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.”

Icelanders Buying More Locally-Grown Christmas Trees

Christmas tree santa Iceland

Though imported trees still make up the majority of Christmas tree sales in Iceland, locally grown trees are steadily growing in popularity, Bændablaðið reports. Imported Christmas trees decreased from 37,147 to 24,441 between 2019 and 2020, while local tree sales rose from 7,225 to 8,134. More families are buying their trees from local forestry associations, where they can pick and even cut down their own trees.

Ragnhildur Freysteinsdóttir, an environmental scientist at the Icelandic Forestry Association, told RÚV that cutting down your own tree has certain advantages. “Some people may want tall and thin, or short and fat [trees]. They maybe don’t want the totally standard trees that you get at the store. So it’s an opportunity for them.”

Buying local has benefits

As Bændablaðið points out, the benefits of buying local Christmas trees are many. Purchasing one tree enables local foresters to plant dozens more, with a net positive effect on carbon storage. The Reykjavík Forestry Association (Skógræktarfélag Reykjavíkur), for example, planted 50 trees for each one sold last year. Local trees also carry a smaller carbon footprint in other ways: due to Iceland’s climate and geography, local foresters rarely use pesticides in their cultivation. Furthermore, imported trees present a risk of bringing in pests that could potentially affect Icelandic vegetation.

See Also: Húsavík Residents Vote on Town Christmas Tree

Among local trees, the most popular species is the beach pine, accounting for 62.4% of local Christmas tree sales last year. The sitka spruce comes next with 14.3% of sales, followed by red spruce at 11.4%.

Iceland Declares First-Ever Alert Phase Due to Wildfire Risk

forest brush fire

Icelandic authorities have declared an alert phase in the southwest quadrant of the country due to the risk of wildfires. The handling of open fire has been prohibited. It is the first time such a high level of risk has been declared in the country due to wildfires. The alert phase applies to all of South and West Iceland, from Breiðafjörður to Eyjafjöll, where weather has been dry for weeks and little precipitation is in the forecast. Wildfires have broken out in the region daily this week.

“A civil protection alert phase is put in place if people’s health and safety are at risk, environment or population is threatened by nature or people, however not serious to the point of an emergency situation,” a notice from the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management states. “An alert phase is a part of the procedures in the civil protection structure to ensure formal communication and information between responders and the public.”

Read More: Brush Fires Break Out in Bone Dry Capital Area

Handling of Open Fire Prohibited

Along with the alert phase, fire department chiefs in the region have prohibited the handling of open fire as even a small spark carries great risk of wildfire when vegetation is dry. The prohibition has already taken effect and breaches are subject to fines. The public (particularly owners of summer houses in the affected region) are encouraged to:

  • Not light fires inside or outside (including fireplaces, grills, bonfires, fireworks, etc.)
  • Not use disposable or ordinary barbecues
  • Check exits by summer houses
  • Review fire protection (fire extinguishers, smoke detectors) and make an escape plan
  • Not use tools that become very hot or cause sparks
  • Remove flammable material near buildings (check the location of gas containers)
  • Wet the vegetation around buildings where it is dry

Anyone who notices a wildfire must call the emergency line 112 immediately.

Brush Fires Break Out in Bone Dry Capital Area

brunasvæði sinubruni brush fire

Firefighters put out brush fires in Hafnarfjörður and Reykjavík yesterday, while police responded to several other reports of open flames kindled outdoors. Another fire occurred this afternoon in Kópavogur. Weather has been unseasonably dry in Iceland’s capital area in recent weeks and in other parts of the country. An uncertainty phase is in effect across South Iceland, West Iceland, and the Reykjavík capital area due to risk of forest and brush fires.

A brush fire broke out on Laugarnestangi in Reykjavík shortly before midnight last night. RÚV reports that one truck was sent to the scene and it did not take long to put the fire out. Another brush fire broke out in Hafnarfjörður between 2.00pm and 3.00pm yesterday, and took firefighting crews  around an hour to put out. The fire covered an area of around 600 square metres. Firefighters did not get a rest today, as another fire broke out in Guðmundarlundur grove in Kópavogur this afternoon. The fire is now under control.

