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Sweden: taking forestry back to the future

13 May 2020

Sweden: taking forestry back to the future

The popular image of Sweden as a forest-rich nation is no myth: 58 per cent of the land area is productive woodland. But beyond this statistic lies another, deeply disturbing one. Nearly three-quarters of Swedish forests are less than 60 years old, and most of our woodland comprises spruce and pine plantations.

According to the Swedish Species Information Centre (part of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) 1800 forest species are threatened, mostly because of Sweden’s dominant forestry model, which relies on clearcutting – and has led to monoculture plantations replacing vast swathes of the country’s boreal old growth and natural forest. Today, natural forests are so rare that many Swedes have never seen one in their own country.

At Plockhugget we’re trying to change this.

Plockhugget is a new Swedish company promoting close-to-nature forestry. In practical terms, this means producing quality commercial timber while retaining forest cover and ending clearcutting, through a system known as continuous cover forest management (CCF). This allows us to produce more timber of sufficient quality to build wooden products, such as furniture and houses, rather than focus on low quality wood for making pulp and paper products. Around 70 per cent of the Swedish wood harvested for material use ends up in pulp and paper products, whereas roughly 30 per cent is used as sawnwood or panels.

The company’s goals are to improve individual forest owners’ incomes, and for buyers to have access to varied, good quality timber, which they can trace to its source. We also want Sweden’s forests to be sustainable, beautiful and diverse once more.

Plockhugget helps bring together buyers and sellers of timber produced under the CCF system. We organise courses and provide services including support in the development of forest management plans and natural forestry management. All the wood we distribute is traceable to the stump, thanks to technology from the company Tracy of Sweden. With each plank we provide a story about the forest and its owners.

We also aim to reduce transport distances and help to revitalise the Swedish countryside. Therefore, we cooperate, above all, with small and medium-sized sawmills, as close to the harvesting site as possible.

Many of us own forests and manage them without clear-cutting. Some of us come from the industrial sector, others from an environmental background. We know that it’s possible to use the forest in a way which brings economic as well as ecological benefits.

We promote close-to-nature forestry as part of our advising and education programmes. However, we deal with timber harvested by other methods as well, as long as they meet our high CCF standards, including not using pesticides or fertiliser or planting exotic tree species. This also involves letting the forest develop, grow and age naturally.

In a natural habitat, trees both compete and collaborate with one another, and the most vital ones help each other use light and nutrition. This minimises nutrient leakage and carbon emissions, and environmental benefits are preserved and increased.

Variation and biodiversity are not only accommodated within the system, they are prerequisites. With more species in the forest, its ability to withstand fungi or insect attacks and repair itself after storms, fires and floods increases. Continuous cover forestry also reduces soil erosion.

As the forest grows, it sucks carbon dioxide and stores carbon in both trees and particularly in organic matter in the soil. Two thirds of the carbon stored in the Swedish forest is found underground. Since no large areas are clear-cut, almost all the carbon stays in the ground and the forest can act as an effective carbon sink.

Over time, close to nature forestry provides better quality timber, with dense annual rings and small twig marks. Although the trees grow more slowly, and therefore deliver smaller volumes of timber, the timber is worth more. Studies by the Finnish forestry professor Timo Pukkala and his team have shown that timber from continuous cover forestry gives lower costs and greater profitability for forest owners.

Those cultivating their forests according to our standard choose which trees to harvest and when, only cutting them when they are likely to receive a good price.

If, for example, interest in buying aspen timber is low, you simply wait for demand to rise and prices to improve. Each year you have more wood to supply compared to conventional use, and as a result, the value of woodland increases.

One of Plockhugget’s founders, Erik Kullgren, is also a forest owner. His desire to change Sweden’s destructive forest model is based on personal experience.

“In the early 2000s we allowed part of our forest to be clear-cut,” he explains. “We were shocked and ashamed of what we’d done to nature, and sought a different path. I started to learn about other ways to manage forests. In the beginning it was hard to stop interfering with the natural processes, because it goes against what you have been taught to do, but with a more natural forest comes resilience, beauty, less work and the good feeling of not wrecking the ecosystem we depend on.”

More natural, beautiful forests can also benefit Sweden in other ways. Eco-tourism is growing, and according to a survey by the organisation Visit Sweden, nature is the country’s second biggest attraction for foreign tourists. In a natural forest, forestry and tourism can be combined.

Sweden’s forest industry has a long way to go. We hope that Plockhugget will be part of a much bigger change than we can achieve on our own.

But for this change to happen at the necessary rate, more money needs to be invested in research and the government must offer incentives for encouraging owners to help create natural forests, rather than plantations. The EU also has a role to play: it could incentivise this through the Biodiversity Strategy, upcoming Climate Laws, funding under the Common Agricultural Policy or even the Green New Deal.

We’ve heard that Timmermans wants to work on reforesting Europe. We advise him to focus on restoring our existing forests: there is so much work to be done there.

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The second report of the series, EU Forests of Hope, reveals the options to protect and restore forests that already exist: The positive stories of communities showing how we can work for forests and how the forests can work for us. 

Categories: Blogs, Forest Restoration

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