What’s happening with animals in Grindavík?

reykjanes grindavík animal

When the residents of Grindavík were evacuated on the night of November 10, they were instructed to only bring the bare essentials and to leave as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, many animals were left behind, including domestic pets such as cats and dogs and livestock such as horses and sheep.

Given the potential risk, the decision was taken to expedite the evacuation, and the Suðurnes Chief of Police stated at the time that it would not be possible to save livestock and farm animals from the defined danger, but arrangements would be made at a later time.

Over the following days, Grindavík residents were allowed back into the town to gather belongings and rescue any animals left behind. Households were instructed to only go if necessary, and only one person per household was allowed back into town for a limited time. Many Grindavík residents used the opportunity to rescue their household pets, in addition to any horses and sheep they own. 

Animal welfare organisations in Iceland assisted with searching for lost pets in the area, and as of November 15, most pets and animals that were left behind during the initial evacuation have been retrieved. One cat- and dog hotel offered to put up Grindavík pets free of charge.

Dýrfinna, a search and rescue group for animals, stated on November 13 that there were only 12 animals still unaccounted for.

High Demand for Chicks

iceland chickens

The demand for chicks is especially high at the moment, reports Vísir.

The high demand has led to some business opportunities, with one chicken farmer in South Iceland filling his incubators with eggs and distributing the chicks across Iceland.

Ragnar Sigurjónsson, a farmer in the Flóahreppur district, raises so-called “Papar” chickens, which he says are descended from the semi-historical Irish monks who may have settled Iceland’s outlying islands before Norse settlement.

These chickens, he stated to Vísir, are also very productive at laying eggs, laying up to 170 to 180 a year.

Ragnar has incubators that are constantly full of eggs to meet the high demand for newly hatched chicks.

“There is just so much demand,” he stated to Vísir. “I’ve had two machines running at once. People are always asking for chicks. Right now, I have a hatchery where about half of them are going to a preschool in Kópavogur.”

Some Icelandic preschools keep hens as a way to reduce food waste. The hens are fed cafeteria leftovers and provide eggs for the children and families who volunteer to take care of them.

According to Ragnar, the unusually high demand for chickens can be attributed to a growing interest in raising chickens in backyards. “They are nice animals to have around,” Ragnar stated. “People want to have three, four or five chickens in their garden and get fresh eggs.”

Deep North Episode 25: Good Breeding

iceland sheep breeding

This April, sheep at Bergsstaðir farm in Northwest Iceland were diagnosed with the fatal degenerative disease known as scrapie. In accordance with regulations, the 700-some sheep were culled to prevent the spread of the disease to neighbouring farms. We revisit our 2022 article, Good Breeding, to see what’s being done to fight this deadly disease.

Read the full story.

Whaling Not in Line with Animal Welfare, Report Finds

Iceland whaling Hvalur hf

The much-awaited report on the 2022 fin whale season has been released by The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST).

Following a pause in whaling, Iceland resumed the practice last year. Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir has stated that after the 2023 whaling season, whaling permits may not be renewed. She introduced tighter surveillance methods for whaling ships last season, in addition to the inclusion of animal welfare officers among the crew to minimize the suffering of the animals. Whether or not whaling is to continue in Iceland is dependent on the results of the report commissioned on the 2022 whaling season, which, after a delay, is now publically available.

Read more: Animal Welfare Inspectors to Join Whaling Ships

According to law, those who engage in hunting are required to ensure that they cause the least possible harm and that the killing takes the shortest possible time for the animals. In a statement by MAST, they recognize that best practices were followed and provisions on hunting under the Animal Welfare Act were not broken. However, MAST also found an “unacceptable” proportion of the whales suffered prolonged deaths.

According to the report, which is based on data from 58 whale killings, 35 whales (59%) were killed instantaneously, according to the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) definition of instant death.

In addition, it is believed that five whales that showed convulsions lost consciousness either instantly or very quickly, and therefore it is estimated that 67% of the whales experienced instantaneous death.

Some 14 whales (24%) were shot more than once, while two whales had to be shot four times. Median Time to Death (TTD) of those whales which did not die instantly was found to be 11.5 minutes.

Ask Iceland Review: Does Iceland Still Whale?

However, because the findings differed significantly from a comparable 2014 report, Hvalur hf, the only whaling company still operating in Iceland, requested a second opinion.

Written by Wild Animal Veterinarian Þóra J. Jónsdóttir, the second opinion found the Instantaneous Death Rate (IDR) to be “somewhat higher” than the conclusions of MAST. Given differences in methodology and data collection, Þóra stated that “it is difficult to compare the results from 2014 with the current data […] The way the sampling and monitoring have been carried out, the quality control of recorded data, are far from being equal for the two sampling seasons […] They are like apples and pears.”

Additionally, Þóra stated that due to several problems with the video monitoring, recorded Time to Death (TTD) could not be fully controlled. “The platform used for filming is usually the wheelhouse instead of the wheelhouse roof or another place where the overview and sight is much better to observe the killing. So, for several whales the recorded TTD will be imprecise, most probably overestimated.”

The study monitored Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9, the only two whaling ships still active in Iceland.

MAST will ask an animal welfare advisory board to review the data and assess whether whaling can be practised in line with animal welfare laws. If this is deemed possible, the government will need to establish regulations for the implementation of the hunts and minimum requirements for them.

The full text of the report can be found here.

