History of afforestation
in the Nordic countries
Olafur Eggertsson, Per Holm Nygaard
and Jens Peter Skovsgaard
16 History of afforestation in the Nordic countries
The last late glacial from 22,000 up until just before 13,000 years ago was
very cold and dry throughout Europe. Large ice sheets were present over
much of northern Europe, and ice caps covered the Alps and the Pyrenees.
Forest and woodland were almost non-existent, except for isolated areas
of woodland vegetation and close to the mountain ranges of southern Eu-
rope. Instead, a sparse grassland or semi-desert covered most of south-
ern Europe, at the same time as a mixture of the dry, open steppe tundra
and polar desert covered the parts of northern Europe not occupied by ice
sheets (Figure 1). Ice-wedge geomorphological features suggest that perma-
frost extended across most of Europe, down to about the latitude of central
France. At this time drifting sand and wind erosion were common in north
and central Europe.
At the glacial maximum in Fennoscandia, only the south-western part
of Jutland was ice free and a large part of what is today the North Sea was
dry land connecting Jutland with Britain. The ice sheets also covered the
whole of Iceland and the Faroe Islands (Figure 1).
Conditions then quickly became warmer and moister, and similar to
the present, although with a strong cold dry event around 11,000 years ago
(The Younger Dryas event). Around 8,000–5,000 years ago climatic condi-
tions seem to have been slightly warmer than at present across central and
Figure 1. Last glacial maxi-
mum in Northern Europe, ca
20 thousand years ago. Gla-
ciers covered Fennoscandia,
Faroe Islands and Iceland,
whereas, South-West Jutland
and most of southern and
central Europe was ice free
and covered by steppe-tundra
Afforestation in the Nordic countries 17
When the ice sheet started to melt away tree species began to colonise
the ice-free regions. Some fragments of vegetation may have survived dur-
ing some periods of the glaciations in Fennoscandia and Iceland (on nuna-
taks), but the most common opinion is that most species that are present in
this region immigrated during and after the deglaciation.
During the rst colonisation phase in Fennoscandia birch, juniper, aspen
and Scots pine reached the area. As climate improved and became warmer,
similar to the present day climate, species like hazel, oak, elm and lime im-
migrated and established through the boreal, Atlantic and subboreal period.
Norway spruce and beech immigrated later, as the climate shifted towards
cooler and moister conditions some 4000 years ago (Figure 2). Most of
these tree species never reached Iceland or the Faroes, due to geographical
isolation. Pollen analyses show that birch species colonised both countries
soon after the glaciers started to retreat. In the Faroes the distribution of
birch was most wide-spread 9500–9000 years ago, but after that birch spe-
cies seem to have retreated and stayed at a relatively low level until the set-
tlement of the islands. Soon after the settlement downy birch disappeared
completely from the Faroes. In Iceland the distribution of birch was great-
est 9000–7000 years ago. The birch forests retreated again for a period of
2000 years due to climatic change. The climatic conditions improved ca.
5000 years ago and the distribution of birch increased again and it has been
Figure 2. A pollen diagram
from the inner Oslo Fjord,
Norway, showing the
immigration of different
tree species into the region
after the last glaciation.
Based on Ulf Hafsten
18 History of afforestation in the Nordic countries
estimated that at the time of the settlement in the late 9th century 20–30%
of Iceland was covered by birch forests (Figure 3).
During the last 5000 years the forests of Fennoscandia have been in-
uenced by human impact, including slash and burn practices, grazing,
and production of timber, rewood, charcoal, iron, tar, potash, and fuel.
In Iceland and the Faroes this occurred much later, i.e. between AD 500
and 900. Human impact has led to large-scale forest clearance, especially
in the southern (Denmark, South Sweden) and western (West Norway, the
Faroes, Iceland) part of the Nordic region. In the Faroes forests had com-
pletely disappeared around AD 1000, forests covered only 2–3% of Den-
mark in the beginning of the 19th century, and the forest coverage in Iceland
was below 1% in the beginning of the 20th century.
