Icelandic Horses Could Help Save their Faroese Cousins

Icelandic horses Berglind Jóhannsdóttir

The Faroe Islands’ unique horses are at risk of dying out. Their advocates are considering using Icelandic mares as surrogates in order to save the breed. RÚV reported first.

Faroese horses (also called Faroese ponies) share many similarities with their Icelandic relatives, though they are slightly smaller. Both breeds share the ambling gait known as the tölt and grow shaggy winter coats that they shed again in the spring. DNA analyses in 1978 and 2003 have established that the Faroese horse is indeed its own breed, and that the Icelandic horse is its closest relative.

Icelandic horses in Denmark could serve as surrogates

The biggest difference between the Icelandic and Faroese breeds may be their number: while there are 250,000 Icelandic horses all over the world (some 40% of them in Iceland), there are fewer than 100 purebred Faroese horses alive today, including only 25 fertile mares. In order to ensure the breed’s survival, Jóna Ólavsdóttir, the chair of the Faroese Horse Association (Felagið Føroysk Ross), says at least 3,000 horses are necessary.

Since the size of the Faroe Islands could not support such a large horse population, the association is calling on Faroese authorities to abolish the current export ban so that Faroese horses could be bred on the Danish mainland. One proposal that has been made entails transporting ten Icelandic horses from Denmark to the Faroes, where fertilised eggs from Faroese horses would be implanted in them. The Icelandic mares would then be transported back to Denmark, where their offspring would be the start of a population of Faroese horses outside of the Faroe Islands.

Anonymous donor has offered to pay for surrogacy

If the plan goes ahead, it wouldn’t be the first time Icelanders help the Faroe Islands to maintain their horse breed. In 2018, the Faroese Horse Association and the Icelandic Farmers Association (Bændasamtök Íslands) partnered to create a family tree and digital registration system for the Faroese horse breed, with information on origin, offspring, breeding, and more.

The surrogacy project has a projected cost of $220,000 [€200,000]. An anonymous donor has reportedly already offered to pay the cost if legislative changes make it possible.

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.

Scrapie-Resistant Sheep Multiply in East Iceland

Karólína Elísabetardóttir - Hvammshlíð - Húnavatnssýsla

The lambing season is going well at Þernunes farm in Reyðarfjörður, East Iceland, where 27 lambs have been born that carry the ARR genotype that protects them against the fatal disease scrapie, RÚV reports. The genotype was first found in Iceland on this very farm last January, through a research project that analysed thousands of genetic samples from sheep across the country. Researchers believe that careful breeding of sheep that carry the ARR genotype could eradicate scrapie from Iceland.

Read More: Good Breeding

Scrapie is a degenerative and fatal disease that affects sheep. Because it is highly contagious and can persist in flocks for decades, a flock in which the disease is discovered must be culled. Within the European Union, sheep that carry the ARR genotype do not need to be culled, even when scrapie is diagnosed within their flock, as research shows the gene protects them from both contracting and transmitting the disease.

Þernunes is home to the only ram so far found in Iceland to carry the gene: Gimsteinn (Gemstone). He carries the genotype on one chromosome, meaning that his descendants have a 50% chance of inheriting it. Þernunes farmer Steinn Björnsson says that by the end of lambing season, he expects around 40 of the farm’s lambs will carry the gene.

Another genotype known to protect sheep from scrapie, T137, was also recently found in at least four Icelandic sheep. Extensive research in Italy has found that T137 protects sheep from scrapie, but it is not officially recognised by the EU as the ARR genotype.

Sheep With Rare Genotype Could Eradicate Scrapie

Sheep that carry special genes could hold they key to eradicating the fatal disease scrapie from Iceland, RÚV reports. The ewes Tignarleg, located on a farm in Northwest Iceland, and Móbotna, on a farm in the northeast, both carry a rare gene that protects them against the fatal, degenerative disease. So far, four ewes that carry the gene have been found in the Icelandic sheep stock, but no rams. The findings are part of an international study that is providing hope that scrapie could be eradicated from Iceland within the next decade.

The Icelandic Agricultural Advisory Centre is taking part in the study alongside experts from Germany, England, and Italy. Guðfinna Harpa Árnadóttir, chairperson of the National Association of Sheep Farmers and a farmer herself, says that the genotype, known as T137, has been found to protect sheep against scrapie in three large Italian studies. “So we have hopes that the same applies to the scrapie that has been plaguing us here in Iceland. But it is yet to be confirmed by further research. But it’s very exciting, at the least, to find that genotype,” Guðfinna stated. 

Read More: Dream of a Scrapie-Free Iceland May Become a Reality

Móbotna, who belongs to Guðfinna, not only carries the rare genotype, but also sports rare colouring and has four horns. Guðfinna says researchers are seeking out sheep with unusual characteristics, as it might indicate they are more likely to carry rare genes. “Hopefully we’ll find more exciting animals that can help us in this fight against scrapie. Of course, in continuation, a breeding plan will be made, about how we plan to cultivate [the genotype] further.”

Scrapie is believed to have arrived in Iceland via an English ram that was transported to Skagafjörður fjord in 1878. It is a fatal, degenerative disease with no treatment or cure and it is highly contagious (between sheep). The prion that causes it can persist in soil and flocks for decades. Scrapie is not transmissible to humans.

