Coastal Fishermen Face Shortest Season Ever if Quota is Not Increased

Iceland’s Association of Small Boat Owners (Landssamband smábátaeiganda) has sent a formal request to the Minister of Fisheries calling on her to increase the coastal fishing quota for this year by 4,000 tonnes. The coastal fishing season is intended to last from May until August, but so far this year 72% of the cod quota has already been caught. If additional quota is not added, this coastal fishing season could turn out to be the shortest ever, leaving some 726 fishermen out of work and impacting secondary jobs in harbours and fish processing.

Not enough quota for independent fishermen

Iceland’s current coastal fishing system was implemented 15 years ago with the aim to give smaller, independent fishermen a path into the industry. The number of boats with coastal quota grew from 663 last year to 726 this year, and the number of fishermen has increased steadily in recent years, likely due to a significant increase in fish prices. This year the cod quota set aside for coastal fishing is 10,000 tonnes, 5% of the total annual quota. For the number of coastal fishermen wanting to partake, that quota is not enough. Last year, the quota ran out in mid-July and based on current catch amounts, it could run out even earlier this season.

East Iceland disproportionately affected

When quota runs out early in the season, it affects Iceland’s regions disproportionately, as the cod arrives to the western regions earlier in the season before travelling north and east later in the summer. If the quota is finished before the fish complete their loop around the island, fishermen in East Iceland can miss out on the season entirely. The Association of Small Boat Owners pointed out that increasing the quota for this season would ensure equal distribution of quota between regions.

Cod stocks are in good shape

The latest figures on cod stocks from the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute show that the fish is in good shape, and the Association of Small Boat Owners assert that there is room to add up to 7,000 tonnes to the cod quota without negatively impacting fish stocks. The association also points out that it is unlikely for the largest companies on the market to reach the total allowable catch quota as there are summer vacations and closures ahead at the country’s largest fish processing plants.

Read more about coastal fishing in Iceland.

Scrapie Diagnosed in Northwest Iceland

Sheep in Iceland

The degenerative and fatal disease scrapie has been diagnosed in sheep at Bergsstaðir farm in Northwest Iceland, in the Húnavatnssýsla district, RÚV reports. In conformance with Icelandic health regulations, 690 sheep will be slaughtered as quickly as possible to prevent the spread of the disease to other herds. It is the first time the disease has been detected in the region, which will have an impact not just on Bergsstaðir but the entire district. Scrapie is not transmissible to humans.

Scrapie is often described as the ovine equivalent of mad cow disease. If a sheep tests positive for scrapie, the entire herd is culled, the entire farm’s hay must be destroyed, and the entire farm and its implements must be sanitised, either chemically or through fire, as the disease can remain dormant in the environment for decades. As a result, even after this deep-cleaning, farmers are not able to raise sheep on the land for a set time, and the scorched-earth policy may even affect neighbouring herds and farms.

The Miðfjarðarsveit area, where Bergsstaðir farm is located, will now face significant restrictions on sheep farming for the next two decades, including a ban on transporting sheep between locations and transport of other materials.

Researchers have recently discovered two genotypes in the Icelandic breed of sheep that appear to protect sheep from scrapie: ARR and T137. Breeding programs have begun in efforts to eradicate the disease from Iceland.

Read more about the goal of eradicating scrapie from Iceland in the article Good Breeding.

Cream of the Crop

 Row after row of steep but flat-topped mountains, interspersed with deep fjords. There’s barely enough land in between to make up a coastline, let alone farmland. But on the green patches between the cliffs and the waves, there are still more than a handful of farms dotting the landscape. The Westfjords have always been isolated, but after World War II, when the rest of Iceland experienced a period of sped-up industrialisation, the Westfjords were left behind. Once-thriving communities were slowly drained of life when the young people moved south, and a series of economic setbacks made life difficult for the ones that remained. and new generations still find ways of making it work. 

CREAM OF THE CROP
CREAM OF THE CROP

“I could drive
this road with my eyes closed,
I know it so well.”

6.40 am 

Rauðsdalur 

Mikkjall Agnar Þórsson Davidssen’s alarm goes off. It’s not light yet in the Westfjords but for farmers, this isn’t unusual. Mikki isn’t getting up to milk the cows or feed the sheep but to get his stepdaughter ready for school. At precisely 7.15, the school bus arrives. Rauðsdalur farm is its first stop on the way to bring the preschool and elementary school-aged kids to get their education in Patreksfjörður, the town on the other side of the mountains. 

Íris celebrated her tenth birthday the day before. She’s still waiting on her present, set to arrive any day now by mail from Reykjavík. The post arrives twice a week but the present is yet to turn up. Mikki and Íris are up but her mother Svanhildur is still sleeping, and so is six-month-old Ástey Kolbrún. An online sleep specialist whose aid her parents had requested insists that Ástey be woken up. With bated breath, her parents comply and Ástey rewards them with a smile. They have a whole day to brace themselves for the bedtime-inspired screaming set to happen later. 

Svanhildur and Mikki met in 2019 in Reykjavík. Mikki had lived in Norway for a few years before that, in the same region as the first Norse settler to intentionally sail to Iceland, Raven Flóki. Unlike Flóki, however, he’d never even been to the Westfjords. A couple of years later and he’s building himself a house there. 

The couple bought a prefab house and were hoping to have it ready last summer. Enter Ástey. Svanhildur got pregnant, delaying their plans for a while. They did manage to get the walls up, so all that remains is indoor work. While Mikki is new to the area, Svanhildur is born and bred. She grew up in Rauðsdalur with her parents and two brothers, moving away, like so many of the local youth to go to school, not planning on moving back. “We’d still visit every chance we got,” Mikki notes. “Summer or winter. I could drive this road with my eyes closed, I know it so well.” 

