Thor the Walrus Takes a Break in Breiðdalsvík

Though no strangers to welcoming visitors to their picturesque hamlet, the residents of the East Iceland village of Breiðdalsvík received an entirely different kind of tourist on Friday morning. Austurfrétt reports that a walrus decided to sun itself on the village dock all day and rest up after what was, presumably, a very long swim. And, as the BBC later reported, the pooped-out pinniped was actually a celebrity on the sly: Thor the Walrus, who spent his winter traveling around the UK. So far this year, he’s visited the Netherlands and France and may have traveled from as far as the Canadian Arctic to get to Breiðdalsvík.

Walruses generally arrive on Icelandic shores from Greenland, which, depending on their point of departure, is a minimum of 300 km [186 mi] away. They are also known to regularly swim over from the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Over the last few years, East Iceland has received a handful of walruses in its fjords. One such sighting occurred last year, on June 17, Iceland’s National Day, when a walrus appeared in the town of Reyðarfjörður. The animal had previously been chipped with a GPS device and had swum over from the Faroe Islands. And in September, the walrus known as Wally appeared in Höfn in Southeast Iceland having swum from Cork, Ireland.

Image courtesy of Arnar Snær Sigurjónsson

Fully grown male walruses can weigh around 900 kgs [1984 lbs] and be up to three m [9.8 ft] long. From pictures showing the length of its tusks, local biologists were able to determine that the walrus was either a young male or a female. British Divers Marine Life Rescue, an organization that had encountered the animal in the UK, was eventually able to identify Thor from his markings, specifically “pale patches on the animal’s foreflippers.” They confirmed that Thor is between three and five years old.

Although no walruses live in Iceland today, these animals were likely prevalent in Iceland in the old days, says said Skarpheiðin G. Þórisson, a biologist at the East Iceland Research Centre.. However, they were probably hunted to extinction here by the Vikings, for whom they would have been an important food source.

See Also: The Disappearance of the Icelandic Walrus (September 2019)

It’s important that people take care around these animals when they appear in human habitations. Walruses may be particularly sensitive when tired or disoriented, and are prone to lash out if they feel threatened. These animals may appear to be slow-moving, but on land, they can actually move about as fast as a running person. And they are, of course, capable of inflicting a great deal of damage with their powerful tusks. Residents in the seaside resort of Scarborough in the UK were particularly gracious hosts when Thor was in their midst, opting to cancel the town’s New Year’s fireworks display so as not to disturb their guest.

Image courtesy of Arnar Snær Sigurjónsson

On Friday, police asked people in Breiðdalsvík to keep a minimum of 20 m [65 ft] away from Thor for the animal’s safety, as well as their own. Dockworkers did put frozen herring out for their guest, but it didn’t seem to have any appetite. Many people also wanted to take pictures of the walrus, but they had to do so from a distance.

“We closed the gangway so people didn’t get too close,” said Bjarni Stefán Vilhjálmsson, who works for the local municipality. “We got here around 10 to do some work on the dock and that’s when we noticed him. He’d just gotten here.”

The walrus was still in the village when Bjarni spoke to reporters and he was able to describe the animal’s current mood: “He sort of raises himself up and growls if you get too close, he’s still really disoriented. Hopefully, he’ll just stay calm until he leaves. I don’t expect anything will drive him away. It’s no real bother, there’s obviously enough room for the boats that are here now. It remains to be seen if he’ll leave once the weather gets worse, but as long as it’s sunny and mild, I think he’ll probably hang out all day.”

No Deadline for Decision on Whether Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson Will Be Prosecuted in UK

The Office of the Crown Prosecutor in the UK is currently reviewing evidence against Icelandic footballer Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson and deciding whether it will pursue prosecution against the former Everton midfielder or drop the matter entirely, RÚV reports. Gylfi Þór has been accused of “multiple sexual offenses” and has been subject to a travel ban that has prevented him from leaving the UK since being arrested at his home in Manchester in July 2021.

Responding to an inquiry from RÚV, Nazia Dewji, a spokesperson for the Office of the Crown Prosecutor, said that there was no set deadline by which a decision on the matter must be made. Dewji said that the evidence from the police investigation had been received by the prosecutor at the end of January.

Gylfi Þór was released on bail shortly after his arrest, but has not played in a professional football match since then. He was taken off the active roster for the Premier League team Everton and his contract was not renewed when it ran out last summer. He has not played with the Icelandic Men’s National Team since then either.