Great Breeding Season for Iceland’s Puffins

Puffin Iceland

High numbers of puffin chicks, known as pufflings, have been recorded across Iceland this season. The boom is especially apparent in the Westman Islands, off Iceland’s South Coast, where pufflings have been found weighing double their usual weight. A number of factors, including access to food, are behind the development, Erpur Snær Hansen of the South Iceland Nature Research Centre told Iceland Review.

Heavier pufflings five times more likely to thrive

“Breeding has gone really well around the country, it’s great to see how many pufflings there are,” Erpur says. This includes in the Westman Islands, home to nearly 40% of Iceland’s puffins. Puffin numbers in Iceland have decreased around 44% in the past 15 years. “It makes a big impact to have a strong breeding season like this when there have been a lot of difficult years before. In the Westmans this is around 700,000 pufflings that will mostly survive,” Erpur says.

He is particularly optimistic due to the chicks’ weight. Pufflings can weigh as little as 200-250 grams early in the breeding season. This year, however, the first puffin chick weighed by a monitoring team in the Westman Islands measured 359 grams and the heaviest a whopping 429 grams, which may be a record. Weight can make all the difference to pufflings’ survival, as Erpur explains. “A puffling that is 350 grams versus one that is 250 grams is five times more likely to survive its first winter. So these pufflings are very likely to survive their first year, which is their most challenging one,” Erpur stated.

Algae and fish affect population

One reason the puffins are doing well this year is better access to food. “There is sandeel and also a lot of northern krill,” Erpur says. There has been little sandeel in particular along the south coast since around 2005, he adds, though northern krill has been pushing up the puffling numbers since 2017.

Both northern krill and sandeel feed on small zooplankton, which follow the algal bloom in spring. Off Iceland’s south coast, the bloom has been very late in the season for the past 15 years. “Around 2005 the algae started blooming around two weeks later than before. We still don’t know why that happened, but the bloom timing was much earlier this year than it has been since 2005, now it is what we would consider a ‘normal’ time. That seems to have had a huge positive impact on the sand eel.”

Small temperature difference has big impact

According to Erpur, the ocean temperature off Iceland’s south coast has alternating cold and warm periods lasting around 35 years. It is currently in a warm period which began in 1996. Puffin populations do better during cold periods, though it’s not just the temperature itself that is a factor. “During the cold periods there are more marine animals in Icelandic waters, there are more nutrients in the ocean so the fish get bigger and there’s more food in general,” Erpur explains. “We see that there are a lot more pufflings during these periods when the ocean is colder.”

New research on these cold and warm cycles reaching back to 1880 shows that even small changes in ocean temperature can have a big impact on puffin breeding. “We see that with a change of a one degree celsius in either direction from an annual mean of about 7°C chick production drops by 55%. And that happens with all Icelandic seabirds really.” While the puffin is still at risk, Erpur says the population has been increasing its chick production in recent years. “It mainly depends on how it goes in the Westman Islands, where the population has fluctuated the most. We’ve had a few good years now recently but we’ll have to wait and see whether that continues.”

Fewer Puffins Nesting at Two Major Breeding Grounds

Icelandic puffins have laid noticeably fewer eggs in the Westman Islands and Breiðafjörður this year. This was among the findings in the annual Icelandic Atlantic Puffin Monitoring Program report produced by the Westman Islands’ South Iceland Nature Research Centre (NS). NS surveyed twelve puffin nesting sites around Iceland.

The bay of Breiðafjörður in West Iceland and the Westman Island archipelago off the south coast are extremely important breeding grounds for puffins in Iceland. Indeed, 60% of the country’s puffin population lay their eggs one of these two grounds.

There are about half a million puffin burrows in Breiðafjörður. Each puffin burrow can accommodate two puffins (one breeding pair), but the usage of these burrows varies from year to year. According to NS director Erpur Snær Hansen, last year—a particularly good year where puffin breeding is concerned—puffins laid eggs in 88% of the Breiðafjörður burrows. This year, by contrast, only half the burrows are in use. This is a nearly 34% decrease in burrow usage. The Westman Islands boasts more than double the number of puffin burrows, that is, over a million. Last year, 78% of the burrows in the Westmans had eggs in them; this year, only half do.

Erpur attributes the decline in breeding in both of these areas to localized changes in puffins’ food sources.

All but one of the other puffin breeding grounds surveyed had little to no variation in burrow usage since last year. And there is some good news: Lundey island in Skjálfandi Bay in North Iceland has seen a 13% increase in burrow usage this year.

Erpur says that puffins started laying eggs earlier than usual in the Westmans. In fact, he came across two pufflings during his survey of the islands’ nesting grounds. If they mature at the normal rate, these pufflings will leave the nest in early August. “That’s three weeks earlier than it has been for the last ten years or so,” said Erpur.

Iceland’s puffin stock has been declining in recent years and is having difficulty rebounding, despite good breeding seasons like last year. The puffin, along with the Eurasian curlew and the great skua, is currently listed as a “critically endangered” species on the Icelandic Institute of Natural History’s Red List for Birds.

NS will be surveying puffin breeding grounds again in July to find out how many pufflings have hatched and how they are faring.

A New Leash On Life

Icelandic sheepdog

I’m on my 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.

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