Mikki’s father-in-law drives the milk tanker. He’s been doing it for decades. He’s happy to have some help. Mikki’s taking half the shifts lately. Completely unrelated, his father-in-law is now spending a couple of weeks in the Canary Islands. Alongside the milk truck gig, Svanhildur’s parents run the farm, taking care of their cattle and sheep. They also dabble in tourism, running a guesthouse and campsite. Someone on the next farm over used to take half the shifts on the milk tanker. When he quit, there was an opening for Mikki. “We spent a lot of time here but I needed something more to do than just helping out at the farm.” Mikki and Svanhildur moved west in the spring of 2021, during the lambing season. Despite being raised in a rural area, Mikki says it takes a few years to get to know the ins and outs of dairy farming in the Westfjords. He’s from the south. 

 

Lambavatn

Just before nine, Mikki starts the truck. Twice a week, he collects the milk from the farms along the coast of Breiðafjörður and takes them all the way up to Ísafjörður. He starts at the most remote farm in his area, Lambavatn. To get there, he drives two mountain roads, first over Kleifaheiði heath, under the careful watch of Kleifabúinn, a primitive-looking statue created from excess stone by road workers in the 1940s. In the winter, the Kleifaheiði road can be treacherous, even though it’s cleared once a day to  make sure traffic can flow to and from Patreksfjörður. 

The second road takes you to the remote farming community of Rauðasandur, and it’s more than treacherous. It’s a long and winding gravel road, steep and rough, zigzagging up and down sharp cliffs. In summer, the view over the russet sand that gives the region its name is breathtaking. In winter, with strong winds and ice on the road, it can also take your breath away for all the wrong reasons. The road to Rauðasandur is among the most challenging in the region but there are others that can still be plenty bad when winter sets in. The roads have been slowly improving for the past couple of decades. There are fewer gravel roads. More bridges and shorter routes between towns. But progress is slow. Roads are how kids get to school and how food gets to farms. How products get from factories and tourists get to guesthouses. And how sick people, pregnant people, and people who’ve had accidents get to hospitals. 

It’s still dark when Mikki takes off and there aren’t many other cars on the road. A tiny sliver of light comes from the east. It’s mid-November but it’s still 8°C out and not a snowflake in sight, unusual for this time of year. 

On the road across Dynjandisheiði (try saying that five times fast while trying to keep a truck on an icy road), Mikki regales me with stories of thick layers of ice on the road making it hopeless to brake, and how they could sometimes drive on the edge of the road to keep safe. He also tells me of piles of snow higher than the top of the truck, and how he once had to put chains on the wheels of the truck four times in one day to pass safely over mountain roads. Putting the chains on takes half an hour out in the cold and he has to get them off again as soon as he gets down. He mentions tourists scared shitless who either won’t budge to make room for the truck on the road or give so much way that they almost drive off the road. He’s seen it all. Despite all his adventures crossing the iconic Westfjord mountains, his least favourite stretch of road is driving through the long tunnel connecting the southern and the northern Westfjords. Driving through the calm dark of the tunnels can make you drowsy.

The local milk truck drving across the winding roads of the Westfjords

10.00 am

It takes us less than an hour to get to Rauðasandur but in that time, Mikki’s told me who’s who in every farm along the way and who will greet us when we arrive. As promised, Þorsteinn á Lambavatni meets us in the milkhouse. As Mikki tests the quality of the milk before transferring it to the tank, Þorsteinn explains the watercolour drawing of the milking equipment with directions in English. They have foreign workers at the farm and one of them left the work of art to explain things to the next arrivals. As I admire the picture, Þorsteinn drags me into the cowshed where two further paintings adorn the steel doors keeping the cows away from the winter hay in the barn. Lambavatn may be isolated, at the end of the road, nothing ahead but the north Atlantic, but there’s always people attracted to exactly that. We don’t dawdle too long at Lambavatn. It’s the only dairy farm left in the area so it’s already out of the way. The milk tanker is its lifeline, the biweekly visit from Mikki or his father-in-law a prerequisite for people living there. 

In Barðaströnd, the farms are closer. The next stop is Breiðalækur, where Elín and Kristján are outside working on the greenhouse. Kristján is the third generations of farmers at Breiðalækur, a relatively young farm built in the mid-20th century. Despite only being a few decades old, the farm consists of several buildings and Kristján, a carpenter by trade, has done his part adding to it. There’s the old farmhouse, the new farmhouse sporting a two-year-old annex adding a new apartment for Elín and him. Then there’s the new dairy barn and the old dairy barn, currently in the process of being converted into a greenhouse. “The roof needed fixing,” Elín told me. “So we removed it to make a new one that lets the sun in.” Then there’s the workshop, which Elín has used to tan sheepskin, a garage for the farm equipment and their boat in the winter, and the latest addition under construction – a building to house their new ice-cream-making machinery. 

Their youngest isn’t old enough for school but their six-year-old takes the bus to Patreksfjörður in the morning to go to school. When Elín moved to the farm ten years ago, there was only one school-aged kid left in the region so they closed the local elementary school. Now, there are 14 children below the age of 16 but the school is yet to reopen.

Hagi

Hagi is the next farm over and just like Mikki predicted, there’s no one to greet us in the milkhouse. According to Mikki, “the farmers have decided to stop dairy production when they turn 60 but continue to live on the farm. The milk in the tank is just half of what it once was. They’re gradually downsizing.”

 

Hvammur

Hvammur is next, the largest dairy farm in the area, and Mikki pumps as much milk in his tanker as he did in the first three combined. There’s no one there to greet us. 

 

12.30 pm

Rauðsdalur

We drive up to Rauðsdalur again. Mikki’s family and the in-laws produce dairy, gather it from the surrounding farms, transport it to the dairy in Ísafjörður and drive the finished product back to the area. The dogs greet us with a cheerful bark and Mikki enquires about his daughter’s sleep schedule. All is according to plan. 

There are three dogs in total. The largest one is an Australian sheepdog who moves like an octogenarian after he broke his leg last fall. It takes a while to get used to but we go by the same name: this is Golíat, aka Golli. Pjakkur is a gregarious mutt, constantly seeking attention and willing to place his head in the lap of a perfect stranger in the hope of a scratch behind the ears. The third is more cautious, the namesake of Sveinn Skotti, the son of Iceland’s most famous serial killer, Axlar-Björn. Sveinn took after his father and was finally hanged in the cliffs jutting out into the sea below the farm. This was centuries ago, but I’m still keeping my eye on the dog. 