Authorities Ask Public to Grill With Caution

South and West Iceland have received little precipitation in recent weeks, with mostly dry, sunny weather across the regions. Police declared an uncertainty phase in the regions after a forest fire scorched two square kilometres of Heiðmörk forest. No rain is in the forecast for the coming days. The Civil Protection Department has set up automatic text messaging to all those who enter South Iceland, warning of the risk of brush fires.

Authorities implore the public to avoid using disposable grills, as they carry a high risk of starting fires in surrounding vegetation. For those grilling on patios and at cabins, authorities recommend having buckets of water and fire extinguishers at hand, as well as wetting the surrounding vegetation with a garden hose before barbecuing. The public is asked to avoid lighting open fires.

Herbal Fragrance Library Opens

Nordic Angan, or the Icelandic Herbal Fragrance Library, is now open in the town of Mosfellsbær, just outside of Reykjavík. The library is the brainchild of Elín Hrund Þórgeirsdóttir and Sonja Bent who, per a recent press release, put considerable research and effort into “capturing the sweet scent of Icelandic flora by distilling plants and trees and making essential oils out of them.”

Jonny Devaney

Visitors can walk through interactive fragrance exhibitions and “experience the aroma of Icelandic nature in a fun and unusual way, stimulate their sense of smell, and enjoy nature in an untraditional manner. The collection is the only one of its kind because there’s no other library that focuses solely on the sweet scents of Icelandic nature.”

Guests can also walk through the “Scented Shower,” an installation inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing.’ The installation diffuses scents of the Icelandic forest into the air and allows guests to walk through a cool, aromatic mist of water and essential oils.

Jonny Devaney

The library has received funding from the Technological Development Fund, the Design Fund, and a grant for women entrepreneurs in Iceland and was in development for two years before opening.

The Icelandic Herbal Fragrance Library is located at 27 Álafossvegur in Mosfellsbær and is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 12.00-5.00pm. Admission is ISK 1,200 ($8.60/€7.60) per person.

Forest Service Recommends Hugging Trees While You Can’t Hug Others

The Icelandic Forestry Service is encouraging people to hug trees while social distancing measures prevent them from hugging other people, RÚV reports. Forest rangers in the Hallormsstaður National Forest in East Iceland have been diligently clearing snow-covered paths to ensure that locals can enjoy the great outdoors without coming in too close a contact with other guests, but can also get up close and personal with their forest friends.

“When you hug [a tree], you feel it first in your toes and then up your legs and into your chest and then up into your head,” enthuses forest ranger Þór Þorfinnsson. “It’s such a wonderful feeling of relaxation and then you’re ready for a new day and new challenges.”

“Viktor and a poplar” via

In a time when close contact and embracing is discouraged for risk of COVID-19 infection, trees can offer a sense of comfort, says Þór, although he urges visitors to the national forest to take precautions not to all hug the same tree. He recommends that people walk deeper into the forest, rather than stopping at the first tree they encounter. “There are plenty of trees…it doesn’t have to be big and stout, it can be any size.”

People should take their time, Þór says, to reap the full benefits of their tree-hugging. “Five minutes is really good, if you can give yourself five minutes of your day to hug [a tree], that’s definitely enough,” he says. “You can also do it many times a day – that wouldn’t hurt. But once a day will definitely do the trick, even for just a few days.”


Rangers have marked out intervals of two metres within the forest so that visitors are able to enjoy nature without fear of getting too close to one another. “It’s recommended that people get outdoors during this horrible time,” says Bergrún Anna Þórsteinsdóttir, an assistant forest ranger at Hallormsstaður. “Why not enjoy the forest and hug a tree and get some energy from this place?”

When you find the right tree, Þór has further recommendations for getting the most out of your embrace. “It’s also really nice to close your eyes while you’re hugging a tree,” he says. “I lean my cheek up against the trunk and feel the warmth and the currents flowing from the tree and into me. You can really feel it.”