In October 2022, Gylfi Þór’s father Sigurður Aðalsteinsson, gave an interview in which he called on the Icelandic government to come to his son’s assistance. The case had been dragged on for far longer than legally reasonable, he argued. “If someone is detained in some [other] country for some hypothetical offense, you can’t just let him languish there for a year, year and a half just endlessly waiting,” he said. At the time, the footballer’s family hoped to change Gylfi Þór’s legal domicile to Iceland so as to make it harder for the British judiciary to extend his travel ban. It was the first time that anyone close to Gylfi Þór had confirmed that any such travel ban existed.

Update April 14, 2023: Charges Dropped Against Footballer Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson

Icelandic Sheep Fetch Handsome Prices at First-Ever Online Auction

sheep

Icelandic sheep were auctioned in the UK’s first-ever online auction, Bændablaðið reports. The auction was handled by the Scottish “livestock marketing company” Harrison & Hetherington.

Twenty-six animals were auctioned in the two-day auction in early September. The highest-earning sheep was the only ewe on offer, Alfifa, who, according to the auction catalog, “had a single ram in 2020 and twin ewe lambs in 2021.” Alfifa fetched ISK 56,000 [£317; $438; €371].

Screenshot from Harrison & Hetherington Sheep Auction Catalog

Also for sale was Bijarni, a Shearling Ram who “[w]as commended by Tim Tyne [author of The Sheep Book for Smallholders, known as ‘the bible for sheepkeepers’] in last years [sic] show despite not being entered in ram class.” Bijarni was commended as being “Gentle natured [with] well spaced horns” and noted to “stand on his feet well.” A gimmer, or female sheep that has been weaned but not sheared, named Not Splodge was also sold, as were whether lambs, and a number of ram and ewe lambs.

The average price for ewes was ISK 53,875 [£305; $422; €357]. Rams fetched a lower average price, or ISK39,000 [£134; $185; €156]. The whethers fared a little better, with an average price of ISK 33,000 [£185; $256; €216].

Screenshot from Harrison & Hetherington Sheep Auction Catalog

Interest in Icelandic sheep has ‘completely spiralled’

The first Icelandic sheep were imported to the UK in 1979. The Icelandic Sheep Breeders of the British Isles (ISBOBI) was founded nine years later, in 1988. Per Cumberland’s News&Star, in recent years, British breeders have cross-bred Icelandic sheep with “…Blackface and Shetlands with much success; others have had particularly good results crossing with the larger continentals.”

“Icelandic rams have come into their own,” the article continues, “producing cross breeds which are considered by members of the breed society to be lighter on the ground than some heavy breeds and producing better quality meat than some smaller breeds.”

Screenshot from Harrison & Hetherington Sheep Auction Catalog

There are currently around 300 Pedigree Icelandic Sheep in the UK, and the Scottish Farmer reports that they are increasingly in demand, hence auctioneers’ decision to sell them via the more accessible, online platform. “In the past our Icelandic Sheep sales have been held as part of our wider rare breeds sales, and in holding an online sale, the aim is to open the breed up to a broader UK wide audience,” remarked Harrison & Hetherington auctioneer Grant Anderson.

“In recent years there has been so much interest in Icelandic Sheep, it has completely spiralled,” added Ruth Stanton, assistant secretary of ISBOBI. “The aim of this auction is to help provide us with a measure as to what is happening as well as a benchmark for the breed.”

Iceland Signs Free Trade Agreement with UK

fish fishing haddock

Iceland and the UK signed their new free trade agreement in London on Thursday, RÚV reports. Minister of Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson says that in finalizing the agreement, Iceland has “secured our interests” with its second-most important trading partner.

The deal, which also extends to fellow EFTA member countries Norway and Liechtenstein, was announced last month and replaces the temporary agreement that went into effect after Britain left the EU. “In terms of overall trade volumes,” the BBC reported, “this deal is more significant for Norway and Iceland than it is for the UK,” although importantly for post-Brexit Britain, it does signal that the nation is quickly making new trade deals for itself. The UK government also said that reduced import tariffs on products such as shrimp, prawns, and haddock would “cut costs for UK fish processing, helping to support jobs in Scotland, East Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire.”