A quick cup of coffee and we’re off again. This time, we’re taking the milk to Ísafjörður. In Vatnsfjörður, the next town over, we stop and Mikki picks up a Styrofoam box that’s waiting for his arrival. It’s arctic char from the fish farm in Vatnsfjörður to be delivered to the fishmonger in Ísafjörður. Out here, everyone does their part. The tanker carries 5,950 litres of milk on its way to Arna creamery in Bolungarvík. Another milk tanker covers the northern part of the Westfjords bringing in a similar amount twice a week. That’s still not enough and Arna has to buy milk from other parts of the country as well. 

CREAM OF THE CROP

“Roads are how kids get to school and how food gets to farms. How products get from factories and tourists get to guesthouses. And how sick people, pregnant people, and people who’ve had accidents get to hospitals.”

CREAM OF THE CROP

A quick cup of
coffee and we’re
off again.

3.00 pm

Ísafjörður

We arrive in Ísafjörður. There is ongoing roadwork in Dynjandisheiði, the road has already gotten a lot better but there’s more to come. The tunnel by Dýrafjörður has shortened the drive by a lot and on an unusually warm fall day without snow, we don’t run into any issues. “By now, it’s even better to take this road in snow during the winter rather than on a sunny day in the summer. Ever since the tunnel opened the tourist traffic has increased a lot and there are a lot of people on the road that don’t have any experience driving Icelandic country roads.” Mikki’s working so he can’t pick up hitch hikers. There aren’t that many any way. But last year, he took pity on a cyclist on their way up Dynjandisheiði during a storm and drove them to safety. Everyone does their part. 

MS Iceland Dairies has an outpost in Ísafjörður and Mikki stops there for a quality control check on the milk. Everything is as it should be, so we continue out to Bolungarvík where the milk is pumped into Arna’s tankards to become butter, cream, skyr, or cheese. On the way back, we drop the Styrofoam box of char to the fishmonger and Mikki gets a bag of dried fish as a thank you. “I love the stuff, but I can’t eat it at home as the wife has a fish allergy.”

The day is not done yet. The milk tanker has to be thoroughly cleaned in an hour-long process. We get dinner. Mikki is pretty set in his ways but he’s willing to try a kebab in the recently opened kebab shop in an Ísafjörður shopping complex. Before we take off, another truck drives up to the tanker, a delivery from Reykjavík. Pallet after pallet of milk, butter, cheese, yoghurt, skyr and other dairy products is transferred to Mikki’s car for the people back home. He’ll deliver the goods tomorrow. We stop by the grocery. 

On the way back, it’s dark again. The floodlights on the top of the car come in handy. I even see a field mouse crossing the road. I didn’t ask why.

 

Rauðsdalur

It’s half past eight when we get back to Rauðsdalur. We go straight to the barn where Svanhvít is feeding the cows. Ástey is sleeping. 

CREAM OF THE CROP

Gathering

ROUND UP  At just before 6:00 AM on a Sunday morning, I drove north to the Svarfaðardalur valley – to attend a roundup. This roundup had nothing to do with a certain carcinogenic pesticide, nor did it involve the hasty collection of suspects during a police raid. The word roundup, when translated from Icelandic, implies the gathering […]

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To the Vote

OUT OF THE EXACTLY

60 RESIDENTS OF SKORRADALUR, 

47 ARE ELIGIBLE TO VOTE.

In 1910, there were 203 municipal councils in Iceland. Now there are fewer than half that number. During the 20th century, following centuries of economic stagnation, Iceland finally industrialised. It was later than other countries in Europe, but it happened in half the time. As people streamed to urban areas, rural municipalities lost inhabitants, and towns grew. In 1911, the greater Reykjavík area had roughly 15,000 inhabitants, around 18% of the total population. Today, that number is 240,000 – and 64% of all the residents of Iceland. 

Having lost much of their tax base, many municipal councils are now in dire financial straits, struggling to find the funds to keep up the services they are required by law to provide. Minister of Local Government Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson has made it his mission to streamline municipal councils and presented a heavily-contested bill that would have required all municipalities to have a minimum number of inhabitants, forcing them to merge if they did not. This drew the ire of most regions in the country. The number he named as the minimum requirement was considered obscene, a preposterous idea to require municipalities to reach that size in the next few years. 

That number was 1,000 people. 

Municipal elections were held across Iceland this spring, and mergers once again became a topic of discussion. While increased requirements for bureaucracy, budgets, education, and services to inhabitants have forced several smaller municipalities to merge, the change is more fundamental than that: it requires a change in the way most Icelanders think about their immediate community. 

I grew up in a small town in West Iceland. When I was a kid, the town merged with some neighbouring rural localities to form the Borgarbyggð municipality of nearly 5,000 km2 of land and just under 4,000 people. What was formerly 13 different municipalities is now a single entity, with its headquarters in the largest town of Borgarnes.

Only a few kilometres away, there is a municipality of just 60 residents that has remained independent: Skorradalur. When I think about it, I don’t really know a whole lot about what’s going on there, so I do what any self-respecting journalist would do in my situation – I call my mom. 

A former member of the Borgarbyggð council, and possessing both a keen interest in genealogy and family ties to most farms in the  region, she would prove a key ally in figuring out the answer to my question – why do 60 people in a small valley cling to power over their own affairs, when municipalities ten times their size struggle to keep up with the requirements of such a project? 

My mother’s first suggestion? To call my ophthalmologist. 

Out of the exactly 60 residents of Skorradalur, 47 are eligible to vote. One of these 47 happens to be my former ophthalmologist and a friend of my parents. She tells me she’s not really involved with the local government but gives me a few names of people on the council, noting which ones like to talk and which like to talk a little too much. I also find out the name of the person chairing the Skorradalur electoral committee. I give him a call to let him know we’d like to pay a visit on election day. He stops me abruptly: “I’m helping a sheep in labour, I’m going to need you to call me back. It’s lambing season, you know!”

