The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

The natural world: Fauna

During the last major ice age (c.11,000 years ago) 90% of the land was covered by ice, and only the coast and a few ice-free peaks ("nunataks") provided some refuge for a small number of plants and animals. The sea level was rather lower than today (since a lot of seawater was trapped in the glaciers) and the wide coastal belts offered protection to the small number of species that could inhabit them. Birds such as rock ptarmigan and snow bunting were able to survive here and during the summer they were joined by auks, gulls, snipe and duck.

During subsequent cold winters, such as 1753–54 when the Greenland Sea froze, polar bears walked over; but once they landed they were killed, not only for the meat and fur, but also because of the danger they posed to such sheep as were left during winter. The arctic fox, too, came over on ice floes, and is now established as the only native land mammal. Nevertheless it is hunted for its pelt and to protect the eider duck. Reindeer were introduced as domestic animals in 1771, but have been free for a long time and now number about 3,000 in the north-east of the country. Mink, which were farmed in the 1930s, have escaped, bred quickly, and are now a nuisance. There are two species of indigenous seals (common and grey) and four other species that visit the island in the winter; they are often seen basking in the sun on the sandbars that have built up along the south coast. