Lupine Propagation Threatens Nature Preserve: ‘We want to keep our Icelandic flora’

Lupines may be beautiful, but they’re also an invasive species. RÚV reports that lupine propagation around the Krossanesborgir nature preserve near Akureyri, North Iceland, may well be having a significant—and negative—impact on indigenous plant and animal life.

‘The point of no return’

As Egill Bjarnason explained in his 2018 New York Times article about the ongoing lupine controversy in Iceland, “[t]he blue Nootka lupine are native to North America and a familiar sight in flower gardens there. They have spread wildly in Iceland since their introduction in the late 1970s to halt soil erosion.”

But while the plant does have positive attributes (it’s a free ‘fertilizer factory,’ as Egill explains), and while tourists and even many Icelanders love the plant for its characteristic violet-blue blossoms, it spreads much more easily than originally anticipated and, among other places, has made significant inroads in Iceland’s central highlands, where originally, it was thought it wouldn’t be able to survive.

Locals used to be encouraged to spread the seeds—some villages would even distribute free scoopfuls of seeds at gas stations. But in spring 2018, the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland stopped its seed distribution program after 42 years, with director Arni Bragason remarking of the plant and its impact on the local environment, “We’re at the point of no return.”

Timing is everything

Krossanesborgir was designated a nature preserve in 2004 in order to protect its diverse plant and bird life. But with the encroachment of lupine in the area, this this ecosystem is now endangered, says Jón Ingi Cæsarsson, the former chair of the Akureyri organizational committee.

“All of the undergrowth and moor vegetation is going to vanish and instead, we’ll have these tall, beautiful plants. But that’s not something we want—we want to keep our Icelandic flora, especially in these nature preserves,” he said.

Local officials are aware of the lupine situation and the plant is cut back on a regular basis, including in Krossanesborgir, says Rút Jónsdóttir, Akureyri divisional manager.

“We usually begin [cutting back lupines] around June 15-20,” she explained. Working out the right time to start the mowing is difficult, she continued: too early, and birds will still be nesting in the area; too late, and the lupines will already bloomed. (Timing is everything when it comes to lupine eradication, explains Egill. “Killing the plant is a three- to five-year process that involves cutting them back at the peak of the bloom, when the plant is putting its energies into the flowers and the roots are correspondingly weakest. Mowing down the plants has proved more effective than herbicides.”)

‘It will take off if we don’t rein it in’

The lupine has not yet made significant inroads within Krossanesborgir, but Jón Ingi is nevertheless concerned that it may only be a matter of time. Roughly 30 species of birds nest in the area, he explained, making the area particularly important from a preservation standpoint.

“The lupine is here and is lying in wait and will take off if we rein it in. We’ve seen what happened on Hrísey [a small island in Eyjafjörður, north of Akyreyri, known for its bird life]. The number of breeding birds will most definitely decrease [in Krossanesborgir], just like happened there.”

Fewer Mated Arctic Fox Pairs in Hornstrandir Than Last Year

Arctic Fox Iceland

Hornstrandir Nature Preserve in the Westfjords has half the number of arctic fox pairs with young than it usually does at this time of year, RÚV reports. The drop in the number of mated pairs comes even as the animals’ territory has doubled in size. Human foot traffic through the area is thought to disturb the foxes a great deal, particularly mothers who are still nursing their young and have to stay in their dens.

These findings were among those made by the Icelandic Institute of Natural History (IINH) and their collaborators at the Arctic Fox Centre after their yearly site visit to Hornstrandir from June 17 – 30. During this time, researchers made stops at every known burrow in the reserve and made note of whether these were inhabited, as well as tracking foxes’ movements in and out of them. Three burrows were monitored for twelve hours, specifically to monitor how long adult foxes spent in them, and what food they brought back to them, if any. A log was kept of any food scraps that had been left in or around the burrows and stool samples were collected for future study.

Researchers also monitored and made observations about the number of visitors moving through fox-inhabited areas, as well as their behaviour around burrows. As IINH reported on its Facebook page, visitor traffic was minimal at the start of the expedition, but it increased during the almost two weeks that researchers were present in the reserve.

Even though the number of mated arctic fox pairs with young is significantly less than usual, the research teams affirm that the overall status of the population is good. Even so, researchers plan to monitor human traffic through Hornstrandir and another expedition to the reserve is already planned for later this summer to check in on the status of the arctic fox population at that time. Researchers hope that any travellers to Hornstrandir will follow the directions of the park rangers, stay on marked paths, and not disturb any wildlife they may encounter while visiting.

Vatnajökull National Park Now Largest in Western Europe

The Vatnajökull National Park is being expanded by 560 sq km (216 sq mi), Vísir reports. The entire park now covers some 14,700 sq km (5,700 sq mi) or nearly 15% of Iceland’s total land area, making it the largest national park in Western Europe.

The boundaries of the park have now extended to include the Herðubreið Reserve. Established in 1974, the reserve was named for what is colloquially recognised as “the queen of Icelandic mountains.” Mt. Herðubreið is a 1,682m (5,518ft)-tall tuya, or flat-topped, steep-sided volcano (not active since the Pleistocene era), located in the northeastern highlands, not far from the Askja volcano. The Herðubreið Reserve also includes other impressive “nature pearls,” such as the Ódaðahraun desert, known for its “unusual geological formations, sands, and broad lava fields that have been formed by various volcanic sources during different periods.”

In January, an application was formally submitted to have Vatnajökull National Park added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, which already includes the Þingvellir National Park and the island of Surtsey. Should the application be approved, the UNESCO World Heritage designation will also apply to the expanded area of the park, i.e. the former Herðubreið Reserve. A response on the application is expected by July 5.

The expansion of Vatnajökull National Park is, “…an important step in nature conservation,” remarked Minister of the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson. “With this, 0.5% of Iceland will now be part of the national park, including unique geological formations, natural spring areas, vast highlands, and then, of course, the queen of Icelandic mountains, Herðubreið… Not a bad gift for the 75th birthday of the Republic.”