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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Balancing the Scales

escaped farmed fish iceland

Protest On Saturday, October 7, a tractor trundled through the streets of downtown Reykjavík with hundreds of protestors in tow. The procession was headed to Austurvöllur Square in front of Iceland’s Parliament for a demonstration.Several organisations – including Landvernd (the Icelandic Environment Association) and the Icelandic Wildlife Fund – had organised the event to protest […]

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Deep North Episode 47: Mycological Magic

mushroom foraging iceland

On a grey afternoon in late August, a small crowd has gathered near the old hydroelectric power station in Elliðaárdalur, a nature area near the capital. Helena Marta Stefánsdóttir, a specialist in the Forestry Service, has prepared a lecture on mushroom foraging 101 for the amateur mycologists gathered here. But it seems to be the first day of fall and as the wind picks up, a drizzle slowly grows into a light shower. The children are getting restless, and it’s only through their low murmur that I’m able to pick up fragments of tips. Never eat the ones that… Usually, a white mushroom will… I’m not exactly reassured, but everything is getting damp and we head off for the cover of the woods to continue our search.

Read the story here.

German Expedition Vehicle Causes Damage to Nature Area

german jeep highland

A recent YouTube video, published by the German tourist Peter Ruppert, has drawn considerable critique and commentary in Iceland.

Ruppert, who runs the YouTube channel Pete Ruppert Universe, was travelling through the Icelandic highland in a converted “overlander” military-style truck. When the truck became bogged down on a rough track, Ruppert is shown causing considerable damage to the natural surroundings as he freed his truck.

Reports indicate that the truck, which weighs around 14 tonnes, was stuck in Þjórsárver, a protected nature area.

Daníel Freyr Jónsson, a specialist at the Environment Agency,  stated to RÚV that Rupper was not driving off-road. Nevertheless, Daníel stated that his actions were “far from exemplary.”

“There are trails and roads in the area, and he was not driving off-road,” Daníel stated. A rough track can also be seen in the YouTube video in question. “But the damage caused in digging out his truck is clearly not a positive thing, and it’s not setting a good example within a protected area,” Daníel continued.

Ruppert has denied accusations of driving off-road and damaging nature. In a public statement, Ruppert said: “First of all, we never drove off-road […] [A]ccording to the map, we naturally drove exclusively on marked trails, which were also indicated by the wooden posts that had been set up! However, there were many places where these wooden markers were missing. In such cases, we followed tracks on the ground, so we drove where vehicles had already driven before us. And then, lo and behold, more posts would appear. The landscape in the glacier area seems to constantly change due to river courses. Iceland should either close off such tracks or clearly mark them to prevent people from getting lost!”

Many Icelanders have expressed their frustration at the damage done to nature and highland roads in light of the incident. Icelandic law prohibits off-road driving, and in some cases, vehicles may be confiscated. Heavy vehicles, such as Ruppert’s 14-tonne military expedition truck, also cause outsized damage to natural areas, even when on established tracks.

Daníel Freyr continued: “I think the next step will be to go and check this out and see if we can observe any damage caused by this. And if there is a lot, then we simply need to consider what to do about it. This is, of course, a protected area, and specific rules apply to it.”

Why are there no trees in Iceland?

hekla forest project

The short answer: sheep. According to the earliest records of the settlement of Iceland, the island was forested everywhere between the highlands and the coast when the Norse first arrived. Often, these semi-historical accounts in the mediaeval sources have to be taken with a grain of salt, but this assessment has been backed up by modern science, which estimates that approximately 40% of the island was covered by birch forests prior to settlement.

Over time, the settlers cut down trees for charcoal, tools, houses, and ships. Because Iceland’s environment is relatively harsh, once trees were felled in large numbers, it was difficult for them to grow back.

Perhaps the largest impediment to reforestation, however, was sheep grazing. It has long been traditional in Iceland for farmers to let their sheep roam in highland pastures during the summer, and then to collect them in the fall. This sheep grazing caused immense damage to Icelandic forests, from which they are still recovering. To this day, most tree plantations in Iceland need to be fenced in, to prevent sheep from destroying young saplings.

Mycological Magic

guðríður gyða eyjólfsdóttir

On a grey afternoon in late August, a small crowd has gathered near the old hydroelectric power station in Elliðaárdalur, a nature area near the capital. Helena Marta Stefánsdóttir, a specialist in the Forestry Service, has prepared a lecture on mushroom foraging 101 for the amateur mycologists gathered here. But it seems to be the […]

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A Wealth of Water

natural resource iceland

Close your eyes and picture Iceland. What comes to mind? A powerful waterfall streaming down a cliffside? Bluish icebergs floating in a glacier lagoon? A hulking jeep fording a highland river? Or maybe a steaming hot spring or a neighbourhood swimming pool? Whichever image is most evocative of Iceland for you, there’s one thing they […]

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Deep North Episode 43: To Catch an Oystercatcher

waders iceland oystercatcher

Under the regular ascent and descent of Keflavík jet traffic, out past the old American radar stations, at the northwestern tip of the Reykjanes peninsula, sits the Suðurnes Science and Learning Centre. Much like the airport terminal a few kilometres from here, this spit of low-flung land is a place where many visitors to this island come and go. Along with an international team of ecologists, Sölvi Rúnar Vignisson has been working here for the past 10 years studying the oystercatcher (in Icelandic, tjaldur), a distinctive shorebird whose migratory patterns may serve as a good indicator of climate change.

Read the story here.

Arctic Fox Population Stable in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

arctic fox Iceland

The arctic fox population has increased across Iceland since reaching a historic low, but the population in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords has remained stable. Mammalian ecologist Ester Rut Unnsteinsdóttir says there are natural reasons foxes aren’t increasing in the reserve that could include, simply, a lack of space.

“It’s really just natural processes that impact and limit the stock. There is only room for a certain number,” Ester stated in a radio interview for RÚV this morning. Ester is a mammalian ecologist who recently completed a three-week research trip to the Westfjords reserve, where she was examining the local fox population. “What is so remarkable is that I have looked at the population across the country and there has been a large increase from the historic low and especially since 1996, 1997. I have also compiled data from the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve and it does not seem to have increased there since the fox was protected [in 1994].” Harsh winters were another factor Ester mentioned had a limiting effect on the fox population.

The Arctic fox is the only wild terrestrial mammal native to Iceland. It arrived on the island approximately 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. In the 1970s the population reached a historic low and numbered under 1,000. Today it is around ten times that size, numbering between 9,000-10,000 animals, according to Ester. While the fox is protected, fox hunting is permitted outside nature reserves, subject to regulation by the Environment Agency. While arctic foxes are endangered in parts of Europe, they are not considered at risk in Iceland.

In 2019, Ester assisted the BBC with filming a documentary in Hornstrandir that followed an arctic fox cub in its first year of life.