Permission to monitor the proceedings secured, I wake up to a bright and sunny election day. I walk over to my local polling station to cast my vote in the Reykjavík municipal elections before I leave town for the day. As soon as I drop it in the ballot box, I head out and jump in the car with Iceland Review’s photographer – we’re going west. 

Skorradalur is a deep valley centring on an even deeper lake. At around 17 kilometres, it is the longest in Iceland. Even though there are only 60 official residents of the valley, Skorradalur is saturated with summer houses, which dot the banks of the lake and stretch all the way up the mountains on either side. Uncharacteristically for Iceland, large swathes of the valley are covered in thick forest.

We park the car by the local reforestation society’s offices, the makeshift polling station. Unlike the elementary school where I cast my vote, there are no signs pointing the way. Everyone voting here knows where to go. The polling station opens at noon, but when we get there, the electoral committee is still setting up. A current member of the council is busy piling a table high with cakes, cheeses, strawberries, chocolate, and coffee. We’re here to gauge the local atmosphere and get to know the community, so I try to start a conversation. After dithering about and awkwardly asking some of my pre-prepared questions and receiving half-hearted answers, I decide it’s time to deploy my secret weapon. I walk up to the oldest person in the room, the chair of the electoral committee, who hadn’t had time for a chat the previous day due to the lambing season. 

“You know, I’m actually from around these parts. I think you might know my mother, Guðrún.” 

It’s as if I’ve flipped a switch. No longer an intrusive journalist from Reykjavík, I receive a warm smile as the chair of the electoral committee tells me that his grandfather and my great-grandfather used to be thick as thieves. 

Davíð Pétursson has lived at Grund farm his whole life, and his father before him. It turns out that no one is better equipped to give us a sense of the importance of the municipal council for the region than Davíð: he’s been involved in every election there since 1961. “But the book goes back further, it was my father who bought it,” he says as he pulls out a notebook from 1938, detailing the election proceedings and results each four-year interval since. Alongside his work as a farmer, Davíð held the now-defunct position of hreppstjóri (district commissioner) and was the chair of the local council for decades. He isn’t a member anymore, but his son, Pétur, has had a seat for a few terms now, following in his ancestors’ footsteps. 

“Have you heard about the worm?” 

“Excuse me?”

“The worm in the lake. A young woman from around here found herself in possession of a gold coin. She’d heard that if you put a worm on the gold, it would grow. She found a coffer and placed her coin under a worm. Sometime later, she opened it and found that the worm had grown with the gold. This unnerved her and she threw everything in the lake: the coffer, the worm, and the coin. But the worm kept growing and got so big it reached both ends of the lake. Its hump will sometimes reach out of the lake, but if it ever reaches so high that you can see Dragafell mountain between the worm and the lake, that’s when you know Ragnarök is pending.” Oh, that worm. 

“Did you sort things out with the committee? Is everything legal?” someone chimes in. The committee turns a little sheepish. “It’s their ‘estimate’ that it won’t be an issue,” he answers. This is the first time that someone mentions the new election legislation that took effect this year. It won’t be the last. 

“It’s in shambles, really.” 

“These politicians have no idea what they’re doing.” 

“All it takes is one person to file a complaint!” 

The new laws require that an electoral committee be made up of people with no familial or financial ties to council members. In this rural community of 60 people, that excludes pretty much everyone. They’d had the idea to switch electoral committees with the neighbouring municipality, but the law requires that members of the electoral committee have legal residence within the municipality. So they’re doing it like they always have, crossing fingers that no complications will arise. 

“And then they moved the date up!” It turns out people from Reykjavík really don’t know what they’re doing because, as I’ve heard again and again – It’s lambing season! 

Ewes don’t give birth according to a schedule, which means that in the spring, farmers and their families work around the clock assisting lambs into the world. Being on the municipal council never used to be a full-time job. That’s why, historically, elections never took place until late May or June. For the five council members of Skorradalur, that means that the increased demands of modern-day local government come at the expense of time at their other job, time with the sheep, or time off.

 

Voting in Skorradalur is a little different from Reykjavík. Not only are the refreshments much better (any at all is an improvement!) but there are no parties and no lists to choose from. Since no party has expressed particular interest in governing the municipality, every single person eligible to vote is also automatically standing for election. Out of the region’s 60 inhabitants, 47 people are Icelandic citizens of sound mind and body and over the age of 18. In theory, any one of them popular enough has a chance of being voted into office and thus being required, by law, to serve on the municipal council for the next four years. The only people allowed to bow out are senior citizens and people who have already fulfilled their duty to Skorradalur. 

A voter wanders in and finds a cup of black coffee and a seat to wait his turn. I lean over to ask him if the thought of waking up tomorrow with a seat on the municipal council is an enticing or a frightening thought. He lets out a cynical grunt. “I don’t think I’m at risk.” I ask if people campaign for a seat on the council or if it’s the reverse: are people pleading to be let off the hook? “I haven’t been going out of my way to be mean to my neighbours if that’s what you’re asking,” he says. “But you sort of know who’s up for the job.” I hesitate a little before mentioning the m-word, but bravely forge ahead.

“Any talk of a merger?”

This gets him going. 

“If I wake up tomorrow as municipal council director, that’s the first thing I’m going to do. It’s insane that they haven’t done it already, years ago. Utter nonsense to keep such a small entity running. We have no leverage in any sort of negotiations, no one bothers to talk to such a small municipality.”

I was surprised to get such an unfiltered response. I hadn’t even told him who my mother was. 

He drains his paper cup of coffee and gets up. It’s his turn to vote. 

