Environment Agency: Fox Hunting No Longer Serves Its Purpose

The Environment Agency of Iceland says that fox hunting in Iceland no longer serves its intended purpose—to protect sheep and birdlife—and is costing the state and local municipalities more and more every year. Fréttablaðið reports that 56,000 foxes have been hunted in Iceland in the past decade, with a cost of almost a billion krónur [$7.65 million; €6.65 million] to the state.

A ‘mythological battle’

The arctic fox lives in polar regions around the world and is currently listed as a species of least concern by the World Wildlife Fund. In 1979, there were only 1,200 of the animals in Iceland, but the population grew to just under 9,000 by 2007. Between the years of 2008 and 2010, there was a 30% drop in population, but it has been relatively stable in recent years, even as hunting has increased. As of this summer, it was estimated that there were roughly 9,000 – 10,000 Arctic foxes in Iceland. The species is protected within the confines of the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords, but outside of these bounds, hunting the animal is allowed, and even encouraged monetarily.

“Icelanders have given the arctic fox many names which could be related to the ‘mythological battle’ between the humans and the foxes since the early decades of the settlement 1100 years ago,” explains the Arctic Fox Centre. “At first, foxes were trapped for the valuable fur but soon the competition for the few resources became too complicated and the foxes were killed to protect lambs and other stock animals. Nowadays the foxes are still hunted throughout the country, where it is believed that protection of livestock or eider farms is needed. Winter hunting is also conducted in all regions of the country and “den-hunting” (killing all the animals at a fox den), one of the oldest paid jobs in Iceland, is still performed. The fur, however, is not used anymore since it became [worthless] with the emergence of fur farms some decades ago.”

Hunters paid for every fox killed

The argument that foxes must be hunted in order to protect livestock and birdlife has also been strengthened by public perception of the fox as a vicious predator. “The fox is said to be cunning and cruel,” noted the 1961 short documentary Refurinn gerir greni í urð (‘The fox makes its den in the scree,’ watch here, in Icelandic). “So it is getting its just desserts. It is killed on sight wherever it is encountered.”

Screenshot from short documentary Refurinn gerir greni í urð (Ósvaldur Knudsen; 1961)

This way of thinking is quickly losing traction among experts and politicians alike, however. “Livestock doesn’t appear to be suffering,” says Steinar Rafn Beck Baldursson, a specialist in hunting management at the Environment Agency. He notes that the agency has put out calls for reports of foxes killing sheep and birds but has only received the occasional notification of foxes getting into eider nests. When asked why foxes don’t pose the same threat they once did to sheep, Steinar Rafn has a very simple supposition: sheep no longer give birth to their young in pastures. “In the past, foxes hunted newborn lambs or went after sheep when they were in labour.”

Last year, 7,227 foxes were hunted, marking a 40-year high. This creates a significant financial burden on the state, as local municipalities are obliged to pay hunters for every fox they kill between the fall and the spring. The annual cost of this has increased dramatically over the years. In 2011, ISK 67 million [$512,742; € 445,349] was paid out to fox hunters. This total ballooned to ISK 134 million [$1.03 million; €890,699] in 2020. The state has been paying a fifth of the cost since 2014, as a way of offsetting the financial burden on large, but sparsely populated municipalities.

See Also: This Season, Ptarmigan Shooting Confined to Afternoons

Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson recently submitted a bill to parliament that would have amended current hunting legislation and established a management and protection plan for the arctic fox in Iceland. The bill did not pass.

Steinar Rafn says that the Environment Agency had hoped the bill would pass but is currently considering similar proposals for changing the legislation on ptarmigan hunting—the fox will come later, he says. “What would make the most sense would be to review this whole system,” he says. “Maybe only winter hunting and no den hunting.”

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.

The Reykjanes Eruption: Lava Flow Remains Steady

Lava flowing from the crater in Geldingadalur on the Reykjanes Peninsula

The University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences has published its latest findings on the size of the lava and the lava flow from the ongoing Geldingadalir eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula. The data is based on aerial photographs taken on a flight over the eruption site yesterday. Aerial photographs were also used to build a model of the lava flow in and around Geildingadalir.

The total flow from all craters in the past five days has been on average just over 6 m3/s. this number is similar to the long-term average, 5,6m3/s over the 38-day duration of the eruption so far.
The matter produced by the eruption is now 18.4 million cubic metres and the lava stretches over 1.13 square kilometres at an average thickness of just over 16 metres.

The eruption is close to the city and has proved a popular destination for hikers, as well as some four-legged Icelanders. Over 55,000 trips have been taken to the eruption site by hikers but the RÚV live stream of the eruption recently caught an arctic fox casting a glance at the eruption on his way around the peninsula.

University of Iceland Institute of Earth Sciences