In Pursuit of Ptarmigan

ptarmigan hunt iceland

It’s 6:00 AM and the obsidian darkness lingers outside my windshield. I arrive in the Kársnes neighbourhood of Kópavogur, park my car, and hop into Kristján Andri Einarsson’s black Jimny. The hunter greets me with a boyish smirk, ready for today’s adventure. He is wearing a camouflage cap on his greying auburn hair. Until this […]

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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.

Rare Bird Flu Detected in Eagle and Eider Duck

White-tailed Eagle Haförn Hafernir

A white-tailed eagle and an eider duck found dead in Iceland in September both tested positive for a severe strain of bird flu that has never been detected in Iceland before. The risk of infection for poultry and other other birds in captivity is low, according to the Food and Veterinary Authority.

Samples taken from a white-tailed eagle found dead on a skerry near Barðaströnd in the Westfjords in mid-September tested positive for a severe bird flu virus of the strain HPAI H4N5. An eider duck that was found dead in Ólafsfjörður, West Iceland recently was infected with the same strain of bird flu virus. The strain has not been detected in Iceland before and is not common.

Spread of bird flu low

The samples were studied at the University of Iceland’s Keldur Institute for Experimental Pathology. The results underline the importance of ensuring good infection prevention when dealing with poultry and other birds in captivity. Based on the data available at this point in time, however, it can be assumed that the spread of avian influenza viruses is low in Iceland and the risk of infection for poultry and other birds in captivity is therefore low.

Sequencing may determine origin

Few reports of sick or dead wild birds have been received by the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) since spring, after reports of widespread bird deaths among kittiwakes, puffins, and other seabirds subsided. Sample tested by MAST ruled out bird flu as the cause of those deaths.

As of July, only five samples have been taken from wild birds. Three of them tested negative for bird flu, while the two mentioned above tested positive. Researchers are hoping to sequence the samples of the viruses in order to determine whether the new strain arrived from Europe or from migratory birds arriving in late summer from nesting sites in the western Atlantic. HPAI H5N5 has been detected in only four samples in Europe recently, all from wild birds in Norway and Sweden, and in a few samples from wild birds, red foxes, and skunks in eastern Canada.

 

The Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) reminds the public that reporting sick and dead wild birds is a key element in monitoring the presence and spread of bird flu.

Reindeer Season to Continue as Normal

Reindeer hunting Iceland

Despite recommendations by the Animal Welfare Advisory Board to delay the 2023 reindeer hunting season, Vísir reports that the season will remain unchanged this year.

Reindeer hunting will start on July 15th and cow hunting on August 1st, as in previous years. Reindeer hunting will end September 15th and cow hunting on September 20th. The recommendation by the Animal Welfare Advisory Board was intended for the welfare of reindeer calves, specifically for orphaned calves during the winter. In the Advisory Board’s recommendation, reference was made to Norway, where the hunting season starts later.

Recent findings

However, according to Bjarni Jónasson at the Environment Agency of Iceland, the findings of a recent report did not present sufficient evidence to change the season. In a statement to Vísir, Bjarni said: “A comparison of the average winter mortality rate of calves before and after the protection of calves does not indicate that a higher proportion of motherless calves increases the overall winter mortality rate of calves. By shortening the hunting season and compressing the hunting activities, the hunting pressure on the herds could increase, which could have adverse effects on the animals.”

Bjarni also referred to a recent study from the East Iceland Natural Research Centre. The study found that “there is still no evidence that orphaned calves cannot survive and live through most winters. However, there is a risk that they might have a higher mortality rate than calves that accompany their mothers in harsh years. Such incidents have probably not occurred in the past decade unless very localised.”

Bjarni also repeated that all reindeer hunters are required to have an experienced guide with a valid permit from the Environment Agency. The guide directs the hunter in choosing the animal after observing the herd, allowing hunters to see if the calf is accompanying the cow or not.

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Iceland’s Popularity Grows – Among Walruses

Köfunarþjónustan ehf. / Facebook. A walrus takes a break in Sauðárkrókur, Northwest Iceland

No fewer than four walruses have wandered over to Iceland so far this year. Walruses are not native to the country but since the start of this year, individuals have made stops in East Iceland, the Westfjords, Northwest Iceland, and the capital area. Walruses can be dangerous and readers are warned against approaching them.

Last Thursday, archaeologists working on a dig in Arnarfjörður in the Westfjords spotted a walrus out in the water. It was later spotted sunning itself on the shores of the fjord near Hrafnseyri, RÚV reports, and stayed on into the weekend. Just a few days earlier, a different walrus made himself at home on a floating dock in Sauðárkrókur harbour in Northwest Iceland. “It’s our new pet,” port security officer Ágúst Kárason told reporters. “He’s damn big and hefty, an adult with big tusks.”