Present forest cover in the Nordic region ranges from 0.1%, in the the
Faroes, up to 69% of the land area in Finland (Table 1).
Figure 3. A characteristic soil prole from
Icelandic mire with a birch and willow pollen
diagram. During the boreal (9-7000 years ago)
and the subboreal (5-2500 years ago) the mires
became dryer, represented as log horizons in
the mires and increase in birch pollen. Illustra-
tion by Thorbergur H. Jonsson, pollen diagram
based on Thorleifur Einarsson 1991.
Table 1. The forest cover in different countries in the Nordic region (in thousands of hectares).
Faroes Iceland Denmark Norway Sweden Finland
Forest 0 43 500 9387 27528 22500
Other wooded land 0,1 106 136 2613 3257 802
% forest and other wooded
land of total area of country 0,1 1,5 14,8 37,1 68,4 68,9
Total area of country 140 10300 4309 32376 44996 33814
Afforestation in the Nordic countries 19
Historical background of afforestation
As stated earlier, afforestation in the Nordic region has been most intensive
in the southern (Denmark and South Sweden) and western (West Norway,
the Faroes and Iceland) part of the region. Throughout this region steps
have been taken to protect existing forests and establish new ones.
The Danish Forest Act of 1805 introduced the concept of forest re-
serves, which was applied to the majority of forested land at the time. For-
est reserves, in principle, could not be converted to other land uses and
management had to comply with good forestry practices, primarily aimed
at wood production.
By the late 1860s an emerging national movement towards the utilisa-
tion of the vast areas of barren heathland in Jutland provided a foundation
for afforestation activities that lasted essentially unchanged for a century.
Initiatives were triggered by a number of factors that do not relate directly
to forestry. The loss of one third of the Danish land area in 1864 following
a war with The German Federation (Prussia and Austria), enhanced patriot-
ism, industrial development, and substantial public grants were some of the
The most conspicuous factor appears to be the loss of land due to war.
Land lost outwardly should be regained within the country became a suc-
cessful slogan for heathland afforestation. At the same time there was a
strong belief that afforestation would be a major factor in promoting eco-
nomic development for the benet of land owners as well as entire local
communities. This was probably the main argument for almost a whole
century, but recent research disproved the theory.
Figure 4. The estimated woodland cover in Iceland before it was settled in the late 9th century (left, approxim-
ately 30% woodland) and today (right, approximately 2% woodland).
20 History of afforestation in the Nordic countries
Heathland plantations were established by different groups of owners:
private land owners, co-operatives, newly-rich people in major cities, and
the national forest service. While patriotism, expected future income, and
regaining past status, lost land and timber resources undoubtedly played a
signicant role, many private land owners were probably equally persuad-
ed by public grants for afforestation. Next, inuential city people who had
recently become wealthy through the emerging industry saw an opportu-
nity to establish a contemporary parallel to inherited nobility. Their remote
heathland estates also provided secluded recreational opportunities.
During the 1920s renewed interest in continuous cover forestry and the
advent of nature conservation led to a halt in afforestation. Subsequently, the
economic recession in the 1930s re-started activities to mitigate massive un-
employment. Heathland afforestation was promoted until the 1960s, but dis-
continued due to high employment rates and changes in agricultural policies.
In 1896, The Danish Forestry Society suggested the establishment of
an ofcial forestry extension service for owners of small forests only, and
since 1904 the government has encouraged small woodlot owners to form
associations in order to take advantage of economies of scale. In 1904 the
rst local Forest Owners Association was founded and government grants
were made available to these associations for increasing wood production.
The primary aim of the Association at this time was to offer forestry exten-
sion services to its members.
Consultants were nanced partly by membership fees and partly by The
Danish Forestry Society, and smaller forest owners strived to obtain state
subsidies for forestry extension services. A committee under The Danish
Forestry Society analysed the silvicultural status of the smaller Danish for-
ests, especially in Jutland, and presented their ndings and proposals to the
Ministry of Agriculture. Consequently, an act which made it possible for
the Ministry to grant local Forest Owners Associations the right to operate
a forestry extension service for their members was introduced in 1919. In
1939 the seven local Forest Owners Associations had a total of 2,200 mem-
bers and forest land totalling 13,000 ha.
