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Forest freebies

Finland's forests are a lot more than just a raw material reserve for industry. They are an integral part of nearly every Finn's life and leisure. They are certainly not overcrowded: there is 4.7 hectares for every man, woman and child in the country. That is nearly 120 times as much as in Britain (0.04 hectares). Most (62%) of the forests are owned by private persons. It has been estimated that one in four people in this country is a forest-owner, either directly or as a member of a family.

The forests are there for all, whether or not one owns any part of them. Thanks to an old Nordic tradition - called everyman's right - that is enshrined in both customary and statutory law, all citizens, including those of other EU countries, have a right of access to the natural environment, with certain restrictions and irrespective of who owns the land in question. Thus, for example, anyone who wants to can pick berries and mushrooms. Besides rights, there are, of course, also obligations, most of which are self-evident to anyone with common sense: visitors must not damage trees, light fires nor go too close to homes or farm buildings.

An estimated two million Finns gather berries and mushrooms in the wild. This is a pleasant form of outdoor recreation for the whole family, one that gives them pleasant experiences of nature, exercise and tasty food as well. Suitable gathering grounds are not always a long distance away, because berries and mushrooms grow just as well in forests on the edges of cities as in the remotest backwoods. Naturally, dedicated gatherers keep knowledge of high-yielding patches to themselves. Even in disappointing summers, there is always something to be found if one has the stamina to hike and search. The most industrious gatherers are able to make a tidy sum in extra income during their summer holidays by selling their surpluses. Even better, any income from gathering wild berries and mushrooms is tax-free.

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A delicacy found on bogs is the golden-yellow cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus) and in late autumn cranberries (Vaccinum oxycoccos), which are at their best after the first frost has brushed them.

Nevertheless, most of the fruits of the wild are consumed at home and only a small fraction is sold. It has been calculated that the total value of the berries and mushrooms collected in Finland each year is 600 million markkas or about $110 million. Most are taken straight home to be deep-frozen, dried or otherwise conserved. Some are sold from market stalls or in shops, and only a small part is exported. As industrious as Finland's gatherers are, only about ten per cent of the wild berries that grow in the country's forests are collected, and only a couple of per cent of the mushrooms.

Image size 6 Kb The berries that grow in our unpolluted forests are delicately aromatic and rich in vitamins: for example, they contain an average of 10-20 times more vitamin C than grapes. The species picked in greatest quantities is the cowberry (or red whortleberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea), which is also the most important export berry. The forests also yield bilberries, raspberries and wild strawberries.

Inexperienced mushroom-pickers must exercise great caution in the forest, because some species that grow there are lethally toxic. Even an experienced picker is careful to take only species that can be identified with certainty. The species picked in greatest volumes are ceps (Boletus edulis), chantarelles (Chantarellus cibarius) and milk caps (Lactarius), many of which are delicious, but become suitable for human consumption only after pre-processing. In addition to them, there are many other delicious mushrooms, some of which have a long season all the way from autumn until the first snows fall.

Image size 6 Kb Finland is a mushroom-picker's paradise. The total crop in a good year can be as much as two million tonnes, well over half of which comprises edible species. The annual crop picked in recent hears has been about 10 million kilos. The most popular species in export markets, especially in Central Europe, is the cep (Boletus edulis), demand for which far outstrips supply.

The Finnish Forest Research Institute has for many years been studying multiple use of forests and the economic significance of such uses and in recent years has been issuing bulletins and reports - along the lines of weather forecasts - to keep potential pickers posted on how berry and mushroom crops are developing in various parts of Finland.

Wild berries and mushrooms in Finland