The Caves of Þeistareykjahraun To Be Declared a Natural Monument

The Environment agency of Iceland and the municipality of Þingeyjarsveit have announced plans to declare the caves of Þeistareykjahraun a natural monument. If the proposal is accepted, the caves will be legally protected against disruptive actions.

There are at least fifteen caves in the Þeistareykjahraun lava field, which is situated around 25 kilometres [15.5 mi] from Húsavík in the northeastern region of Iceland. The area, which is classified as a high temperature geothermal area, is home to numerous caves, some of which have not been fully explored yet.

In January last year, a large stalagmite cave was discovered in the area. It is estimated that the cave is at least 2.500 years old. After the discovery, experts warned that the cave could be destroyed if left unprotected, particularly due to the fact that a new road in the area had enhanced public access to the caves. Because of this, access to the caves was closed in the fall of 2020 and trespassing became a criminal offence.

In yesterday’s announcement, the Environmental agency of Iceland stressed the uniqueness of the stalagmite caves in Þeistareykjahraun:

“Some of the most untouched stalagmite caves in the world have been found in Þeistareykjahraun. They possess an extraordinary number of stalactites and lava straws. The caves, which are among the most unique in the world, have a significant scientific and aesthetic value, and could serve an educational purpose as well.”

The plans have been publicly announced to allow organisations and members of the public to comment upon them.

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.”

Goðafoss Waterfall Receives Protected Status

Goðafoss waterfall

North Iceland’s Goðafoss waterfall was officially given protected status on Thursday. Designating it as a protected natural site will not only allow for increased safeguarding of geological formations around the waterfall, says the Environment Agency of Iceland, but also protection of the waterfall itself and its source river, Skjálfandafljót.

Revered for its beauty, the horseshoe-shaped Goðafoss is also one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls by volume. It’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in North Iceland and is divided into two main falls and several smaller ones. Goðafoss can look considerably different depending on the time of year, water flow, and weather conditions, but, at 9 – 17 meters [30 – 56 ft] high and 30 meters [98 ft] wide, it’s always a stunner.

Photo by Golli

According to legend, Goðafoss—literally meaning ‘fall of the gods’—got its name when Þorgeir Þorkelsson Ljósvetningagoði, a Lawspeaker of Alþingi in 10th century Iceland, threw the statues of the Norse gods into the falls after deciding that Icelanders would convert to Christianity, at least outwardly.

Goðafoss joins a handful of other waterfalls around Iceland that have also been given protected status: Dynjandi in the Westfjords; Hraunfossar and Barnafoss in West Iceland; Skógafoss in South Iceland; and Dettifoss, Selfoss, and Hafragilsfoss in Northern Iceland.

Goðafoss protected status ceremony
Photo by Auðunn Níelsson

Minister for the environment and natural resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson signed the official documents at Goðafoss in the company of local government officials, landowners, Environment Agency of Iceland and ministry staff, and locals. Brass quintet Norðangarri played a few songs and coffee was served after the ceremony. On the occasion, the Minister remarked, “Today, we protect one of Iceland’s natural treasures. The protection means that rangers will now take organised care of the area, keep it safe and educate travellers.”

 

Closures Extended at Three Popular Sites Near Mývatn

The Minister for the Environment has approved a request issued by the Environment Agency of Iceland to extend closures at three popular natural attractions in the Mývatn region in North Iceland, Vísir reports. Access to Hverir geothermal area, Leirhnjúkur mountain, and Stóra-Víti crater will remain restricted until November.

The Environment Agency restricted foot traffic to these three sites on August 2 while their condition was assessed. During the initial closure, the Environment Agency also began work on elevated foot paths to facilitate future access to these areas without causing more damage to them. Two weeks since the initial closure, however, all three areas are still extremely wet and muddy, making it necessary to extend foot traffic restrictions while the ground recovers.

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The restriction of foot traffic to natural areas of interest is permitted under law 60/2013 on nature conservation, which allows for traffic to be limited or prevented entirely when an area is at risk of damage.

“If there is a significant risk of damage due to heavy traffic or because of the particularly sensitive condition of a natural area, the Environment Agency of Iceland may limit traffic or temporarily close the area in question to travelers on the recommendation of stake-holding municipalities, the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland, landowners, or on its own initiative,” reads the law. Closure or traffic restriction decisions are made in consultation with representatives of the tourism industry, as well as the aforementioned stakeholders, and can be extended with the approval of the Minister for the Environment.