I think I’m getting the hang of how conversations work here. Call it what you will: rediscovering my roots or getting in touch with my ancestral line of taciturn farmers, I walk up to a determined-looking woman. “Do you come from around these parts?” I ask. She responds fiercely: “Born and raised, I’ve lived in Hálsar all my life.” Jackpot. If anyone can explain the mystery of Skorradalur’s struggle to stay independent, a life-long valley resident must have the key. I get straight to the point. “Do you think there should be a merger?”

“Of course, they should have done it years ago. We should have started the negotiations right after the last elections.” She and another local explain to me that when the other municipalities in the region merged, Skorradalur stayed out and that, in their opinion, that was a mistake. There’s also a slight chance money played a part. Municipalities gain funds from their citizen’s taxes but also through real estate fees. While the 60 people in Skorradalur don’t raise any large sums through taxes, the 800 summer residences in the area keep the books squarely in the green. So, what’s stopping the merger? The other local doesn’t want to get too deep into the subject. “Let’s not talk about that here.” By the time it’s her turn to vote, I’ve added her to my mental list of names of people who send their regards to my mother.

“THESE POLITICIANS

HAVE NO IDEA WHAT

THEY’RE DOING.”

A current member of the municipal council walks in, wearing a lovely sheep-patterned wool sweater. He’s married to a member of the electoral committee, and I’d been told he was someone who could explain how things work around here. When I asked if the elections were filled with suspense, he chuckled. “Well, I’ve been on the council now for 28 years. If I lose my seat, I think I’ll be ok.”

The atmosphere around the table is convivial and relaxed. A young woman comes in to vote, and someone asks her who she is. Or rather, who her parents are: the Icelandic phrase directly translates as “Which people do you belong to?” She’s the younger daughter from Fitjar farm, currently residing in Reykjavík. As soon as the mystery is solved, the assembly relaxes and moves on to assessing exactly which characteristics in her demeanour add the most to her resemblance to her mother. She is enthusiastically encouraged to have some cake. 

In this calm, cosy atmosphere, I get overambitious. I decide to push my luck, so as I’m washing the last bit of cake and cream down with the now-lukewarm coffee, I nonchalantly say to the council member sitting on my left: “So, there are no official merger negotiations on the table?”

The temperature in the room drops several degrees. The amicable buzz of conversation halts. No one looks directly at me, but I can sense every ear in the house tune in. After a slightly-too-prolonged silence, the council member takes it upon himself to chide me. “This is not really the place for that topic.” I can sense their second-hand embarrassment on my behalf: I’ve broken the social code, and I don’t even know it. It’s the council member’s turn to vote, and he seems eager to get away from this blundering journalist. For the fifth time today, I wonder about how long it takes these people to vote. I get that this might be a weightier decision than voting for a party in Reykjavík, but it can’t be that hard. We leave the polling station to pay a few visits.


Our first stop is the incumbent municipal council director’s house. A relatively recent transplant to the valley, he’s in the process of renovating a house he bought on auction following the banking collapse. Colourful paintings cover most surfaces in his home – Árni Hjörleifsson might have spent his career in municipal matters, but his passion is art, not politics. Several of the paintings depict Skessuhorn, the triangular mountain above his home – Skorradalur’s answer to the Matterhorn. 

So why is he here? Turns out Árni used to be married to a local woman and the doyen of the electoral committee, Davíð (of Grund farm), had wrangled him into taking a seat on the council for his know-how in politics. His personal politics weren’t an issue, even though he identifies as a social democrat and Skorradalur, in his words, is “a conservative lair” (íhaldsbæli). “But they found use for this damned social democrat from Hafnarfjörður.” He chuckles. 

“In the last elections, I was the oldest person voted into municipal office.” Árni tells me about the cooperation with neighbouring “giant” Borgarbyggð, which at the moment isn’t going so great. “There’s new people there, and in my opinion, they’re trying to force a merger.” Skorradalur was a part of a joint force of small municipalities protesting the plans for mergers under duress. “We got out of the legislation, but there remained an incentive to merge.” In his eyes, forced mergers don’t make sense: they should only be entered into if both parties see an advantage.

So there’s nothing on the table? “There was a poll eight years ago to see if people wanted a merger. It was killed. Do you want some coffee?” I’ve had enough coffee today to start a small car so I politely decline. “But of course, it’s a question of when, not if, at this point. The talk turns to road construction on the north side of the lake and the renovation of the pool reception. We soon find ourselves back on the more comfortable topic of the incompetence of people from Reykjavík. The electoral committee should technically all be disqualified, and elections in the middle of lambing season! 

“And then it’s the question of the ballot.” The ballot? “We tried to get it changed, you know, so people wouldn’t have to write in the names by hand, but we had to do it like everyone else. But I had the idea for the stencil, so that’s one solution, I guess.” As he explains further, everything starts to make a little more sense. The reason everyone is taking so long to vote is that in order to make sure their handwriting isn’t recognisable, the voting booth has a stencil with block letters. It’s a secret ballot, but in a valley of 60 people, are there really any secrets?  

SO MUCH FOR

THAT WORM.”

At our next stop, we’re told to go straight to the barn. It’s lambing season, you know. Once there, we meet the council member from earlier. He’s shed his woollen jumper and is currently practising sheep midwifery of the highest order. A couple of minutes later, a ewe is tiredly baa-ing at a tiny lamb. Only one though: its twin didn’t make it. “I’d noticed she was having difficulty before I went to vote. If there’s bleeding at that point, it’s highly likely that you’ll run into trouble.”

I ask him if he’s excited to see if he’s still on the municipal council when he wakes up tomorrow, or dreading it. “I’ll do my duty, of course, but we need to get this merger going. This just doesn’t make any sense anymore.” He reveals that one reason for Skorradalur’s continuing independence is the fear that moving power away from the people will mean less attention to what needs to be done locally. “That’s why we’re renovating the pool reception; we thought we’d be merging by now and wanted to get it done before it was just a small task on a long list in a larger municipality.” I bring up rumours that Skorradalur doesn’t want a merger to protect their coffers, heavy with real estate fees from summerhouse owners. “No, that’s silly. We get by, but there’s no gold stash here.” So much for that worm.

