Ptarmigan Population Steadily Dwindling, Ornithologist Says Skip to content

Ptarmigan Population Steadily Dwindling, Ornithologist Says

This fall, the Icelandic Institute of Natural History recommends a hunting quota of 20,000 ptarmigan, RÚV reports. Never in the Institute’s 16-year history of advisement has the ptarmigan population been smaller. An ornithologist working for the institute maintains that the population has dwindled in the long term.

The population at an all-time low

Rock ptarmigan are still hunted in Iceland as they are considered a delicacy, often consumed on Christmas Eve. Although the ptarmigan was granted protective status in 2003, its numbers have been steadily dwindling. This year, for example, the Icelandic Institute of Natural History recommends a hunting quota of 20,000 birds, which is 5,000 ptarmigan fewer than last fall (which, in turn, was a 35% decrease from 2019).

According to ornithologist Ólafur Karl Nielsen, the institute has never advised a smaller quota. “The Institute has been making recommendations for 16 years now, which isn’t that long, actually. But during this time, we estimate that the ptarmigan population has never been smaller.”

Fences, power lines, hazardous to the ptarmigan

The ptarmigan population undergoes regular fluctuations, reaching its zenith every ten or twelve years. These fluctuations have natural explanations, according to Ólafur, although many other man-made phenomena now contribute to the ptarmigan’s rate of mortality. “Fences, power lines, and other such things, kill numerous ptarmigan each year.”

As noted by RÚV, the ptarmigan population has been trending downward over the past years, although numbers vary between regions. Ptarmigan are relatively numerous in the West Fjords and in West Iceland, for example, where it is estimated that the population will reach its nadir in two to three years. In North, East, and South Iceland, however, the population has already reached an all-time low, with few birds being found in those parts of the country. “But in the long term, the ptarmigan faces great adversity, and the population has been dwindling. I think we can say that for certain.”

The ptarmigan population is estimated at approximately 248,000 birds, and the Icelandic Institute of Natural History recommends that this season’s hunting quota not exceed 9%. This translates to four birds per hunter (compared to five birds last year). The institute’s recommendation has been passed onto the Environment Agency of Iceland, which will, in turn, submit proposals to the Ministry of the Environment.

The ptarmigan hunting season extends to every day in November, excluding Wednesdays and Thursdays, for a total of 22 days.

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