In January 2019, Fern approached me about a project to photograph some of the 100s of communities around the EU who make a living from projects that protect and restore forests. They had heard of me thanks to work I had done on Nature’s Keepers, a project to raise the profile of the diverse network of people protecting nature across Europe.

It was clear that we both believe in approaching photography sensitively, that you should be honest with your subjects and clear about how and why you want to tell their story. 

The more communities I visited, the more it struck me that Europeans are forest people. Despite our national differences, our childhoods are full of forest tales and we find shared identity in memories of walking and playing in the woods and climbing trees. That’s because forests and woodland cut across the breadth of Europe, from the mountainous forests of Croatia, where I come from, to the breathtakingly green woods of Ireland, to the dense ancient forests of Romania. They are also part of many peoples’ daily lives – be it families out picking berries and collecting mushrooms in Finland or people taking respite from the heat in Greece.

But as Nature’s Keepers revealed, these forests are under threat. They are being illegally cut for ski resorts, levelled to make way for coal mines, decimated for bioenergy and the pests that are increasing because of climate change.

Throughout 2019, I collected stories from Germany, Sweden, Estonia and Latvia, bringing them together for an exhibition at the European Commission “European Forests, European lives” which puts faces to Europe’s forest stories to remind policy makers that there is a huge difference between tree plantations and real healthy forests. It aims to convince them that our forests deserve to not just be protected, but to also be restored.

I hope you enjoy this small selection which tells the forest tales we need to hear:

Mushroom picking on Dalagård farm, Sweden

The Constitution of Sweden states that "everyone shall have access to nature in accordance with allemansrätten - the right to roam as long as you don’t commit crime. This right comes with equal emphasis on looking after the countryside; the maxim is "do not disturb, do not destroy".

Dalagård farm in the historic Åsgarn valley takes Allemansrätten seriously. It is an area where people have lived and worked for 6,000 years, but which is now increasingly forested – only three per cent is used for agriculture.

The Öster family which owns Dalagård welcomes mushroom pickers to the UNESCO designated biosphere area which has high cultural and environmental values.

These photos reveal the beauty of the area and the importance that mushroom and fruit picking has in local peoples’ lives.

Dalagård farm is in the historic Åsgarn valley welcomes mushroom pickers as part of Sweden’s right to roam.

Mushroom and berry picking in Sweden goes back to ancient times; such foods allow Swedes to ensure important vitamins and minerals are part of their diet year round.

Making Birži birch wine in Latvia

The Latvian municipality of Smiltene is home to the world's first sap tree park - home to 32 different types of birch, maple and walnut tree. The project was started by Ervins Lebanovskis who wanted to build a business related to nature and environmental thinking.

It is based at his house 120 kilometres from the capital, Riga. It was there that they came up with the idea to turn their family recipe for birch sap wine into a thriving business. Birch wine is considered Latvia’s third national drink, after beer and miestiņš a sweet lightly alcoholic home brew made from honeycombs.

The business is really ‘green’ as there is no need for pesticides or mechanisation – just one small hole needs to be drilled to harvest sap.

The local community also benefits from the project as during harvesting season farmers collect their own birch water and bring it. It’s an additional way for them to earn money without cutting the trees that they otherwise would have.

Ervins moved his family to be more in touch with the land, he wants his family to know where food comes from, what birch sap is and how to produce it. 


“In the city, we didn’t see the changing seasons. But here, we don’t only have four seasons, we have hundreds of them: one for each specific flower, berry and fruit.”

Learning by playing in the German forest

The Association for Nature Education is a forest kindergarten 40 kilometres north of Frankfurt. It has given children the opportunity to experience forest life since 1997. Andrea Pfäfflin, one of its teachers, believes that letting children experience nature with their eyes and ears builds a love for the forest they will keep for their whole lives. This is proven by the ex-pupils who come back to relive their childhood memories.

Generations of children have been to the kindergarten and you can see the influence on their lives. Some studied biology or forestry, and even those without linked careers come back with their parents and grandparents.

Certain parts of the forest around the kindergarten were going to be cut, so children talked to their parents and community and collected money to stop this happening.

We react to the forest, meadow and weather,” explains Andrea, the “weather dictates whether we tell stories or play games says Andrea. 

The children’s toys are what they find in the forest and they leave them there each day - each child is an explorer every day.

Estonia - sacred forest, sacred ceremonies 

To many Estonians, forests are sacred. The country is full of sites where for generations people have paid tribute and offered gifts and food in order to connect with nature. One sacred hill particularly stands out, as it overlooks an otherwise flat region.

The surrounding forest is still standing because of campaigns to stop the trees from being cut for a ski-lift which was organised by locals and the Palukula community. The site is now a strictly protected natural and cultural area.

These places’ spiritual history is part of an oral heritage. Little is written down, but local people are clear that they shouldn’t be disturbed, even for archaeological reasons.

"I was allowed to film the gathering on the sacred hill but not the spiritual ceremony hidden in the forest. Until recently, the community did not allow outsiders to document these gatherings at all. Now they believe it is essential for communities to show their cultural traditions and sites in order to preserve and protect them" says Luka Tomac.

Increasing biodiversity through farming in Latvia 

Bekas farm in Latvia is named after the prized porcini mushroom. The owners, Viesturs and Inese Lārmaņi want to show there is another way to farm. It is impossible to save biodiversity with current thinking.

Despite being a working farm, it is also a home to a wide variety of wildlife and plants. Within just one-half square kilometre there are 12 different types of habitats, making it one of the most diverse places in Europe. Ecologically and visually, the farm is similar to how some natural forests would have been thousands of years ago.

As well as producing food, the farm hosts seminars about rare species and habitats. Their aim is to be good for biodiversity but also to produce economically viable food. This is their first year, but it will take at least 5-7 years to see the results.

Probably the most biodiverse habitat on the farm is the wooded meadows. This is what parts of Europe would have looked like before modern agriculture, when wild horses roamed. There are no clear lines between the farm and the forest because species like the European Roller depend on overlapping zones and landscapes.

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