Freedom to roam or how to behave in nature

Estonian nature is our national treasure which everyone has a right to access. However, the right also places an obligation on hikers, holidaymakers, as well as landowners or possessors of land to keep nature in decent order, clean and beautiful. Our Nordic nature is vulnerable, and its load capacity is not high, and therefore its biota and its undisturbed state must be protected in order to preserve it for our descendants. All the rights and responsibilities regarding man’s interaction with nature are collectively termed the freedom to roam. These ethical principles rely both on laws and customs and have been respected already by our ancestors.

Outdoor recreation and camping

In Estonia, it is permitted to access natural and cultural landscapes on foot, by bicycle, skis, boat or on horseback. Unmarked and unrestricted private property may be accessed any time and pick berries, mushrooms, medicinal plants, fallen or dried branches, unless the owner forbids it. Also, camping on unmarked and unrestricted private property is allowed for up to one night, unless the landowner forbids it. When camping, stay out of the estimated range of vision and hearing of the residential building. Also, when staying or camping in a land property of another person, avoid causing damage to the property and environmental disturbances.

When private land is fenced or marked appropriately, the landowner’s permission is necessary to stay in or pass through the land. The property is fenced and marked when the private property signs or the fences are visible to everyone. A single border stone or old dilapidated fence cannot be considered proper fencing or marking. The “no trespassing” signs must be spaced so that no one can enter the property without noticing the signs.

Landowners may permit access to or walking in their land but forbid, for example, camping or gathering natural products. In such cases, the prohibition must be expressed clearly either in writing (on a sign) or verbally.

Landowners must not prohibit moving or travelling on land, roads and waterbodies that are public or designated for public use, including ice and on shore paths. Landowners must not prohibit the use of a private road or path for travelling on foot, by bicycle or another similar method, if such usage is well-established and is not burdensome for the road.

In a nature reserve one must consider that protection rules are effective in protected areas. Such rules determine the restrictions for movement and whether or where camping is allowed or campfires can be made. If the protected area is located on private land, the landowner must not restrict access there if the protection rules allow.

Shore paths and access to waterbodies

All waterbodies that are public or designated for public use have public shore paths that are up to 4 metres wide. The width of the shore path of a navigable waterbody is up to ten metres from the waterline. Landowners must not block this path even if their private land is fenced or marked with “no trespassing” signs.

Owners or possessors of the shore may fence the shore path based on the written consent of the local authority or the Agriculture and Food Board and in the event of a reasoned need, such as the grazing of animals or soil drainage. A shore path may be closed in case of an overriding public or private interest in a comprehensive plan. Grazing areas and other enclosed areas on shore paths must have stiles to ensure passage. If the shore path is closed, a detour must be ensured.
Ponds with no outlet located entirely on the land of one landowner and lakes smaller than five hectares located on land belonging to more than one landowner are not in public use. Such waterbodies may only be used with the owner’s permission. Waterbodies protected as drinking water intake, fish farming, or other special-use waterbodies do not have a shore path.

To sum up

In natural areas, everyone may
  • travel on foot, by bicycle, on skis, by boat and on horseback anywhere where it is not prohibited by law.
  • stay everywhere where you may move, including camp for one night, unless the landowner forbids it.
  • gather wild berries, mushrooms, flowers, herbs, hazelnuts, and other natural products, which are not protected under natural conservation laws. In a privately owned land, the owner may prohibit to pick forest products.
  • fish with one simple handline on public waterbodies and waterbodies designated for public use.

In natural areas, it is forbidden to
  • access a person’s yard, plantation, apiary, sown crops, grain field and other cropland, whereby damage is caused to the owner.
  • camp longer than 24 hours and light fires without the permission of the landowner or possessor.
  • hunt and fish without a relevant license, except with a simple handline.
  • injure trees and bushes.
  • disturb the peace of local inhabitants.
  • damage the habitats and nests of forest animals and birds, gather or remove their eggs, or otherwise cause harm to them.
  • damage nature protection objects and protected species.
  • use motor vehicles where prohibited.
  • pollute nature.