Observations from a mid-summer visit to coastal Norway

Sand blew over and under the car along the coastal road from Stavanger airport south into Jaeran. Situated at the bottom of fjordland, Jaeran is a pocket of this beautiful country offering relief for the ‘highanders’ with its straight roads and bigger skies. This precious part of Norway services a major part of the country’s food production. Farmland extends inland from the cliffs, along a coastline fringed with rocks, sand dunes and farm infrastructure, with sparse settlements and roads – there is little of the development typical of many coasts. Nowhere along this coastline will you find glitzy amusement arcades, over-developed shorelines or crowded beaches. A few kitesurfers, walkers and Nordic roller skiers mixed with crops, cattle and glass houses. The farmers here may present solutions for other coastal communities to learn from: their life-long affiliation with the land providing an ability to enhance the capacity for coastal stewardship. Or are the Norwegians missing opportunities to gain more from their coast?

At our Coastwatch workshop, participants included local government officials who work with scientists and farmers to promote environmental grant schemes. We met to talk about the value of the coast, its current management and opportunities for sharing knowledge.

The importance of the farming sector above all else became evident in the discussions (as it had during our site visit). The priority placed on farming in the Jaeren region reflects a national priority in a country where most of the land is too steep to grow potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and other crops. Jaeran is intensively farmed, so the slurry, fertiliser and run-off pose a challenge for maintaining good water quality in rivers, lakes and the sea. Low-lying land for farming is such a priority that other development is discouraged and little land is set-aside for wildlife or tourism along the coastal fringe. Local municipalities offer environmental grants to enhance opportunities for wildlife, in collaboration with the farmers.

From a UK perspective, there is much to envy about the Norwegian society and its coastline. The calm, organised atmosphere of society may be due to a sparser population with more space to roam, yet there are some less obvious issues to consider when it comes to coastal management.

Norwegians are allowed to roam anywhere on their land as long as they don’t cause nuisance – which perhaps means there is less need for coastal ‘hot-spots’ of intensive development. Uses of the beach are regulated to balance people’s activity with nature’s tranquility. Whilst there are few conflicts and existing issues appear to be well-managed, towards the end of the workshop I found myself asking: ‘is there something missing’? Does society have a voice beyond the farming community? Whilst grant money is administered at the local (municipal) level, management was admittedly top-down and in ‘silos’. Perhaps there would be value in considering more space for wildlife and people – improving the health of the coastal ecosystem alongside peoples’ health and well-being. What if there more tourism and eco-tourism opportunities along the Jaeren coast to compliment the focus on fjordland? More paths for summer-skiing, cycling, running, enjoying the huge skies and more fresh local produce from local farm shops. Space for a full dune ecosystem could provide a buffer zone to storm surges.

For hundreds of years, generations of families have serviced their family farms here, preventing over-development of infrastructure along the coast so typical of many countries. Permission to develop anything else is hard-won. Summer-houses are tucked away in the nearby hills. Land prices in the coastal zone are sometimes double the value of those inland. There are few camp sites, cafes or restaurants. In many ways this is refreshingly different – but I had a feeling that the Jaeren people and wildlife might benefit from a bigger discussion about making more of their coast.

Amongst the largest dune area along the Jaeren coast is a wooden building named ‘Friluftshuset Orre’ which literally means ‘fresh-air rest place’. This summarises my overall impression of Jaeren, a tiny but hugely valuable piece of vast Norway. One thing all coastlines have in common is complexity. Multiple uses and multiple institutions with management responsibilities across the land-sea divide. Often faced with division, coastlines also offer unification and in this calm and organised society, perhaps there are more perspectives worth sharing outside of this comfortable land.