Proposal for Expanded Highland Protections Protested

Energy companies and some local municipalities are hotly contesting a new proposal to expand environmental protections within the Icelandic highlands, RÚV reports. Per a proposal put forth by the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, a new and expanded national park would include Vatnajökull National Park – already the largest national park in Western Europe – as well as 85% of the central highlands.

The boundaries for the new national park were suggested by a bipartisan committee appointed by the ministry in April 2018. The committee, which included MPs from all of the sitting parties in Alþingi as well as representatives from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities, maintains that expanding the boundaries of the protected area would not negatively impact Vatnajökull National Park’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The proposal has since been opened for public comment, but will only remain so for the next two weeks, or until August 13.

Although the Association of Local Authorities has been part of the proposal process, however, many municipalities whose boundaries fall within the proposed national park feel that they were not appropriately consulted.

Ásta Stefánsdóttir, head of the district council of Bláskógabyggð in West Iceland says that it was the committee’s job to make proposals about the new national park, not to specifically evaluate the pros and cons of whether this should be done at all. Bláskógabyggð feels that this evaluation has yet to be done and that the current proposal represents an encroachment on the zoning power of local municipalities.

“There are large areas within the highlands that are within Bláskógabyggð and farmers and residents have put a lot of work into reclaiming the land, for instance, in marking riding trails and guiding traffic there, i.e. ensuring that people don’t enter sensitive areas and the like. People are only concerned because if there is some kind of centralised agency, some kind of government agency, which oversees this, that that will somewhat undercut all this volunteer work that people have done.”

Energy companies have also expressed opposition to the proposal. Samorka, the federation of energy and utility companies in Iceland, says that under the new protections, that all new energy generation and transmission would be prohibited in almost half of the country, making current laws about energy protection irrelevant.

For its part, Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland, says that it is necessary that all of its power plants remain outside of protected areas and says that the utilisation of energy resources in the highlands have considerable economic significance for the country overall. The renewable energy produced in the highlands, it says, is the foundation of the nation’s economy and overall quality of life today.

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.

Rangers Remove Tourist Warts

Rangers are systemically removing cairns left behind by travellers out in nature. This ever-growing problem did not start yesterday, and rangers are witnessing new mounds being placed every day in Vatnajökull national park, for example. Rangers state that they disrupt the natural look of the country and that it is important to educate people on the matter.

Many rangers have started to call the stone mounds ‘tourist warts’. Helga Árnadóttir, a ranger in the south part of Vatnajökull national park, says that it is safe to call it a plague at this point in time. She states that the problem isn’t new and that there’s not really one reason for travellers putting them up. People seem to instantly build up a mound from rocks which they find on their way, and that there’s always a danger that when one mound is placed, others will follow.

The rangers working in the national park work hard to disassemble the mounds as they are not part of the natural landscape which travellers have come to see, and especially not within nature reserves. By placing the mounds, travellers are putting a human touch on a natural area. In fact, visitors in nature reserves are prohibited from disrupting the natural landscape in any way. Furthermore, displacing stones can leave ugly open sores in grown land.

In centuries past, mounds served the purpose to direct travellers and those mounds are considered cultural relics today. Many of those directional mounds still serve that purpose today to direct travellers in the highlands.

The Environmental Agency of Iceland shed a light on this persistent problem on its Facebook page when it told the story of ranger Helena. Helena, who is a ranger in Þjórsárdalur, removed a mound close to Hjálparfoss waterfall. The mound was made up of 3219 stones in total and it took Helena an hour and eighteen minutes to disassemble the whole mount. Once she had removed them all, the area gained back its natural outlook.

“Let’s defend the country together. Let’s not build unnecessary mounds and let’s encourage others not to do so,” part of the status read.

https://www.facebook.com/umhverfisstofnun/posts/2999959910044240

We ask travellers and hikers to respect nature and leave it as it was. If you intend to travel to Iceland, please take a look at the Icelandic Tourist Pledgehttps://www.inspiredbyiceland.com/icelandicpledge/

Calls for Three Popular Natural Sites to be Given Protected Status

The Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources and the director of the Environment Agency of Iceland are calling for three of the country’s most popular nature sites to be designated as protected areas in order to ensure that they receive the funds necessary to ensure their upkeep and maintenance, RÚV reports.