The outbreak of World War II and compulsory felling started the estab-
lishment of new associations. The rst local Forestry Extension in the is-
land of Zealand, Denmark, was founded in 1940. The same year the nine
existing Associations founded Danish Forestry Extension (DFE) to be able
to act jointly and represent the forest owners’ interests on a national basis.
By 1965 DFE consisted of 16 local units with 5,300 members and a total of
34,700 ha of forest land.
Afforestation in the Nordic countries 21
Since 1969 private forests have been open for public access on roads
and pathways from 7:00 am to sunset. Moreover, many private forest dis-
tricts have followed state forest districts in establishing various facilities
for public use, such as playgrounds, simple camp sites, information boards,
visitor centres, barbecue sites, bird-watching towers, etc. Forest owners,
private and public, also make their forest available on a voluntary basis for
local schools for education purposes.
A new Forest Act was passed in 1989. The new Act changed Denmark’s
fundamental management principle from being one of “good forestry” to
one of “good and multiple-use forestry”. This allowed for the development
of a new grant scheme, which was in part to increase the area of broad-
In the 1990s the government was dedicated to doubling the nation’s for-
est area within one rotation (80–100 years), through state afforestation and
nancial support to private afforestation.
The new Danish Forest Act from 2004 has four primary objectives:
Conserve and protect the Danish forests. •
Improve the stability of the forest sector, the ownership •
structure and productivity.
Contribute to increasing forest cover. •
Strengthen the advisory service and information on good •
and multiple-use forest management.
As a result, the main objective of the National Forest Programme is full
implementation of sustainable forest management, which incorporates eco-
nomic and ecological as well as social considerations. Among the objec-
tives of this Programme is that forest landscapes should cover 20–25%
of Denmark after one tree generation (80–100 years), and the scope and
potential for natural habitats and processes should be strengthened.
During the period from 1994 to 2004 an additional 20,000 ha of agri-
cultural land have been afforested in Denmark. Approximately 75% of
the afforestation has been done by private landowners, and the rest has
been public afforestation projects, mainly by the Danish Forest and Nature
The rst steps towards a national afforestation programme in Norway were
taken in the late 1930s when the Forest Director (Skogdirektøren 1937) and a
committee of the Norwegian Forest Society (Utmarkskomiteen 1939) evalu-
22 History of afforestation in the Nordic countries
ated the critical forest situation and examined the possibilities for increas-
ing forest investment in the coastal regions. However, World War II made
any further action difcult. In 1946, the head of the Forest Research Station
of West Norway, Anton Smitt, presented to the Parliament a vision of how
afforestation would gradually improve people’s quality of life and scenar-
ios for a new wood-based industry. The rst really large step was taken in
1951 by the White Paper “Innstilling fra Skogkommisjoen” (Skogdirektøren
1951–54), the basic ideas of which were adopted by the Norwegian Parlia-
ment in 1953–54. The major conclusions from this work were:
In the afforestation areas, each municipality was responsible •
for setting up their own reforestation plans and programmes
for tree planting and setting priorities.
The government was willing to subsidize up to 50% of the cost of •
establishing new plantations.
Municipality grants implied that up to 75% of the planting costs were cov-
ered from governmental sources (after 1964, 85% of the costs were cov-
ered by the government).
Figure 5. The Icelandic Forest Re-
search at Mogilsa around 1970 (top)
and 2008 (bottom). The research
station is a national gift from the
Norwegian people. It was ofcially
opened in 1967 by King Harald V of
Norway (then prince). Photos: top
Unknown, bottom Edda Sigurdis
Afforestation in the Nordic countries 23
In Iceland, organized forestry is considered to have started in 1899 with
the planting of the “Pine Stand” at Thingvellir. Forestry efforts focused on
protecting birch forest remnants during the rst half of the 20th century,
with several forest areas being acquired by the Iceland Forest Service (IFS)
(founded in 1908) for that purpose. These, along with more recently ac-
quired afforestation areas and experimental forests, comprise the National
Forest system today.
