Icelandic Birch Forests Threatened by Imported Pests

Birch trees in Borgarfjörður, West Iceland

Experts at the Icelandic Forest Service say unclear timber import regulations threaten local birch forests. Imported timber, especially timber that contains bark, may carry insects or pests that are not native to Iceland and could harm or kill Icelandic birch trees.

RÚV reports that an Icelandic company recently imported tree trunks from Poland with the bark still attached. The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority ordered the wood be destroyed or sent back, but the Food and Agriculture Ministry reversed the ruling after it was appealed by the importer. Experts at the Icelandic Forest Service say tree trunks with bark are more likely to carry invasive species and call for stricter regulations on their import.

“Imports probably pose the biggest risk. We import Christmas trees on a large scale every year and all kinds of growth in soil, which is imported with some residue. And we never know what it may be hiding, despite being certified and what that entails,” says Pétur Halldórsson, the Forestry Service’s director of publicity.

Downy birch (Betula pubescens) is the only tree species that naturally forms forests in Iceland. There are few native pests in Iceland, and experts say that local plants could therefore be particularly vulnerable to the arrival of invasive species. Bark beetles, for example, have done significant damage to forests in mainland Europe in recent years and if imported to Iceland, could hurt local birch forests. The beetles breed between the bark and the wood of various tree species, and their larvae feed on living tissues below the bark of the tree, leading to the death of the tree if enough larvae are present. Their presence can also make trees more susceptible to fungal infestation.

“We have gotten two bad pests on birch in the last few years and these pests have no natural predators as of yet,” stated Pétur. “So things are happening and we don’t want worse things to happen.”

Icelandic Forestry Service Asks Public For Help

icelandic forests birch reforestation

The national collection of birch seeds began last week in Garðsárreittur in Eyjafjörður. The national initiative aims to reforest 5% of Iceland in birch forests, and volunteers from throughout Iceland are invited to gather birch seeds for the project.

Over the weekend, some 50 volunteers were able to gather some one and a half million seeds. An impressive number, but around 450 birch seeds fit into one teaspoon alone.

Currently, only around 1.5% of Iceland is forested with birch. In an interview with RÚV, Kristinn H. Þorsteinsson, project director of the initiative stated: “In order to be able to cover the country and get up to 5%, we need many hands, we need the whole nation. We need individuals, companies, schools and families to help out.”

The project began in 2020 in response to the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Now, the goal is to reforest 5% of Iceland, equating to around 5,000 square kilometres,  with birch.

In the above video from the Icelandic Forest Service, the collection of birch seeds is demonstrated for those wanting to help out.

Birch trees begin developing their seeds in early September, and they can be collected up through November, according to Hreinn Óskarsson, forestry expert at the Icelandic Forestry Service.

The initiative is also enlisting the help of several companies in Iceland, including Bónus and Olís, where volunteers can donate any seeds collected. Both Bónus and Olís will be accepting seed donation at all of their locations.

Seeds should dried before being donated. More information is available at the initiative’s website.

Icelandic Researchers Discover Origin of New Birch Forest

birch forest skeiðarársandur birkiskógur

Some 22 years ago, Icelandic scientists were amazed to discover birch tree seedlings growing on the barren Skeiðarársandur sand plain. The budding forest had sprung up naturally, without any human efforts, despite the dry and seemingly inhospitable environment. Now scientists have determined where the seeds came from.

Glacial flood sediment may have supported growth

At 1,300 square kilometres (502 square miles), Skeiðarársandur is the largest sand plain in the world. It stretches from the base of Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier, all the way to the ocean.

The first birch trees on the plain were spotted around 1998, two years after a glacial outburst flood caused by the Grímsvötn volcano had flooded Skeiðarársandur. The sediment deposited by the flood may have been a crucial factor in the success of the area’s new birch trees. The forest is now on course to become the largest natural birch forest in Iceland in a handful of years.

Genetic material reveals source of seeds

“We have compared genetic material from birch on Skeiðarársandur and birch in three birch forests nearby and now have its paternity test results, if you will,” Kristinn Pétur Magnússon, Professor of Genetics at the University of Akureyri, explained to RÚV reporters recently. It was Kristinn’s job to determine the origin of the seeds that had unexpectedly thrived on the sand plain.

Scientists compared the genetic material of the birch on Skeiðarársandur to that of birch in Bæjarstaðaskógur, Núpstaðaskógur, and the forest on Skaftafellsheiði heath. “It’s clear that this birch comes from Bæjarstaðarskógur, which is not a bad inheritance, because that old birch forest is particularly beautiful,” Kristinn stated.

At the time of settlement, somewhere between 25-40% of Iceland’s land area was covered by birch forest. Today forests cover less than 2% of Iceland, largely due to settlers’ clearing of land for firewood and livestock grazing. According to Kristinn, “the most remarkable thing about this project is that birch can plant itself in this way […] This shows and proves that if we give these forests that are disappearing today a little room to propagate, then they should be able to do so.”