Trees in war and peace (Swedish agroforestry, part 2)

As a Scandinavian, two things people often ask me about are, first, the Vikings and, second, how come we care so much about the environment. Curiously, the two are linked, starting with the role of trees in the ravaging millennia of the Vikings


By Elisabeth Simelton

Allow me first a short summary. The year 2014 marks Sweden’s 200th anniversary of peace. This can be viewed against the fact that at least half of the previous 300 years (1521–1814) was spent at war with all the neighbours around the Baltic Sea, such as Denmark, Russia and Germany. This meant that Sweden needed soldiers, arms and ships. Where did they find them?

Oak: the king’s tree

One particular tree species that stands out in the Danish and Swedish landscapes throughout history is the oak (Quercus robur). Oak wood is renowned for having long fibres that make it easy to form, is durable and resistant to weather and rot.

Already some 1200 years ago, Vikings had discovered this and sailed their dragon-headed oaken ships to North America and the Near East. Oak remained an important raw material both for trade and warships until the 19th century. One good-sized ship required some 2000 oak trees but raising one full-grown oak required at least 150 years. So, in Sweden, to secure a steady supply, the use of oak was regulated by law from the 13th century.

In other words, the tree belonged to the king. Whoever was caught for the third time chopping down an oak might have their head chopped off as well. It also meant that a lot of fertile land was locked up because warships were viewed as a more productive business than agriculture.

Although the oak produced acorns for pig feed, farmers hated the oak: it was illegal to use the wood and its compact shade and slowly decomposing leaves affected growth in their fields. Instead, they found ways to secretly destroy it.

A lonely oak that survived becoming a warship. Photo: Elisabeth Simelton

A lonely oak that survived becoming a warship. Photo: Elisabeth Simelton

Since the early mid-20th century, oak trees belong to the landowner. Solitary, several-hundred-years-old oaks remain growing through stone fences on farmland, in pastures and on unproductive land, reminding us of the past. As kids we’d sit under an old oak imagining what it seen standing there so long: the Dutch noblemen who came to teach the Swedes mining; the king’s soldiers marching somewhere; poor families migrating for jobs; the first cars dusting up the roads and scaring the cattle. As fine drinkers may know, oak is still appreciated for making wine and cognac barrels. And in a gesture of appreciation, Swedish generals are still decorated with four golden oak leaves on their collars.


Not much grows under oaks except for some mushrooms but for thousands of years other trees—of mixed-aged deciduous and needle—provided wood and food: blueberries, lingon berries, mushrooms and wildlife, such as moose, bear, deer and wolves. Some open space in the forests was cultivated or used as summer pasture; grass and leaves were brought home as winter feed for animals; leaves were spread on draughty floors as insulation and Sphagnum moss pressed between empty spaces in the timber walls.

While most Europeans with coastlines sailed around the world in search of plunder, the Swedish kings were more interested in developing the raw materials in their own backyard: iron ore and forests. The iron was smelted to produce cannons, among other things, and for this fuel was needed. This meant that farmers near ironworks were contracted to produce charcoal in little kilns in the forests (through a process called pyrolysis). If you are hiking in a Swedish forest and run into a circle-shaped depression in the soil about 6 metres in diameter and a couple of decimetres deep, this might be the remnant foundations of a kiln.

As the steel process improved in the 19th century, oaks were no longer used for ship construction and the oak laws were liberalised. Now, instead, farmers make their own little wooden rowing boats for fishing and hunting.

Food for winter

It is easy to forget that Scandinavia wasn’t always at the top of GDP lists. In fact, 100 years ago, 90% of the population was poor farmers. After war, soldiers returned home and, suddenly, the families grew bigger. A couple of hectares of thin, stony soils couldn’t feed families of 8 to12 over the winter. So, one-third of the Swedes emigrated to America, searching for better lives.

