Author’s note. The following is not intended to inform opinions on land management or represent the people of Norway. It’s simply my observations from a fascinating and awe-inspiring trip to a beautiful country.

 

As a lover of Scotland’s outdoors, I have a long-held affinity for all things craggy mountain, winding river or dense woodland. That’s why, when given an opportunity to visit Norway for a training course developed by ARCH and funded through the Erasmus+ programme, I jumped at the chance quicker than you can say ‘ja’!

Despite many apparent similarities at first glance, the landscape in Norway differs from Scotland in a few major ways, perhaps most notably in the presence of large, land-based predators. Bears, wolves, lynx and wolverines, known as the Big Four in Scandinavia, were a key focus of the course, particularly their relationships with humans and other wildlife further down the food chain.

Despite looking like a miniature bear, wolverines belong to the same family as otters, stoats and badgers. Image credit: Hans Veth

Through a series of presentations, site visits and discussions (occasionally over a tasty moose stew), we learned a great deal about survey techniques, population trends and land management practices. However, while my practical colleagues will be discussing the value of implementing such learning into their own work, I thought I’d share a few observations about the people of Norway and how their attitudes to the land inform the way they live and work with it.

 

People of the land

For starters, almost every person we met around the county of Innlandet had some experience of outdoor pursuits such as hunting and fishing. Individual reasons vary – be it for food, tradition or often simply recreation – but the proportion of people making such direct, active use of the land certainly seems much higher than in Scotland. Moreover, these people seem to come from every walk of life and level of society.

These pursuits have evidently been ingrained in the local culture for thousands of years. The very first post-ice-age settlers of Scandinavia made their way from central Europe in pursuit of the prized hunt of the day – reindeer. Arrows and hooks made of wood and bone may have evolved into modern guns and fishing equipment, but the sense of individual people making use of the land’s resources remains.

Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella is home to one of the few original reindeer herds remaining in Europe.

This has a knock-on effect of providing more information on the natural world than dedicated conservationists could ever achieve alone. Someone may be in a forest to hunt moose or train their dogs, but this often makes them the perfect candidate to count a few birds or other species and help inform the bigger picture.

On the topic of hunting, the reintroduction of predators is often discussed as a potential solution to Scotland’s overpopulation of deer, as at least a partial replacement for human-led management such as shooting or installing fencing. So it’s interesting that in a country with various large predators, shooting seems to be even more prevalent, albeit for differing reasons.

 

Getting an early start

Here in Scotland, we have the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which outlines the various rights and responsibilities we have to the great outdoors. In Norway they have ‘allemannsretten’, which serves a very similar purpose, allowing people access to the vast majority of the country’s natural assets. However, Norway also have Turbo.

For someone who's encouraging people to get out and about, Turbo certainly does a lot of lazing around.

Growing up in Scotland, I’ve long been aware that we have a lot of freedom when it comes to heading off the beaten track, but I was well into my adult years before I felt comfortable stepping far off the path. Was it safe? What if I got lost? What if I came across a particularly ferocious badger?

Turbo is a very clever way of introducing people to the concept of safe, responsible access from a young age. Pulling over on the side of a forest track, an image of this little mascot informed us that this was where our adventure would begin. After that the only sign of this being a managed route was the occasional blue ribbon tied to the trees. A rough kilometre or so took us through hillock-filled mixed woodland, past enormous anthills and finally to a (thankfully) abandoned bear den.

This was when Turbo made his next appearance, on a small container holding information about the area and the bears that have called it home, as well as an opportunity to enter a prize draw.

This den hasn't been used in several years but it was incredible thinking we were walking in the footsteps of these massive predators.

Our guide explained that Turbo moves between different sites every year. He might lead explorers up a hill, along a riverbank or somewhere else entirely. But wherever he is, he’ll be helping the next generation of Norwegians find their feet in the less-trodden sections of the great outdoors. This rotation of routes also keeps the landscape in good condition by never encouraging footfall to one location for too long.

 

Focus on the solution – not the problem

Whether we were learning about predators, land use or anything else, one thing that shone through was the importance that many Norwegians place on open communication and objectivity.

We never came across any debates over whether or not a species should be in Norway – if it’s there, it’s there. That’s not to say that conflicts don’t arise, but the focus is finding a resolution on how people will live alongside nature, not if they will. That could be through the well-funded livestock compensation scheme or using non-native musk ox as a draw for tourists before directing attention to the more naturally and culturally important reindeer. It would be interesting to learn about the Norwegian approach to tackling invasive non-native species such as we have with grey squirrels, but perhaps that's a topic for another day.

The Norwegian Forestry Museum contains fascinating exhibits about the way the land is used by people and nature.

This attitude of open communication evidently extends to the relationships between different landowners. Across Scandinavia, an annual grouse survey is undertaken by vast numbers of volunteers, including hunters, land managers and interested members of the public. The scheme has a tremendous participation rate, with landowners paying to have their estates included. For many, the incentive to take part comes from a desire to gain accurate population data from which hunting quotas can be determined. Give people a reason to care about the land (something which feels innate in Norway) and they’ll have a reason to invest in its future.

I think it’s worth making a quick point about my fellow course participants. With backgrounds in conservation science, gamekeeping, farming and various other disciplines, we represented an interesting mixture of vocations. Despite this, we all had one thing in common – a desire to see Scotland’s nature fulfil its potential. If the similarly varied voices across Scotland’s landscape truly share this goal, we need simply apply some Norwegian objectivity (and a lot of hard graft) to ensure this potential becomes a reality.

 

Final thanks

I’d like to say a massive thank you to everyone who made this trip possible: from the teams at ARCH and Erasmus+ who provided the opportunity, to the many lecturers, land managers and guides who showed us around their beautiful country. To my fellow travellers who were tremendous fun and a pleasure to learn both from and alongside. To Marius Kjønsberg who hosted us at his beautiful farm in Foldall, and especially to Elisabeth Nybakk Riseth of Innland University’s Evenstad campus, who developed an inspirational programme, kept our (occasionally hapless) group on track and provided excellent company to boot.

Evenstad's class of 2022.

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