At the time, Guðlaugur Þór hailed the deal as “crucial for both Icelandic companies and consumers,” but those in Iceland’s fishing sector have expressed disappointment with the agreement, believing that little will change for their industry prospects. However, speaking to reporters after signing today, Guðlaugur Þór asserted that “[t]his is not an endpoint. It is, however, gratifying if people are seeing the importance of increasing and strengthening our trade network and increasing our access to foreign markets.”

New Icelandic Airline PLAY Launches Ticket Sales

PLAY airline

Icelandic low-cost airline PLAY launched ticket sales this morning and will fly its inaugural flight between London and Reykjavík on June 24. The airline has scheduled flights between Iceland and seven European destinations. PLAY plans to expand its route network to North America in early 2022.

“It’s brilliant to be able to open up Iceland to UK travellers and offer competitive fares now that international travel has resumed,” states Birgir Jónsson, CEO of PLAY. “We are looking forward to providing safe effortless travel, and great value to people in the UK.” Birgir added that UK visitors will undoubtedly look forward to seeing the ongoing volcanic eruption on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula.

Customers can now book flights with PLAY between Iceland and Alicante, Tenerife, and Barcelona in Spain; as well as Paris, London, Copenhagen, and Berlin. PLAY’s fleet this summer will consist of Airbus A321neo aircraft, with 192 economy seats each. The first aircraft commences operation on June 24, with the second and third slated for delivery in July. The aircraft are leased from AerCap.

Read More: Play Obtains Air Operator’s Certificate

Play’s inaugural destination is well-chosen: Iceland was just added to the UK’s green list of destinations. This means that travellers arriving in the UK from Iceland currently do not need to quarantine upon arrival. A pre-travel test is nevertheless required of passengers, as is a follow-up test two days after arrival in the UK.

Brexit Brings No Immediate Changes for Icelanders Living in UK

Great Britain’s official exit from the European Union on Friday night won’t have any immediate ramifications for Icelanders who have settled in the country, Vísir reports. Nevertheless, authorities have urged Icelanders intending to remain in the UK after that time to take steps to secure residence permits in advance.

British Ambassador Michael Nevin has stressed that for the time being at least, nothing has really changed; the UK will still abide by European Union laws and regulations until December 31, 2020. He also noted that Icelandic tourists to the UK will be able to enter the country as usual until the same date. “There will be some new regulations after that,” he said, “but Britain will remain open to Icelanders.”

Icelanders who live in the UK now and intend to remain in 2021 and beyond are reminded, however, to apply for a ‘settled status’ residence permit. It’s estimated that 2-3,000 Icelanders live in the UK and thus far, 1,100 have applied for settled status. Stefán Haukur Jóhannesson, Iceland’s ambassador in London, says the deadline is June 30, but urges Icelanders not to wait til the last minute. “It’s not hard to do—there’s an app,” he remarked.

Iceland and UK both “free trade-minded”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson says the next step will be for Iceland to establish new agreements with the UK. Trade and business will be foremost among Iceland’s priorities when negotiating, particularly as regards the fishing industry.

“One of the things we’ve placed an emphasis on is having better access than we currently do via EEA agreements when it comes to marine products,” remarked Guðlaugur. “Because although our current access is good, we’re still not talking about a total absence of customs duties.”

The outlook for favourable trade arrangements with the UK currently seems good for Iceland. For one, both Iceland and the UK are “free trade-minded” says Ambassador Nevin. “We don’t like customs duties and have a high regard for the values of the free market. Which is why we want a trade agreement that doesn’t create any obstacles between us.”

Brexit Likely to Cost Icelanders, Study Shows

Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson.

If the UK leaves the European Union without a deal, it could cost each Icelander ISK 13,000-22,000 ($107-180/€95-161) per year, according to a German study on the economic effects of Brexit. The study, carried out by Bertlesmann Stiftung, found the UK’s departure from the EU to have negative consequences both for the United Kingdom and all countries belonging to the European Economic Area. Kjarninn reported first.

Soft Brexit would mitigate impact

Bertlesmann Stiftung’s report asserts Iceland’s economic losses as a result of Brexit could amount to a 0.3% drop in GDP, or around ISK 22,000 ($180/€161) per resident per year in the case of a “hard Brexit” (departure with no deal). If the UK leaves after negotiating an agreement with the EU, however, those losses would be mitigated and would amount to a 0.18% contraction in GDP and a loss of ISK 13,000 ($107/€95) per person per year.

