The Environment Agency of Iceland says that fox hunting in Iceland no longer serves its intended purpose—to protect sheep and birdlife—and is costing the state and local municipalities more and more every year. Fréttablaðið reports that 56,000 foxes have been hunted in Iceland in the past decade, with a cost of almost a billion krónur [$7.65 million; €6.65 million] to the state.
A ‘mythological battle’
The arctic fox lives in polar regions around the world and is currently listed as a species of least concern by the World Wildlife Fund. In 1979, there were only 1,200 of the animals in Iceland, but the population grew to just under 9,000 by 2007. Between the years of 2008 and 2010, there was a 30% drop in population, but it has been relatively stable in recent years, even as hunting has increased. As of this summer, it was estimated that there were roughly 9,000 – 10,000 Arctic foxes in Iceland. The species is protected within the confines of the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords, but outside of these bounds, hunting the animal is allowed, and even encouraged monetarily.
“Icelanders have given the arctic fox many names which could be related to the ‘mythological battle’ between the humans and the foxes since the early decades of the settlement 1100 years ago,” explains the Arctic Fox Centre. “At first, foxes were trapped for the valuable fur but soon the competition for the few resources became too complicated and the foxes were killed to protect lambs and other stock animals. Nowadays the foxes are still hunted throughout the country, where it is believed that protection of livestock or eider farms is needed. Winter hunting is also conducted in all regions of the country and “den-hunting” (killing all the animals at a fox den), one of the oldest paid jobs in Iceland, is still performed. The fur, however, is not used anymore since it became [worthless] with the emergence of fur farms some decades ago.”
Hunters paid for every fox killed
The argument that foxes must be hunted in order to protect livestock and birdlife has also been strengthened by public perception of the fox as a vicious predator. “The fox is said to be cunning and cruel,” noted the 1961 short documentary Refurinn gerir greni í urð (‘The fox makes its den in the scree,’ watch here, in Icelandic). “So it is getting its just desserts. It is killed on sight wherever it is encountered.”
This way of thinking is quickly losing traction among experts and politicians alike, however. “Livestock doesn’t appear to be suffering,” says Steinar Rafn Beck Baldursson, a specialist in hunting management at the Environment Agency. He notes that the agency has put out calls for reports of foxes killing sheep and birds but has only received the occasional notification of foxes getting into eider nests. When asked why foxes don’t pose the same threat they once did to sheep, Steinar Rafn has a very simple supposition: sheep no longer give birth to their young in pastures. “In the past, foxes hunted newborn lambs or went after sheep when they were in labour.”
Last year, 7,227 foxes were hunted, marking a 40-year high. This creates a significant financial burden on the state, as local municipalities are obliged to pay hunters for every fox they kill between the fall and the spring. The annual cost of this has increased dramatically over the years. In 2011, ISK 67 million [$512,742; € 445,349] was paid out to fox hunters. This total ballooned to ISK 134 million [$1.03 million; €890,699] in 2020. The state has been paying a fifth of the cost since 2014, as a way of offsetting the financial burden on large, but sparsely populated municipalities.
Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson recently submitted a bill to parliament that would have amended current hunting legislation and established a management and protection plan for the arctic fox in Iceland. The bill did not pass.
Steinar Rafn says that the Environment Agency had hoped the bill would pass but is currently considering similar proposals for changing the legislation on ptarmigan hunting—the fox will come later, he says. “What would make the most sense would be to review this whole system,” he says. “Maybe only winter hunting and no den hunting.”