Environmental code of conduct (freedom to roam)

Estonian natural environment is our common national treasure, which everyone is entitled to share in. At the same time it places a duty on the hiker, holiday-maker, as well as the landowner or possessor of the land property to keep nature in decent order, clean and beautiful. The load-bearing capacity of our fragile nordic nature is not high, which is why its biota and its undisturbed state must be protected to preserve it to our descendants. All the rights and responsibilities regarding humans’ interaction with nature are collectively termed the freedom to roam (aka everyman’s right). These ethical principles rely both on laws and customs and have been respected already by our ancestors.

Outdoor recreation

  • In Estonia it is permitted to access natural and cultural landscapes on foot, by bicycle, skis, boat or on horseback, notwithstanding the ownership of the land.
  • Private property may be accessed from sunrise to sunset in case it does not involve causing damage to the landowner or other possessor of the property. If the private property is fenced or posted against trespassing, the permission of the owner is required to proceed. A simple light railing or fence ruins around the pasture are not considered a barrier that would prohibit access.
  • Landowners or possessors of land may not block access to land, roads or bodies of water that are public or designated for public use, including ice and shore paths. Going on ice cover in winter may be prohibited or regulated by the Rescue Board.
  • However, access is not permitted to sown crops, young crops, grain fields, plantations and apiaries, and also places where damage can be caused to the owner, even if there is no fence or no-trespassing sign. In summer one should walk along unploughed land strips between or at the edge of fields or along the bank of drainage ditches.
  • All water bodies that are public or designated for public use have public shore paths up to 4 m wide. The shore path along a navigable water body may be 10 m wide. During high-water season when the shore path is flooded, a shore path of 2 m width may be used. The owner may not close this path even if the private property is fenced or marked with no-trespassing signs. Grazing areas and other enclosed areas along shore paths must have gates.
  • Ponds with no outlet located entirely on the land of one landowner and lakes smaller than five hectares, as well as streams and main ditches with a basin smaller than 25 square metres, located on land belonging to more than one land owner, shall not be in public use. Such water bodies do not have a public shore path and the permission of the landowner or other possessor of land is required to access such water bodies.
  • Neither is there a shore path for water bodies that are protected as sources of drinking water or are in use in fish farming or are in other special use.
The list of water bodies for public use was adopted by the Government of Estonia in 1996.
  • To guarantee peace and quiet at home, access to the yard and garden area of local people is not permitted even if such area is not marked. Also users of summer homes are regarded as local people. In case a rural home in a dispersed settlement is more than 200 m away from the public road/path, one should, if possible,  go past it at least 150 m from the property.
  • During drought the local government may temporarily restrict access to the forest, by publishing a respective notice in the mass media.
  • To guarantee fire safety, a similar restriction may also be imposed by the forest owner, by explaining the restriction on respective signs.
  • Using motorboats is allowed on water bodies that are public or designated for public use, but it is considered improper to use motorboats on lakes smaller than 100 hectares. The latter does not apply to the boats of the guard and rescue service.
  • Boaters must avoid driving into fish spawning places or water birds’ nesting areas during the spawning and nesting period. Such areas need to be marked and made public. It is prohibited to go by boat over fishing gear that is placed in water and marked appropriately – this is deemed damage to property.
  • When walking on natural landscapes it is important to avoid disturbing animals and  birds, especially protected species, during their nesting period, in their living and breeding habitat and along their migratory paths.
  • When walking on man-made landscapes one must close pasture gates behind him/her, also in winter.
  • Special arrangements may be imposed on walking in nature reserves and in areas used by defence forces. Access to the training fields of defence forces may be blocked during military training, which is communicated to fellow citizens on signs.
Freedom to roam does not pertain to the organising of sporting events or other public events in the natural environment. To organize these, one must obtain the permission of the landowners or other possessors of land, and if necessary, of the local government.

Law of Property Act 1993.
§ 159 (2) Use of public water bodies, (3) Use of public water bodies designated for public use.
§ 161 (1) Mandatory shore path; (2) Right to be used by everyone; (2) Prohibition against restriction of walking on shore path; (3) Prohibition against blocking movement on shore path.

Forest Act 1998.
§ 9 (2) Owner’s right to impose restrictions on forest use.
§14 (1) Right to be in the forest.
§ 32 (1) ((1)) Restrictions on forest use.
§ 32 (4) Use of forest for national defence.