Left over from the last glacial period 10 000 years ago, large parts of south-central Sweden consist of low-lying flat areas with unproductive peatland, marshes and wet, humus-rich soils. Therefore, a challenging consequence of the peace treaties after the Napoleonic wars was Sweden’s loss of Finland (read: farmland) in 1809. This loss meant that throughout the 19th century, numerous negotiations took place between the kings (some died during the protracted process), national assembly, shipping industry and local farmers about how to restore the lost agricultural productivity. Eventually, the King decided that water levels would be lowered to drain, in total, 250 000 hectares of waterlogged areas across the country. The biggest project, Lake Hjälmaren, was lowered by 2 metres so that 19 000 hectares of agriculture land could be lifted out of the water by 1880, including the farm where I would grow up a century later. ‘Big’ farmers were responsible for setting up teams to dig drainage ditches every 10–30 metres.

Drainage ditch, Sweden, agriculture

A walk in a Swedish rural landscape in 2014 is like strolling through an open-air history museum. This is one of the ditches dug to compensate for the loss of Finland. Photo: Elisabeth Simelton

After the Second World War my grandfather got about 35 hectares of agriculture land and 45 hectares of forest through leases and buys: a normal medium-sized dairy farm in those days. Leading to the river was a 1 kilometre-long cow path that got gradually wetter and muddier as it passed through land that had been drained. Without the ditches, half of the farm would have been useless. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, modern drainage pipes made it possible to merge the fields again and bring out larger machinery on the less muddy soils. Incidentally, I discovered the carrying capacity of clayey soils when I got stuck with the combine harvester. That’s when I gave up farming and urbanised.

Today, the river is used for a micro-hydropower project. The beaver is the only remaining lumberjack; there are crayfish, perch and pike and wildfowl for hunting or just admiring for their beauty. Land that is still too wet is used as summer pasture for sheep and young cattle. Agrochemical leaching from adjacent fields is regulated through management laws.

Vingåkersån, river, Sweden

Vingåkersån. A swimmable river that was about 2 kilometres wide before the catchment was drained. Can you spot the swallow in the centre of the photo? Photo: Mya Johnnyson


Cars and TV made the Swedes aware of the environment

So what happened with the Swedes between the war-raging and the environmentally friendly period? To cut a long story short, as usual, the indigenous people had long understood the limitations of ecosystems. The demand for landscape beauty came from a corner of the growing middle class: the first batch, in the late 19th century, were urban merchants who wanted parks and natural lakes and forests for weekend excursions. Another batch came in the 1950s, when the blue- and white-collar workers could afford a car and go hiking or caravanning.

Similar to today, military research sooner or later benefits society. Since it takes at least 70 years to complete a cycle of boreal trees, the warship production machinery required research on forest management in order to not only avoid worsening deforestation but also to be more economical about waste products. For example, charcoal kilns used the leftovers of good quality timber that had been sent to sawmills. Today, Sweden is at the forefront of innovative, smarter technologies to use leftover wood chips for heating houses or entire parts of a city.

An important source of the demand for a beautiful and also healthy environment came through accessible new media. Suddenly, people could sit in their living rooms and see what happened in the rest of the world on their TVs. They could watch American environmental awareness and activism grow during the 1960s.

Up to the 1970s, Sweden had few restrictions on agricultural inputs so farmers used agrochemicals such as DDT and heavy metals, just like many other countries still do today. Waterways were poisoned; weeds and wild flowers, birds and snakes disappeared.

Today, although still considered a pest, beavers, along with snakes, red-listed plants and insects are the signs of a healthy farm. Various governmental and non-governmental agencies are now promoting more sustainable agriculture and consumption, such as the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, Federation of Swedish Farmers and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. Consumption of ‘ecological’ or ‘organic’ food is increasing faster than the supply.

According to the Swedish Board of Agriculture, over 500 000 hectares (16.5% of total agricultural land)—about twice the area that was drained in the late 19th century—is now cultivated using certified ecological management practices. The aim is to reach 20%.

For anyone who can stand the temperature, nearly all rivers and lakes will remain safe for a swim among the water lilies and white swans for many years to come.

Just like they were for the Vikings.



Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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