The Icelandic government did not really become heavily involved un-
til the 1950s, when it became much more active in terms of legislation,
research and nancial support. Since 1955, forest laws have banned clear-
cutting of the native birch forests except by permission of the IFS, and
land reclamation is intended to lead to establishment of woodlands where
By adding a forest tax to cigarettes during the 1960s and part of the
1970s, the government was able to support the tree-planting activities of
both the private forest societies and farmers.
In the 1980s and 1990s government activities expanded rapidly, with
erosion control and recreation as the main objectives. President Vigdís
Finnbogadóttir made afforestation a priority and a popular concern. In the
years of her term, from 1980 to 1996, the Icelandic state budget for forestry
increased, mainly because of support provided for farmers’ afforestation
programmes. In addition, private investors, local communities, forest soci-
eties and other entities were supporting afforestation.
The latest legislation regarding local afforestation programmes states
that at least 5% of the lowland (215,000 ha), shall be transformed into
woodlands during the next four decades.
The increase in woodlands has not occurred without conict with live-
stock farmers. For centuries, the commons were used for sheep and horse
grazing, and the plantations have had to be surrounded with fences to pro-
tect them from animals, resulting in many square plantations around Iceland.
However, in recent decades the number of grazing animals has declined.
More and more of the former pastures have been fenced in, allowing both
natural regeneration of birch and plantations of this and other species.
The aims of afforestation within the Nordic region are many and depend
on various factors. Earlier, and especially in regions with a strong forest
24 History of afforestation in the Nordic countries
industry, the primary aim was to build up resources for the timber industry
and to have a positive inuence on rural development. An example of this
is the large-scale afforestation in West and North Norway which began
in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Within a period of sixty years the plan
was to cultivate 325,000 hectares of land in West Norway and 100,000 ha
in North Norway, mostly by establishing highly productive spruce planta-
Simultaneously, by increasing the productivity of spontaneous woods of
broadleaves and pine by improved silviculture the allowable annual cut by
2030 is estimated to reach about 3.7 million m3 in West Norway and about
1.0 million m3 in North Norway. The recommendations about tree species
and provenances, cultivation methods and management relied on the results
from forest research. Projects were designed both at governmental and local
levels. The Norwegian Forest Society and the forest county societies have
been designated to undertake parts of the programme, i.e. the production of
seedlings. Most municipalities had initiated local afforestation programs in
the mid-1950s, and up to the 1980s the plans and time schedules were well
adhered to. However, after 1980 there has been an overall decline in tree
planting in the afforestation areas due to several reasons:
The most suitable areas for economically attractive forestry were •
to a great extent already cultivated.
The economic support from the government became less favourable. •
The awareness of environmental impact increased and local conicts •
The economic contribution from forestry to the farmers’ income •
gradually declined due to lower prices for wood and the higher
costs of labour.
The property structure was still dominated by small scale owners •
for whom income from forestry became more and more marginal.
The huge colonization of other forest land of broadleaves and Scots •
pine in the afforestation areas has called for a more focused effort.
In Iceland large scale afforestation began only by the end of the 20th cen-
tury when regional afforestation programs were started (Figure 6). This
involved direct support from the government to farmers for planting new
forests. Farmers could thereby acquire some income for planting on their
own land. The primary aim of these projects has been to have a positive
inuence on rural development. Studies in East Iceland, where these plans
Afforestation in the Nordic countries 25
are most developed, have shown that the projects have served that aim to
some extent. Other aims of these projects have been vaguer. Due to slow
growth, signicant income from timber production can only be expected
by the late 21st century and as the country does not have any signicant
timber industry or tradition for utilising timber products it is difcult to
estimate what will be the value of these forests as a resource for any future
timber industry. Other benets from afforestation in Iceland are environ-
mental, such as soil protection and carbon sequestration, and social, such
as forests for amenity and recreation.
In general there has been a shift in the focus of afforestation projects
from productive forestry to forestry for environmental and social purposes.
