first Christian king, Olaf Skötkonung built churches and installed priests as far back as the 1000s. Wages for the priests came from the congregation’s ‘tenth’ but was also provided from cultivation land and forest for fuel and timber. In 1527 Gustav Vasa claimed most of the church’s property for the state. The land that the church was allowed to keep is to a large extent the same as today’s holdings.

Keeping church fees low

Even if the church’s properties and funds are still called “priest-salary assets” the returns do not go solely to paying the priests, but also to pay the majority of the church operational costs, thus keeping the church fees low.

The diocese forests

The forests of Skara diocese comprise around 25,000 hectares of productive forest. Forestry is run commercially but with an overall objective – “Use but do not consume”. The practical forestry is undertaken so that the forest, as an environment and living space for man, animals and diverse plants, is maintained and developed.

Nature Conservation

Maintaining nature conservation is a natural part of forestry and agriculture on the church’s lands. Preserving threatened environments and plants is most important, but measures to facilitate outdoor pursuits and exercise are also prioritised. Practically all church-owned land also grants leases for hunting, wildlife control, and fishing.

Key biotope habitats

According to law, large forest-owners must themselves investigate the threatened species in their own forests.  Areas that contain valuable species are called key biotope habitats and are registered with the Forestry Commission. On diocese land there are over 100 key biotope habitats extending to 300 hectares. This is equivalent to just over one percent of the diocese’ productive forest lands. Preservation of key biotope habitats sometimes requires them to be undisturbed but also maintained. For example, one may need to cut down propagating spruces on marshland with rich vegetation.
 
The Church wants to take on more of its environmental responsibilities than is required by the Forestry Conservation Act. Amongst other things the church establishes its own protected areas. The first diocese reserve of the Skara diocese, Gullängen, was established in 1990. Second to that, in 1992, Oxhagens diocese reserve in Berg, Lerdala, was inaugurated with the cooperation of Bishop Lars-Göran Lönnermark among others. Subsequently a further 22 diocese reserves have been established.  The County Administrative Board has also designated nature reserves, in whole or in part, on land belonging to the diocese.  Today there are about 2,600 hectares of reserves on church lands.

 

A guest in the countryside

 Allemansrätten (The Right of Public Access) is unique to Sweden. Its origins lie far back in time when our forefathers had to travel across land with no thoroughfares and stay overnight in the open air. Today it is quite different. The right of public access is actually not a right but rather guidelines for what can be considered good practice and good behaviour in our interaction with nature. In the diocese reserves, right of public access rules apply, but for certain areas, for example nature reserves and natural monuments, there are special provisions.

According to the right of public access it is permitted to:

  • Access any land except private residences, cultivated land or planting
  • Collect flowers, mushrooms and berries, except for protected plants
  • Collect dry branches and twigs for a local campfire
  • Pitch a tent but only for one night in the same place
  • Swim, row, sail or in any way travel on or in the water and bathe from another’s land or jetty
  • Cross fences
  • Bring a dog as long as it is under control

It is not permitted to:

  • Litter or cause damage
  • Light a fire in the open if there is the slightest chance of forest fires
  • Take twigs, branches, bark or nuts from living trees and bushes
  • Take nests or eggs
  • Fish* or hunt without permission
  • Drive motor vehicles on land or roads displaying a sign forbidding unauthorised traffic.

* in “the large lakes” certain fish are free to fish