Water Act 1994, 1996, 1998.
§ 6 (2) Public use of water bodies.
§ 7 (2) Water bodies not included in the list of water bodies for public use.
§ 8. Special use of water.
§ 10. Shore path.
§ 23 (1) Protection of aquatic biota.

Statutes of Estonian Rescue Board. 1994 (4-15).

Law on Protected Natural Objects 1994, 1998.
§ 10 (3) Restrictions on use imposed by Protection Rules.
§ 12 (1) and (2) Activities prohibited in nature reserves.
§ 21 (2) Protection of species of protection category I.
§ 22 (2) and (3) Protection of species of protection category II.
§ 23 (2) and (3) Protection of species of protection category III.


Staying in nature
  • Short term stay in a natural environment for recreation, sunbathing, swimming, gathering nature’s bounty, fishing, anchoring or landing the boat is permitted in the same places and under the same conditions as moving around in nature. For long-term stay, camping and making campfire the permission of the landowner or other possessor of land is required. In the state forest the respective permission is issued by a local forest surveillance officer. If designated and prepared campsites and campfire sites are used, no permission is required.
  • It is prohibited to make campfire on peat ground, where it may cause a fire, or on coastal sand used as a beach. One should not make fire on fieldstones, which may break later. Fire may be made without special permission in a camping stove, in which there is a clearance between the burner and the ground.
  • For campfire material it is allowed to gather litter from the forest. Dead trees may be felled only with the permission of the landowner. The campfire must be safe and before leaving, campers must ensure that flames are smothered and embers are fully extnguished.
  • The site for a short stay or camping should be selected so as to guarantee the peace and quiet for local inhabitants. Please also note that farm dogs, if disturbed, may wake up the whole village. It is inappropriate to set up a camp in an unmowed grassland, because the trampling of hay causes damage to the owner.
Forest Act 1998.
§ 32 (1)((1)) Public use of forest;
(1)((2)) Mandatory permission when camping.

Water Act 1994, 1996, 1998.
§ 6 (2) Public use of water bodies.


Roads and footpaths

  • Public roads, including forest rides in the state forest are intended for public use. It is obligatory to observe traffic signs and traffic rules. In winter everyone is entitled to use customary winter roads and paths and to cross fields, without making noise and thereby disturbing local inhabitants.
  • Landowner may prohibit driving on a private road which is not in public use, by posting a sign. For parking near the home of a landowner it is necessary to ask for landowner’s permission, even if there are no prohibitory signs.
  • The waterways of a water body that is public or designated for public use are open for traffic for everyone. Freedom to roam does not entitle you to land and tie your boat to the pier of a private owner. Everybody is allowed to land on the shore and access the shore path.
  • Freedom to roam does not permit driving motor vehicles outside public roads, except driving snowmobile in winter. Old customary footpaths are free to use by everyone on foot, by bicycle, skis or on horseback. The landowner or possessor of land must not close such footpaths. This prohibition also applies to waterways. In case a dam is built on a water body that is public or designated for public use, the owner has to provide a possibility to cross it in a suitable location. Bridges and footbridges over small rivers must allow boats passing under them during normal water level. Owners or other possessors of water bodies that are public or designated for public use are obligated to maintain the water body, remove trees fallen into the water to guarantee the solidity of the riverbanks and the use of the river as a waterway.
  • Users of cross-country ski tracks should consider that no damage must be caused to pasture fences and other fences.
  • Landowners or other possessors of land must enable access on foot to objects of heritage protection and natural features, as well as to swimming places, footbridges on customary footpaths, fords that can be crossed by wading, and natural springs with drinkable water, which are located on their land. However, asking for permission is required to visit an object located in the owner’s yard or garden area.
  • To make and blaze-mark a study trail, orienteering and other permanent trail the consent of the landowner or other possessor of the land is always required. Paths and trails with such marking may be used by everyone.

Law of Property Act 1993.
§ 155 (1) Use of public roads.
§ 157 (1) Use of winter roads.

Water Act 1994, 1996, 1998.
§ 17 (2) Prohibition against barring a watercourse.
§ 18 (1) Public waterways.
§ 27 (1) Protection of ice cover of water body.
§ 160 (2) Prohibition against restriction of traffic on a watercourse.


Visit fee
  • Although staying and roaming in a natural area is free for everybody, a visit fee may still be imposed in places where expenses have been incurred to increase the yield of natural products, to preserve a protected heritage or natural object, to provide better access to it or increase the aesthetic value of the surroundings. Similarly, a fee may be charged for the use of a private beach, but the shore path in its specified width must be open for everyone.
Law of Property Act 1993
§ 27 (2) and (3) Expenses incurred for preserving and repairing an asset.
§ 161 (2) Prohibition against blocking a shore path.