What is Iceland doing about blood farms?

icelandic horse blood farm

Since the 1980s, Icelandic horse farmers have been extracting the hormone Equine Chorionic Gonadotropin (eCG) from their pregnant mares to gain extra income. The hormone can be removed from the mare’s blood and sold for large sums. Although the practice has mostly been ignored in Iceland, the release of a documentary by the German animal rights organization, The Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF), in 2021 raised questions on animal welfare and blood harvesting surveillance. The documentary showcased animal cruelty at Icelandic horse farms where the hormone was being extracted. It also revealed that the hormone is mainly used to boost fertility in other farm animals, and Iceland is one of only a handful of countries that operate blood farms. The documentary stated that about 5,000 Icelandic horses overall are subjected to the procedure.

Read more: Iceland Tightens Regulations on Blood Mare Farms

The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) reported that they were aware of all of the farms and conducted on-site inspections but admitted that they visit less than half of the farms each year. After the documentary was released, Iceland’s government took an interest in the footage. Members of parliament sought answers, and Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Svandís Svavarsdóttir organized a working group to investigate blood farming. The company that produces pharmaceuticals from Icelandic mares’ blood serum, Ísteka, announced that it had terminated cooperation with the farms that have been accused of animal mistreatment.

In early January of 2022, MAST completed its investigation and found that the abuse captured in the documentary constituted a breach of animal welfare laws in Iceland. Those convicted of animal cruelty in Iceland can face hefty fines and up to two years of jail time, according to Icelandic law. However, in many cases, those convicted only face a minor fine and no jail time. Animal welfare specialists in Iceland have stated that an outright ban on extracting eCG from mares is unrealistic, and they suggest that it needs to be monitored to ensure that animal welfare is not violated, and such parties are punished.

Regulations were further strengthened in June of last year, including the introduction of licensing requirements.

Deep North Episode 21: A New Leash on Life

icelandic sheepdog

We’re on our way to meet a national pageant winner, who after a thorough examination by a qualified judge was selected as the most beautiful in all the land. The pageant winner is perhaps not quite what you would expect, however. Firstly, he’s male. Secondly, he’s three years old. Thirdly, he’s covered in a thick coat of luxurious fur. His name is Einir, and he’s an Icelandic sheepdog.

Read the full story here.

Biologists Ask Icelanders to Return Little Auks to Sea

seabird iceland

The winter storms that have swept the nation in the past week have also had an effect on wildlife, reports the Icelandic Institute of Natural History.

The little auk, a common seabird in Iceland, has been found far inland. The seabird averages about 20 cm [7.8 in] in length and 150g [5.3oz] in weight, and is not accustomed to long-range flight. Biologists have received updates from travellers on the South Coast of Iceland who encounter stranded birds far out of place.

Now, with some individuals stranded far from the coast after the storms, biologists are asking residents who happen upon little auks to return them to the sea.

In a statement to RÚV,  Borgný Katrínardóttir, a biologist at the Institute of Natural History, said: “We actually just received another update about another bird that was found by Sólheimar, so they can fly quite far inland. We should also keep in mind that there was a recent bird fluJust be careful and wash well afterwards. If the bird seems unharmed, just get it down to the sea as soon as possible.”

Little auks, however, have historically been a rather resilient bird. A relative newcomer to Icelandic shores, they were unknown in Iceland until the 19th century. Their conservation status is considered to be “of least concern.”

150 Cattle Taken by Authorities in Abuse Case

icelandic cows

150 cattle have been removed from a farm in Borgarfjörður by the authorities on November 14 and 15. After repeated demands by authorities that their owner improve their conditions, authorities have finally been forced to confiscate the cattle after it became clear the farmer in question would not cooperate.

Both police officers and representatives from MAST, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, were at the scene, reports RÚV.

Read more: Further Animal Abuse in Borgarfjörður

The owner in question is said to have a long history of mistreating his animals. Sheep and horses have been previously taken from the farmer to be slaughtered, as they were too maltreated to be rescued.

Some cattle confiscated in the latest episode will likewise be slaughtered, but many of the cows will be allowed to live and given new homes.

Ellen Ruth Ingimundsdóttir, district veterinarian for Southwest Iceland, stated that such cases are very difficult for all involved: “It’s a long and difficult story. We decided that it was no longer possible to give deadlines that weren’t met […] We don’t take animals from people just because we want to. We need to follow the law and we need to do this in consultation with locals so that it doesn’t hurt the animals. That’s why it has also taken a long time.”

Ellen additionally thanked those farmers who will be receiving the remaining cows, which are headed to barns with better pasture and conditions.


Walrus Makes Stop in Southeast Iceland

A small crowd gathered in Höfn, Southeast Iceland, when a walrus was spotted in the town harbour yesterday evening, RÚV reports. There are no walruses living on Iceland’s shores, but one is spotted on average every ten years or so, likely arriving from Greenland. The walrus spotted in Höfn swam out to sea last night and caused no damage to residents or the harbour.

Though Iceland does not have a local walrus population today, there is evidence it used to. In 2019, DNA analyses and radiocarbon dating of walrus tusks found in Iceland revealed that they belonged to a previously unknown subspecies of the Atlantic walrus. This confirmed Iceland was “home to a distinct, localised subspecies” of walrus, according to Dr. Hilmar Malmquist, Director of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History.

Read More: Walruses Fuelled the Viking Expansion

The subspecies lived on Iceland’s shores from at least 7000 BC but disappeared shortly after the arrival of settlers. The total population seems to have been relatively small (around 5,000 animals) and thus vulnerable to habitat changes. Iceland’s climate today is too warm to support a walrus population. The animals prefer colder temperatures as well as abundant sea ice, especially during breeding season.

While Hilmar says a warming climate and volcanic eruptions may have been factors in the animals’ disappearance, the most likely explanation is that the animals were hunted to extinction by humans. Walrus ivory was once traded as a luxury product in Europe and Vikings also used walrus hides to make rope and walrus blubber to make oil, used for waterproofing ship hulls. Some sources suggest Vikings also ate walrus meat.