Over one hundred horses have been confirmed dead following extreme weather conditions in Northwestern Iceland in December, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (Mast) reports. The deaths account for approximately 0.5% of the equine population in the area; an estimated 20,000 horses were roaming free in Northwestern Iceland during the storm.
Not a Matter of Negligence
Horses from a total of 46 farms died, including 29 farms in East-Húnavatn county (61 horses), nine farms in West-Húnavatn county (20 horses), and eight farms in Skagafjörður (22 horses). A single farm commonly lost one to four horses. An average of approximately two horses died on each farm. According to Mast, this even distribution of equine deaths indicates that the fatalities were not the result of negligence or of the farmers’ failure to take appropriate measures.
Horses of all ages died in the storm: 29 foals (under a year old), 34 young horses (one to four years old), 30 mares, and 15 horses, most of which were adults. Most of the mares were elderly. The Mast report states that it was the oldest and the youngest horses that suffered the highest fatalities.
Buried Beneath Two Metres of Snow
The storm commonly drove horses into ditches, toward fences, or other hazardous areas; horses huddling around shelters were also commonly snowed in, e.g. horses that farmers had driven to shelter for safekeeping and feeding. In some cases, the storm buried horses beneath two metres of snow, with tall snowdrifts piling up around shelters. Generally speaking, horses on farms close to shore experienced the most extreme weather. At the same time, farms at a higher elevation were more fortunate, most likely because it was colder in those areas, with ice not piling up as quickly as snow.
Shelters Provided Little Succour
It is exceedingly rare for such an intense northerly storm to strike with concomitant precipitation and freezing temperatures, wherein sleet covered the horses and then froze. The horses became cold and heavy, which made it more difficult for them to withstand the prolonged snowstorm and the occasional hurricane-force winds. Human-made windbreaks and other natural shelters were of little use to the horses in areas where conditions were worst. The horses were generally in good shape to withstand the storm, as the fall had been favourable for horses kept outdoors.