Five oft-visited nature sites are now on the Environment Agency of Iceland’s Red List of areas at considerable risk: Dettifoss, Geysir, Rauðifoss waterfall, the geothermal area in the Kerlingarfjöll mountains, and the Gjáin gorge in Þjórsárdalur valley. The latter three of these have not been officially designated as protected natural areas.

Assessments taken at a hundred and four tourist destinations also resulted in fifteen locations being placed on the Environment Agency’s Orange List, indicating that they are not yet in serious danger, but that action needs to be taken to reverse negative trends in their current status. Landmannalaugar, the Skógaheiði trail above Skógafoss waterfall, the Hveravellir geothermal area, and the Rauðhólar pseudocraters are all on the Orange List.

Despite the fact that the Red List sites are facing considerable need, Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson is optimistic about the government’s response. “I want to affirm that these issues are being taken very seriously now. They’re on a very good course. There has been increased funding both for infrastructure and land protection. So I think that we’re going to see a lot of success in these areas in the coming years. I’m confident and optimistic about this.”

 

New Conservation Laws Go Into Effect at Hornstrandir

New land management and conservation regulations around the Hornstrandir nature preserve in the Westfjords went into effect on Friday, RÚV reports. The new regulations now ban camping outside of specially designated areas and put significant restrictions on cruise ship landings, among other measures that have been put in place to keep the preserve as “untouched as possible” for future generations.

Hornstrandir was established as a nature preserve in 1975. The updated Hornstrandir regulations are the result of a collaboration between local land owners, as well as planning authorities and the Environment Agency of Iceland. They reiterate the overall conservation plan for Hornstrandir, and also lay out an action plan for the more pressing concerns related to the preserve and the order in which they need to be prioritized between now and 2023. Travel habits have changed a great deal since the last time these regulations were examined, Kristín Ósk Jónasdóttir, a specialist working with the Environment Agency, points out, which is why it was important to update them now.

Per the new regulations, it is no longer legal for visitors to camp in Hornstrandir except in specifically designated areas where sanitary facilities have been provided. Likewise, visitors may not ride bikes or bring dogs within the preserve (exceptions are made for dog owners who live within the boundaries of the preserve, as well as people with rescue or service dogs). Tour group size will be limited: a maximum of 30 people in the western part of the preserve and 15 in the eastern part. Larger tour groups will need to apply to the Environment Agency for an exception. The landing of cruise ships with 50 passengers or more will also no longer be permitted within the preserve. It’s also requested that the Coast Guard update its navigational chart such that all ship traffic must be at least 115 metres [377 ft] away from all sea bird colonies and require that permission to take videos or photographs be specially obtained from the Environment Agency, as both can have a negative effect not only on other visitors’ experience, but also on the wildlife itself.

Kristín Ósk says that maintaining the tranquility of the preserve is important, which is why helicopter landings and drone operation is also not allowed within its boundaries. Similarly are small aircraft landings only allowed within designated areas in the preserve. “In all reality, we’re trying to keep the preserve as untouched as possible and what we’ve been trying to do in the preceding decades should still be possible for coming generations to do as well.”

Reykjadalur May Become Protected Area

Municipal authorities are considering whether to designate Reykjadalur, a geothermal area in South Iceland, protected status, RÚV reports. Famed for its “hot river” in which you can bathe, the area has become a popular tourist destination in recent years, but has had to be closed by the Environment Agency on occasion when the high level of foot traffic has caused significant damage to the area. This is a particular risk in the wet season.

Reykjadalur is located just above the town of Hveragerði, but the land is actually part of the Ölfus municipality. The mayors of both locations met in late September to discuss the possibility of protection status for the area. Following this meeting he Environmental Agency of Iceland sent the mayors a letter asking for them to make their position on this matter known. The Environment Agency also asked that the local governments appoint a representative to join a land conservation consultation team, which they have since done.

Per the minutes of the town council meeting, it appears that the local governments are in favor of the idea of designating Reykjadalur a protected area. It’s clear that foot traffic has increased dramatically in the area in recent years and has had a profound effect on the environment. Just this spring, for instance, the area had to be closed for six weeks.