 

We head to Grund, the ancestral home of the Skorradalur patriarch. Davíð is still preoccupied at the polling station, much like he has been for the past 60 years, but we’re there to talk to his son Pétur. As we drive up to the farm, he’s on his way out to the barn: lambing season. 

“So he told you the story? About Grund?” I hadn’t gotten that far in my chat with his father, although I’d gotten some humorous anecdotes about my great grandfather. “Our family’s been here since the 1670s. They bought the farm from Bishop Brynjólfur.” He’s the man on the 5,000-króna bill. But even here at the grand seat of power in Skorradalur, they see the writing on the wall.  An independent Skorradalur isn’t possible in the long term. As for the merger, it isn’t as simple as it looks. And perhaps Borgarbyggð, despite its proximity, isn’t the only option. “We should get the talks started immediately, so we can do this right. ” So why haven’t they yet? “Well, your mother should be able to tell you all about that. She was on the municipal council when the last merger talks fell through, and she wasn’t too happy about it if I recall. It was all going pretty well, until one meeting when a Borgarbyggð official went off on the smaller municipalities. He basically called us parasites.” There are other reasons too, of course. There’s the fact that the municipality of Akranes is actually the largest landholder in Skorradalur. There’s the question of making sure that Skorradalur’s needs are met within a larger municipality and the fact that through some mathematical gymnastics and the intricacies of municipal law in Iceland, a merger with Borgargbyggð could mean that the merged municipality might actually have less funds overall.

I feel as if I’m getting closer to the heart of the matter: it’s about identity and dignity. Living in a small community means that you’re constantly reaffirming who you are and where you come from. You rely on the people around you. You don’t want to relinquish control of your affairs to a party that doesn’t see your importance. 

Maintaining a municipality of 60 people doesn’t make any sense. Skorradalur’s residents all know that: especially those of them who have to run it in between shifts at the side of pregnant ewes. But it’s a matter of pride at this point. Nobody wants to let their people down. 

I call my mother on the way back to Reykjavík. After reciting a long list of regards and messages, she commends me on my choice of interviewees. “There’s some good people in Skorradalur.” I watch the election coverage that night. It takes a long time to get the first numbers from Reykjavík, but I keep an eye out for the results of the Skorradalur election. Jón gets reelected, so does Pétur. Then there are some new faces, the woman from Hálsar’s daughter-in-law. A farmer we met that day, and a woman from Akranes who just started a sheep farm with her husband.

Icelandic Breweries Can Now Sell Directly to Customers

Kaldi beer brewery

Starting tomorrow, July 1, breweries in Iceland will be permitted to sell their alcoholic products directly to customers. The change is thanks to a parliamentary bill passed on June 15 that somewhat relaxes the state monopoly on alcohol sales. While some say it’s high time alcohol was available for sale outside of state-run stores, others are wary increased availability will lead to higher rates of alcoholism.

The changes are long overdue, according to Ólafur Stephensen, CEO of the Icelandic Federation of Trade. He told RÚV that he hopes to see legislation concerning alcohol sales relaxed even further.

See Also: Business Booming for Online Alcohol Retailers

“The goal of the bill was, among other things, to strengthen culture-related tourism around breweries in the countryside. The result is that one or two breweries are excluded, both in Eyjafjörður [North Iceland]. And one producer of spirits in Borgarnes. There is no logic to that,” Ólafur stated, adding that there is no reason producers of spirits shouldn’t also be allowed to sell their products on site.

“These are companies that have the same criteria and have been building up tourism around their operations and production. These breweries produce too much and are therefore too big to fall under these legal amendments.”

The lack of alcoholic beverages in Icelandic grocery stores catches many foreign tourists by surprise. The state-run liquor store, Vínbúðin, is expensive, and opening hours can be sporadic during holidays and in more rural parts of the country. Vínbúðin stores are always closed on Sundays. While some have argued that increased access to alcohol will lead to increased alcohol abuse, a recent survey shows that almost half of Icelanders want beer and wine to be available in supermarkets.

Lambing Season Means Long Shifts for Farmers

sheep lambing Iceland

Iceland’s sheep farmers are working day and night to help their ewes give birth. The lambing season spans across five weeks from late April into early June – and some farmers say they can’t wait for it to be over. While most ewes can give birth without assistance, some do need a helping hand from their caretakers.

RÚV reporters visited Halldórsstaðir farm in North Iceland, where 150 lambs have been born in just under a week. The farm has 700 sheep and they are expected to give birth to around 1,000 lambs this season (twins are fairly common). Farmer Ragnar Jónsson says that at the farm, people only step in to help if something is going wrong. “If people always help then the ewe won’t be as strong the next time she gives birth.” Ewes and their newborn lambs are moved to special “nursery” pens where they can recover from their efforts.

From Iceland Review Magazine: Little Lamb Who Made Thee?

During the lambing season, farmers spend most of their waking hours in the sheep shed to make sure someone is always available to step in if ewes need some assistance. Guðbjörn Elfarsson, another of the farmers at Halldórsstaðir, says he even eats dinner in the sheep shed these days. Guðbjörn told reporters he’s not a fan of this time of year and looks forward to getting a good, long sleep when it’s all over.

Good Breeding

Ólafur Magnússon og frú bændur á Sveinsstöðum Trú frá S

A sheep farmer’s worst nightmare is if one of his sheep starts to scratch more than usual. If their sheep start to show nerves, tremble, or grind their teeth, they should be really worried. An unstable walk or sheep that spend most of the time lying down might be showing symptoms of scrapie, the ovine version of mad cow disease. 

Scrapie isn’t spread by bacteria or a virus – it’s thought to be caused by a prion protein. The result is a fatal, degenerative disease that affects the infected animals’ nervous system. While bacteria and viruses are hard to deal with, prion proteins are in a league of their own, nearly impossible to get rid of. They can withstand an eight-hour boil and only the strongest chemicals will clear them. For sheep, an infection is a death sentence, effectively turning their brains into mush. There is no cure.