Followed to work by walrus

In early June, a staff member of the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute in Hafnarfjörður, in the capital area, was accompanied by a walrus on his morning commute. “I was biking and he followed me from Herjólfsgata street to Fjörukráin restaurant by Strandgata street. There he turned around and swam out into the fjord,” Jón Sólmundsson told reporters. “He was also curious, there were some people that stopped to watch him and he seemed to be considering them too.”

Yet another walrus spotted in Breiðdalsvík, East Iceland in February turned out to be celebrity walrus Thor, who had spent the winter sightseeing around the UK with stops in the Netherlands and France. Walruses seen in Iceland generally arrive from the shores of Greenland or from northern Norway, but Thor may have travelled from the Canadian Arctic. There were no indications that any of the four walruses were the same animal.

Swam from Ireland to Iceland

More walrus visits have occurred in Iceland over the past few years. One was spotted on June 17, 2022 in the town of Reyðarfjörður, East Iceland. A GPS tag on the animal revealed that it had swum over from the Faroe Islands. In September 2021, a walrus spotted in Höfn, Southeast Iceland turned out to be Wally the Walrus, who had been previously spotted in Spain, Wales, and the Isles of Scilly (off the UK coast). Wally had last been seen in Cork, Ireland before being spotted in Iceland, meaning he had swum over 1,000 km [620 mi] to reach the island.

Icelandic subspecies went extinct after human settlement

Iceland used to be home to a special subspecies of walrus, but it became extinct around 1100 AD, most likely due to overhunting by humans. Walrus tusks were considered precious at the time and were sought-after by royalty in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Other factors, such as rising temperatures and volcanic eruptions, may have been factors in the animals’ extinction as well.

“No Legislative Means” to Stop Whaling this Summer

Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir

Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir stated in a meeting with a parliamentary committee this morning that she considered her hands to be tied on the issue of stopping whaling this summer. Stating that there was “no legal basis” to revoke the existing whaling permits, she suggested that general laws on whale hunting need to be reviewed.

The Parliamentary Committee on Industry invited Svandís to discuss the long-awaited report on the 2022 whaling season. The report concluded that one in every four whales was shot more than once and that it was not possible to practice whale hunting while also conforming to animal rights legislation.

Hvalur hf., the only company in Iceland to still practice whaling, has already been granted a permit to hunt fin whales this summer, but calls have been made for the minister to revoke it following the report. Given the current legal framework, Svandís has stated that it is not a possibility.

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In the parliamentary meeting this morning, the minister stated that revoking the hunting permit would require a legal basis that does not currently exist.

According to administrative laws, the permit could only be revoked if certain conditions were present in its original issuance or if the revocation could be proved to cause no harm to the company. Neither condition was met in this case. Additionally, there are no provisions for revoking hunting permits in the 1949 laws on whale hunting. The minister has stated several times that her ability to act is constrained by these conditions.

Svandís stated that regardless of the outcome of the coming year’s whaling season, she believed that the laws on whale hunting were outdated and inadequate, and in need of revision to align with modern legislation and standards.

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No assessment has been made regarding possible damages that the state would have to compensate Hvalur hf. if the company’s hunting permit was revoked. However, Svandís stated that the ministry is currently examining the climate, environmental, and economic impacts of whaling to establish a more solid basis for future decisions on the hunts.

Other parliamentary representatives have suggested that the ministry restrict the hunts by limiting the timeframe in which they can occur. Svandís has yet to respond directly to this suggestion.

 

Bat Found in Kópavogur

bat

A bat was found in Kópavogur, in the Reykjavík capital area, last week, RÚV reports. It was quite weak when it was found and was put down in a laboratory at the Institute for Experimental Pathology at Keldur shortly after. Bats are not native to Iceland and a veterinarian says it is unlikely they would be able to survive in the country.

Known to carry diseases

The bat was found on Smiðjavegur street in Kópavogur, according to Vilhjálmur Svansson, a veterinarian and virologist at Keldur. He stated that person who found the bat did not know where it came from. Vilhjálmur underlined that people should not touch or handle exotic animals if they come across them, especially bats. “They are of course known carriers of infectious agents and actually the most dangerous ones we know,” Vilhjálmur stated.

Bats are known to carry many types of rabies as well as Hendra viruses, which have been transmitted from bats to horses and then humans in Australia and Southeast Asia. “There are at least two, probably three deaths in Australia from these viruses that came from horses.” Bats also carry the Nipah virus, which can spread to humans, and are suspected of carrying Ebola. “And then we can mention that we’ve now been dealing with a bat virus for the last three years, SARS 2.”

Bats may arrive in shipping containers

Vilhjálmur says that one or two bats are blown to Iceland on air currents per year, but that most of the bats that arrive in the country probably do so on shipping containers. He does not believe that bats could survive in the wild in Iceland.

It is not known whether the bat found in Kópavogur carried any diseases. Samples from the animal are currently being analysed.

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.