Environment Agency: Fox Hunting No Longer Serves Its Purpose

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.”

Screenshot from short documentary Refurinn gerir greni í urð (Ósvaldur Knudsen; 1961)

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.

See Also: This Season, Ptarmigan Shooting Confined to Afternoons

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.”

Fewer Mated Arctic Fox Pairs in Hornstrandir Than Last Year

Arctic Fox Iceland

Hornstrandir Nature Preserve in the Westfjords has half the number of arctic fox pairs with young than it usually does at this time of year, RÚV reports. The drop in the number of mated pairs comes even as the animals’ territory has doubled in size. Human foot traffic through the area is thought to disturb the foxes a great deal, particularly mothers who are still nursing their young and have to stay in their dens.

These findings were among those made by the Icelandic Institute of Natural History (IINH) and their collaborators at the Arctic Fox Centre after their yearly site visit to Hornstrandir from June 17 – 30. During this time, researchers made stops at every known burrow in the reserve and made note of whether these were inhabited, as well as tracking foxes’ movements in and out of them. Three burrows were monitored for twelve hours, specifically to monitor how long adult foxes spent in them, and what food they brought back to them, if any. A log was kept of any food scraps that had been left in or around the burrows and stool samples were collected for future study.

Researchers also monitored and made observations about the number of visitors moving through fox-inhabited areas, as well as their behaviour around burrows. As IINH reported on its Facebook page, visitor traffic was minimal at the start of the expedition, but it increased during the almost two weeks that researchers were present in the reserve.

Even though the number of mated arctic fox pairs with young is significantly less than usual, the research teams affirm that the overall status of the population is good. Even so, researchers plan to monitor human traffic through Hornstrandir and another expedition to the reserve is already planned for later this summer to check in on the status of the arctic fox population at that time. Researchers hope that any travellers to Hornstrandir will follow the directions of the park rangers, stay on marked paths, and not disturb any wildlife they may encounter while visiting.