Do you know what happens if a farmer’s sheep test positive for scrapie? The entire herd is culled, as soon as possible, sometimes even sheep from surrounding farms as well. All sheep that have stayed at the infected farm will also be culled. The farmer won’t be permitted to have sheep on the farm for a certain period of time and must destroy all their hay. For the next ten years, every visitor to the barns will have to be notified of the danger of infection. 

The local veterinarian decides what needs to be disposed of and what can be sanitised. And we’re not talking only about equipment but whole barns. The barns and everything in them must be disinfected with strong chemicals or fire and everything must be repainted. Finally, the soil around the barns is exchanged for new material and the area is paved. The government pays some damages, but it’s not likely that they will cover the financial loss, let alone the emotional damage of having your life’s work methodically wiped out – let alone the death toll. 

The only person 

When Karólína Elísabetardóttir visited Iceland for the first time, she fell in love with the country, its nature, and the animals; horses and sheep. It was a coincidence that led her, some years later, to buy some land and start a farm. Located halfway up a mountain pass in North Iceland, her estate is large but mostly consists of a mountain and a river. It hadn’t been farmed for over a century so there are no cultivated fields. When asked if she ever gets lonely on her mountaintop, Karólína simply replies: “I’m not alone, I’m just the only person.” Her four horses, two dogs, and herd of sheep keep her company. They also provide her livelihood. She raises her sheep for their wool and provides the opportunity for people to foster sheep. In exchange for their patronage, they receive a fleece of wool each spring, when Karólína ships wool in all the colours of a sheepish rainbow to her customers. Since she isn’t worried about meat production, she has the freedom to breed tall and lean sheep, which make them better equipped to navigate her mountainous land, and while many wool farmers prefer white sheep, she looks for interesting colours. It takes years to breed a herd to a farmer’s specific liking. One unfortunate contact with an infection could bring her back to square one. 

He’s a born and bred farmer, the sixth generation of his family living in Sveinsstaðir, along with his wife Inga Sóley Jónsdóttir.

A farmer by blood 

Ólafur Magnússon is a farmer at Sveinsstaðir in North Iceland, a 40-minute drive from Karólína’s mountain. He’s a born and bred farmer, the sixth generation of his family living in Sveinsstaðir, along with his wife Inga Sóley Jónsdóttir. His ancestral home was built in 1929 and his herd of sheep are the direct descendants of sheep brought there in the 1940s. Until he lets them out to pasture in spring, they reside in a bright and airy barn, recently tripled in size. In contrast to Karólína’s sheep, the group mostly consists of white sheep and almost every one of them has horns. “Every farmer has his own quirks like that,” Ólafur tells me. “I think the horned sheep are the prettiest, but others prefer the look of polled sheep.” 

Sveinsstaðir has never had a case of scrapie, nor have the surrounding farms, despite the disease being endemic in the region. In the next valley over, however, Ólafur knew a farmer facing the constant threat of the disease as it popped up on farms all around them. “If it didn’t happen this autumn, they had to be prepared for it to rear its head next year, or the year after that. You can’t really focus on developing your breeding program or your farm with this hanging over you.” 

He’s a born and bred farmer, the sixth generation of his family living in Sveinsstaðir, along with his wife Inga Sóley Jónsdóttir. 

Figuring it out 

About a year ago, Ólafur got a message from Karólina. Despite the relatively short distance between their farms, he didn’t know her personally. But Karólína had been reading up on scrapie. She knew what a scrapie infection would mean and she wasn’t too keen on having that happen on her own farm, where her herd of sheep was so entwined to her life that they would come when she calls them. And if it wasn’t evident from the life she had carved out for herself on her mountain, if Karólina set her mind to something, things got done. “I thought that there must be another way,” Karólína told me. She read up on the research Stefanía had done in Keldur. In fact, she read everything she could find on the subject. “I know some veterinarians and sheep farmers in Germany and other countries and that was the reason that I started looking into the genotypes.” 

Digging through DNA 

Through her contacts, she got in touch with Christine Fast in Greifswald, Germany. They talked about the attempts to find the ARR genotype in Iceland. While no such sheep had been found in the first study, the word among farmers was that there might be something there. There was no research to support it, but some farms seemed to be shielded from scrapie cases, even though the disease was popping up all around them. “Then, Christine told me that there might be something else.” There was some evidence suggesting that they could look beyond the three codons usually studied to determine scrapie susceptibility and look for differently composed genotypes that might prove scrapie-resistant. “It was a spot of luck really, that at the same time, I found a report on research conducted in Italy, three studies that were carried out fifteen years ago,” Karólína says. “They found that a specific genotype that they called T137 seemed to be as resistant to scrapie as ARR.” This sparked something in Karólína’s brain. “I had read in Stefanía’s report from the scrapie study conducted in Iceland two decades ago, that T137 had been found in Icelandic sheep.” If they could find more of these sheep, there might be some hope. But that study had been made 20 years ago. Since then, several cases of scrapie had been discovered and several whole herds culled. Since 1996, 61 cases of scrapie had been detected on 58 farms in Iceland.

A looming threat 

Karólína’s farm is in a designated scrapie region. It means that farms in the area regularly encounter outbreaks of the disease. In fact, this is the region where scrapie was first detected. In the late 19th century, an English ram was imported to Iceland via Denmark. It was a beautiful ram with many desirable qualities that farmers were excited to introduce to their own herds. But they got more than they bargained for: scrapie. Importing live sheep was banned in Iceland in 1882. Occasionally, over the following century, exemptions were made. In all but one of those cases, new diseases were introduced to Icelandic sheep. The last attempt was made in 1945, but the sheep were culled when found to suffer from footrot. 

