Since leaving Denmark behind us, we are having difficulty deciding on our next destination. Sweden’s west coast is fronted by clusters of islands, ranging from tiny specks to some that are large enough to host races. One island is little more than a grey rock, the next is obscured under a mass of green vegetation. We stop at ten of the islands. One thing that they all have in common, whether uninhabited, covered by development or privately owned, is that anyone may visit them.
A century ago Sweden set the European standard by being the first country to elevate areas to national park status.
Ivar Smits Skipper
Rights and obligations
Sweden has a system called allemansrätten. Translating literally as ‘everyman’s right’, it essentially means that nature is for everyone to enjoy, as long as you do not cause any damage or disturb the owner. It extends right up to where the land is cultivated. Allemansrätten does not mean that you are free pick apples from someone’s garden or set up a tent there if that is what you feel like doing. The right may only be exercised with respect for nature and for your fellow humans.
It is a right that we gratefully exercise as we sail through this stunning part of the world. We make our way from Gothenburg to the border with Norway and explore some of the islands. We anchor in remote areas, hike through wild nature and pick succulent berries. We see fish, crabs and shells in the crystal-clear water. We experience Sweden as it appears in the tourist brochures – in part because the nature is so well-preserved.
Nature as common property
This Swedish allemansrätten puts the common good before everything: nature is for everyone, and takes precedence over private ownership. In fact, the right is so important that it is enshrined in the Swedish constitution. It comes with a responsibility not to cause any damage. The message is that nature needs protecting.
With this principle in mind, back in 1909 Sweden became the first country in Europe to begin establishing national parks. These natural areas receive the highest level of protection. Besides the national parks, the country has a further 4,000 or so nature parks, with individual conservation goals and restrictions. In total, almost 12 percent of Sweden is protected, to preserve the unspoiled nature for future generations and make it accessible to visitors.
Some years ago Sweden inaugurated its 29th national park: Kosterhavet. Being the only national park that protects a marine area, it is ideal for our visit. As we make our way to the Koster Islands, we spot porpoises, seals and numerous bird species, hinting at the extraordinary variety of the area’s rich wildlife. We anchor near the beach of South Koster and paddle ashore to take a closer look.
Understand and protect
Our visit starts at the Naturum information centre. We immediately discover that education is just as important as protection and access. Audio and video guides provide detailed information about the unique underwater habitat between the mainland and the Koster Islands.
For example, we learn that highly saline cold water from the Atlantic Ocean follows a trench all the way to Sweden, at depths of up to 250 metres. The water closer to the surface comes from the Baltic, and is warmer and less saline. This gives the area its extraordinary variety of flora and fauna.
The lesson continues outside. A snorkelling route has been laid out near a popular beach. Pausing to grab masks, fins, snorkels and an underwater camera, we paddle out in our kayak. We dive into the water and swim to the starting point, where a rope marks the route.
Three metres down near the marker rope, a series of signs have been placed at intervals of twenty metres. They explain what marine life to look for – even though the signs are in Swedish we understand what they say, thanks to the pictures and by using a little imagination. We enjoy this informal lesson about how diverse and extraordinary nature can be.
Driven by understanding and respect
Swedish botanist Carl Linnæus founded the current system for classifying plants and animals. His taxonomy revealed how closely entwined animals, plants and their environments are: whatever affects one will also impact the others. Sweden’s conservation efforts are based on this understanding. If we harm nature, we harm ourselves. Understanding and conservation go hand in hand here.
This same mutual dependence is clearly visible around us. The information centre has given us an awareness of the unique and rich world below our keel, and of the importance of preserving it. With unprecedented numbers of animal species under threat of extinction, this is more urgent than ever. Education and access to protected areas may help us appreciate the value of nature and prevent us from further exhausting the planet’s resources.
The Swedish example
When Sweden began elevating areas to national park status a century ago, they were setting a European standard. ‘Why start small?’ they must have thought, and established nine parks at once. Fortunately this bold move has since been followed by other European countries.
This year Sweden is once more leading the way: it has announced its target of becoming the world’s first fossil-free country. By 2050, it hopes to have no more oil- or gas-heated buildings and no more petrol-, diesel- or gas-fuelled cars, only clean energy from renewable sources. This not only shows the country’s ambition, it is also a strong signal about what we need to do.
An alliance between man and nature
Our next Swedish destination is all about permaculture. What does this farming method involve, and what makes it so sustainable? How do they make it work, given Sweden’s rocky soil and harsh climate and its short growth season?