As an example, one fth of the Danish municipalities plan to afforest some
areas in the next 5 years, for example to attract new inhabitants. The at-
tractiveness and values of afforested areas have been investigated in two
independent Danish studies. In the rst study qualitative and quantitative
surveys in two municipalities indicated that forests improved the quality
of life of the respondents. A short distance from the residence to the near-
est forest usually resulted in a higher frequency of forest visits and a more
positive view on the natural qualities of the local area in general, compared
to respondents living further from forests. Proximity to nature, includ-
ing forests, was furthermore mentioned as the most important reason for
choice of their present home by 17% of the respondents. These results are
supported by the second study in which housing prices were used to bring
out the residents’ valuation of forested housing areas. By using the hedonic
price method homeowners’ willingness to pay for proximity to forests was
found to be signicant and positive, and in most circumstances the aggre-
gated value is expected to exceed the cost of afforestation.
1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Millions of seedlings
Figure 6. Annual planting in
Iceland during 1942-2006.
Afforestation suffered from
extreme spring frost in 1963
which killed a large proportion
of planted forest in southern
and western Iceland. This had
a negative effect on public
interest and it took almost 30
years before the number of
planted seedlings equalled
26 History of afforestation in the Nordic countries
Throughout the region there has been increased emphasis on use of native
species. This has been partly due to the decreased importance of productive
forestry and partly due to increased concern about the use of exotic spe-
cies. In Denmark there is now little natural forest left, and large parts of the
forests are quite uniform and often with limited value for the protection of
biological diversity and recreational purposes. Almost 37% of the forests
are deciduous, while the remaining woodlands are planted with non-na-
tive coniferous tree species. A recent development during the last 10 years
is that the fraction of deciduous forest is now increasing, whereas it used
to be decreasing. This development is triggered through state afforesta-
tion, nancial incentives and a negative development in soft-wood prices.
The Danish forest cover is still increasing through public afforestation and
private afforestation promoted through incentives. But still, Denmark is a
relatively forest-poor country, with only around 0.1 ha of forest per capita,
as compared to Sweden with 2.8 ha per capita.
The Norwegian forests are characterised by only two native coniferous
tree species of commercial interest, Norway spruce and Scots pine. Early
foresters claimed the need for introduction of more species. Among the
rst was Andreas Bull (1780) who wrote the book An Attempt to Improve
the Norwegian Forestry.
The main reasons for introducing new species in forestry were the search
for faster-growing species, species better adapted to an oceanic climate, spe-
cies more resistant to pathogens, but also the idea of more exotic forests.
About 50 tree species have been introduced through forestry in Norway cov-
ering today about 1% of the productive forest area (80,000 ha). However,
only a few have been planted to a larger extent such as Sitka and Lutzi spruce
(55,000 ha), lodgepole pine (12,500 ha), larch (4,000 ha) and r (3,000 ha).
In this connection the intensive afforestation of West Norway by native
Norway spruce should also be included. The total area of plantations in
Norway amounts to 3.6 million ha, of which 2.8 million is spruce.
In Iceland, many exotic species have been tried during the past 50 years.
The period from 1950 to 1990 was a time when a great deal of experience
was gained through experimenting with different exotic species and prov-
enances. The main species planted were exotic conifers: Norway spruce,
Sitka spruce, Scots pine, lodgepole pine and Siberian larch.
Afforestation in Iceland through planting has increased signicantly
since 1990 to over 6 million seedlings in 2004. Planting of native birch
Afforestation in the Nordic countries 27
has been “increasing”, comprising as much as 30% of seedlings planted
in some years. Siberian larch is planted to roughly the same extent as na-
tive birch, followed by Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine and black cottonwood.
These 5 species comprise about 90% of the seedlings planted in Iceland,
with over 20 other species comprising the remaining 10%.
As in Iceland, many tree species have been tried in the Faroes. All
of these must be considered as exotics as forest-forming tree species
disappeared from the islands a thousand years ago. The most important
coniferous species are Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine and larch. Many different
broadleaved trees are used; amongst the most important are birch, alder,
black cottonwood and rowan.
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