Forest Act 1998.
§ 32 (2) Owner’s right to charge a fee.


Gathering natural products
  • Everyone is entitled to gather wild berries, mushrooms, flowers, medicinal plants, hazelnuts and other natural products, which are not protected, always and everywhere, provided that access is allowed to the location of gathering the products. In private land and forest, if these are enclosed and signposted, the permission of the landowner or other possessor of land is required to gather natural products. The owner or possessor of private land is entitled to prohibit gathering natural products in his/her land if excessive damage is caused to him/her or his/her home peace is violated by this activity.
  • Freedom to roam (everyman’s right) does not involve gathering technical raw material like willow bark, wicker rods, pine shoots, resin etc. For breaking living trees and bushes, peeling tree trunks and felling dead trees the permission of the owner must be obtained.
  • Everyone is allowed to take water from natural water sources for drinking, washing and everyday use, as well as to take ice from everywhere. The owner’s permission is required to take water from a private farm well.
Law of Property Act 1993.
§ 40 (1) Protection against arbitrary action.
§ 115 Possession of natural fruit.
§ 167 (1) Use of public forest; (3) Causing excessive damage.
§ 190 (1) Right to take water and right to access.

Forest Act 1998.
§ 24 (1) Restrictions on the use of forest.
§ 32 (1) ((1)) Right to stay in forest, right to gather natural fruit.
§ 167 (2) Mandatory to obtain permission to gather.

Water Act 1994, 1996, 1998.
§ 7 (1) Taking water from a public water body.


Fishing and hunting
  • Everyone may fish, free of charge, with one simple hand line on a public water body or a water body designated for public use, including watercourses belonging to several landowners or other possessors of land. On other private water bodies fishing is allowed only with the permission of the owner of the water body. Fishing with other fishing gear is allowed only on the basis of a fishing card and pursuant to the procedure prescribed by law.
  • Hunting in Estonia is regulated by law, and is not subject to freedom to roam.
  • It is permitted to be in a forest with dogs if the dogs are on the lead, with the exception of hunting dogs while hunting.
  • When walking on natural landscapes it is important to avoid disturbing animals and  birds, especially in their living and breeding habitat. Driving into fish spawning places or water birds’ nesting areas is prohibited.
Fishing Act 1995.
§ 6 (1) Fishing with one hand line.

Law of Property Act 1993.
§ 162 (1) Fishing rights on different water bodies; (3) Fishing with the permission of the owner of water body.
§ 168 (1) and (2) Procedure of hunting.

Forest Act 1998.
§ 32 (1)((3)) Being in the forest with a dog.

Water Act 1994, 1996, 1998.
§ 18 (2) Prohibition to cause damage to water biota when using waterways.

Act on Hunting Management 1994.
§ 3. Hunting rights.
§ 19 (1) Jahipidamisest; (2) Presence in hunting grounds with a dog.


Littering natural areas
  • During your stay and walking do not litter natural areas. Petrol and oils belong among hazardous waste and must always be removed from the natural area.
Waste Act 1998.
§ 25 (1) Classification of hazardous waste.
§ 49 (1) Introduction of waste into the environment.

Water Act 1994, 1996, 1998.
§ 23 (1) Prohibition against polluting waters.
§ 27 (1) Prohibition against polluting or littering ice cover.


Everyone’s liability

  • In case a person, either involuntarily or voluntarily, causes damage with his/her activity in the natural environment to protected natural objects or protected species, fossils and minerals, or also landowners or other possessors of land or violates their legal rights, he/she shall COMPENSATE for the damage (fire damage, trampling of crops or hay, pollution etc.). It would be best if the compensation is made voluntarily and following one’s conscience. Otherwise the injured person is entitled to collect damages from the offender pursuant to the procedure prescribed by law.
  • Causing damage to the natural environment, also violating the peace and quiet or the property of a landowner or other possessor of land may result in administrative and criminal liability.

Act on Protected Natural Objects 1994, 1998.
§ 29 Liability for breach of the law.

Forest Act 1998.
§ 27 (2)((5)) Forest use for gathering by-products.
§ 56 (1) Liability for breach of the provisions of forestry law.


Source: http://matkaliit.ee/matkad/soovitused/kaitumisest-looduses-igauheoigus viewed: 18.03.2013 at 16.38