A way out

Now there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: breeding. At the turn of the millennium, studies found that some sheep are naturally resistant to scrapie. They can’t catch it. The reason is embedded in their DNA, as susceptibility for scrapie is determined by genes. A simple test reveals the polymorphism of three codons, 136, 154, and 171, which determine scrapie susceptibility. Each codon is assigned a letter. VRQ makes sheep very susceptible to scrapie, while ARR protects them from catching the disease or passing it on. For the past two decades, farmers in mainland Europe have bred their herds to contain ARR genotypes, preventing scrapie from taking hold. Once this information was available, veterinary scientists at Iceland’s Institute for Experimental Pathology at Keldur, including Stefanía .orgeirsdóttir,  launched a study assessing the genes of Icelandic sheep, the only breed in the country. The results were disheartening. No ARR sheep were to be found, meaning no ARR protection could be bred into Icelandic herds. Options to fight scrapie in Iceland would continue to be limited – either import ARR sheep from other countries, and risk introducing new diseases to the isolated island breed, or a zero-tolerance approach to scrapie cases. Until now, the scorched earth approach has won out.

THE SIX SHEEP AT 

SVEINSSTAÐIR THAT CARRY 

THE PROMISING GENOTYPE.

A needle in a haystack 

“I got a call from Karólína last spring, asking me to take samples from some sheep in my herd,” Ólafur tells me. His herd counts around 770 sheep. “I wasn’t really sure how to choose which sheep to test but I tried to cover a range of family lines,” Ólafur tells me. He took 20 samples, which were then taken to Reykjavík and to Germany to be tested. Even though T137 had been found in Stefanía’s earlier research, Gesine’s sequencing soon proved that it was rare in Iceland. From the first sample batches, no T137 cases were found. But back in Sveinsstaðir, Ólafur discovered that a couple of samples had been left behind, never making it  to Germany. They got shipped with the next batch. One of the samples was from a ewe called Trú, which translates as Faith. They’d hit the jackpot. Trú carried the T137 genotype. A matriarch of a long line of ewes, further testing at the farm produced five more sheep. Tignarleg, Trygglind, Trygg, Tombóla, and Tara all carried the promising genotype. This year, lambing season starts around Easter, and the six sheep at Sveinsstaðir farm are expecting a total of 16 lambs, which will hopefully be the start of something even bigger. “We’re ecstatic. Farmers have been waiting for good news like this for the longest time,” Inga tells me with a smile. “We’re simply so grateful for this woman.” The T137 genotype still presents some issues. While the ARR genotype is internationally recognised as scrapie-resistant, much less research has been done on T137. And although six sheep were found in Sveinsstaðir, all of them are ewes, so fingers are crossed that some of the sixteen lambs this spring will be rams, ready to spread their seed across the country for a good cause. But the study wasn’t over. It still had one lucky coincidence up its sleeve. 

Jackpot 

When 4,200 samples had been processed over ten months, it was time for sheep from Þernunes farm in Reyðarfjörður, East Iceland. Nine sheep carrying the prized ARR genotype were discovered. This time, most of the nine were polled, in stark contrast to Ólafur’s six horned sheep. 

There are more than around 400,000 sheep in Iceland. So far, a couple dozen of them have been found to carry genotypes resistant to scrapie. Finding the sheep is not a solution in and of itself, but only the first step in a massive breeding project in the years to come. Eyþór Einarsson, the sheep breeding consultant with the Agricultural Advisory Centre, tells me that the task ahead is daunting. To start with, they’ve only found one ram with a resistant genotype so far. Furthermore, that ram lives in a region where scrapie has been detected, and there are strict regulations in place limiting breeding options for such sheep. Still, the study is far from over. Farmers across the country were invited to submit samples from their own sheep and over five hundred farmers have already participated. 

Breeding sheep is a complicated process and care must be taken to prevent inbreeding. But now that there is a solution in sight, the team wants to get started as soon as possible, especially following a recent surge in scrapie cases. “We want to do this as fast as we can, preferably without lowering our standards for inbreeding and without losing diversity in the breed. We haven’t faced a challenge like this before, but farmers are hopeful, and together, we’ll get this done.”

Research projects continue and enthusiastic farmers can now participate by having their sheep tested. Just before this issue of Iceland Review was sent to print, the research team had some good news. They’d discovered some sheep carrying the T137 genotype at Stóru-Hámundarstaðir farm – including another ram! 

Home Slaughter More Humane and Profitable

Sheep in Iceland

Home slaughter can be more humane for lambs and more profitable for farmers than sending livestock to slaughterhouses, says Þröstur Heiðar Erlingsson, one of Iceland’s first farmers to implement the practice since it was legalised last spring. According to Þröstur, there is growing interest among both consumers and shops for buying directly from farmers. Þröstur and his wife Ragnheiður Erla Brynjólfsdóttir will provide free instruction on home slaughter to other sheep farmers across the country.

Home slaughter of lambs and goats was legalised in Iceland last spring, as part of a 12-point action plan to support farmers in meeting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously, sheep and goat farmers in Iceland were required to send livestock to licenced slaughterhouses. A pilot project and virtual inspections in 2020 and 2021 were part of ensuring that home slaughter would conform to health and safety standards.

Farmers who slaughter at home receive all the offal, the head of the lamb, and the sheepskin, by-products that are most often discarded when livestock are sent to a slaughterhouse, Þröstur says. Farmers can then package and sell products directly to consumers or shops. Þröstur points out that when lambs are slaughtered at the farm, they also do not have to be transported long distances and put in unfamiliar surroundings, which makes the process more humane.

Þröstur and Ragnheiður received a grant to share their experience with other farmers, and will soon provide free instruction on home slaughter in the form of virtual meetings. “We got into this to help farmers, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Now we’ve gained experience, slaughtered at home, and gone through it. We just want to share that knowledge and information with other farmers,” Þröstur stated.

Labour of Love

In early January, my colleague and I drove north from Reykjavík toward the northern tip of the Tröllaskagi peninsula. Although Iceland’s dimensions appear sizeable on satellite maps, it takes less than four hours to traverse its length by car; before noon, we turned into Vestur-Fljót, in the Flókadalur valley, and parked in front of a red-and-white house on the farm Syðsti-Mór. The farmstead had been abandoned since 2013 – until 20-year-old Kristófer Orri Hlynsson moved in alone and began farming.

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