Iceland would not be among the countries hardest hit by UK’s departure: Ireland, the Netherlands, and Belgium, would face a sharper economic downturn from the event, though Iceland and Norway, due to their proximity to the UK and high productivity, would experience high risk if an agreement is not reached between the UK and the EU regarding the former’s departure, the study predicts.

Worst-case scenario unlikely

According to Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the government has been working hard to secure key interests that would be impacted by Brexit, and has made agreements with UK authorities on issues such as continuing rights of residents, trade, and aviation.

Iceland’s Foreign Minister Congratulates Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson and Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson

Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson, Iceland’s foreign minister, congratulated Boris Johnson on his victory in the Conservative Party leadership race in a Twitter post yesterday. “Congratulations to @BorisJohnson, the next Prime Minister of the #UK and the new leader of the @Conservatives. Our countries have enjoyed close cooperation and friendship, which will hopefully become even closer in the coming years. Truly exciting times ahead!”

Johnson is set to take over the Prime Ministership from Theresa May. Johnson is a strong supporter of Brexit, and one of his campaign promises was that Britain would leave the EU by October 31, whether or not an agreement had been reached with the European Union. RÚV reports that Guðlaugur Þór and Boris discussed Brexit at a meeting two years ago, where the two agreed that the move represented great opportunities for the two countries.

Prime Minister Discusses Climate Change with British Leaders

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir is on a state visit to the UK and has been meeting with British leaders over the last week. Vísir reports that climate change has been a focal point of all of these meetings. Katrín met with First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday, Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn yesterday, and British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday.

“We also discussed gender equality issues and not least, human rights issues,” said Katrín of her meeting with Theresa May. “She herself has been very involved in these matters and been on the forefront of these struggles [in the UK].” Katrín said that they also discussed “…the issues that’s always discussed, that is, Brexit and then, of course, Iceland and the UK’s relationship in relation to that.”

Although the issue of conducting electric energy to Britain via undersea cable has been a topic of heated debate in Iceland, Katrín said that this was not something that she and Theresa May discussed in any detail during their meeting. “I informed her, of course, about the debate that is taking place in Iceland about the importance of what I think the majority of Icelanders are now in agreement about: that it is really important to ensure our control over our energy resources. That is the common property of the nation and that it is important that this guide our actions in this.”

Katrín stressed the importance of cooperation and open communication about issues that have global repercussions. “If we take climate issues as an example,” she said, “they won’t be solved except through the cooperation of nations…It’s important that the nations of the world work together on this.”

Ian McEwan Receives First-Ever Halldór Laxness International Literary Prize

British novelist Ian McEwan is the first-ever recipient of the Halldór Laxness International Literary Prize. The award was announced by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir at an international symposium on Halldór Laxness, which was held today.

The award, which is accompanied by a monetary prize of €15,000 [ISK 2,039,850; $16,704], is given to an international author whose work is renewing the art of storytelling. This motivation echoes the statement made by the Nobel Prize for Literature committee in 1955, the year that Halldór won the prize and thus became Iceland’s first—and still only—Nobel Prize winner. As the committee explained at the time, Halldór received the Nobel “for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.”

Ian McEwan was not able to attend the presentation ceremony in person but will be making a visit to Iceland in September to receive it. A video message from the author was shown during the announcement ceremony in which he said that the award meant a great deal to him and that he was looking forward to “the city where the great Laxness was born and wrote.”

Ian was named recipient of the inaugural award by a committee including First Lady Eliza Reid, Icelandic author Einar Már Guðmundsson, and Stella Soffía Jóhannesdóttir, the director of the Reykjavík International Literature Festival, which is currently underway. In its justification for the award, the committee wrote that “It was not least the provocative subject matter [of his work], the seldom-discussed and sensitive themes, which made the author stand out. It has been said of Ian McEwan that he deals not merely with the headlines of the mind, but in equal measure the small print of the soul.”

“Ian McEwan’s work has met with consistent success,” continued the statement, “but he has also remained controversial, which should be regarded as a sign of enduring vitality. With this award, we acknowledge a spectacular career and an author with a pressing message.”

The award is presented in a collaboration among the Prime Minister’s office, the Ministry of Education, Promote Iceland, Gljúfrasteinn (the Halldór Laxness museum), Forlagið Publishing, and the Reykjavík International Literary Festival. Going forward, the award will always be presented during this festival, which takes place every two years.

Read the committee’s full statement on Ian McEwan’s work here.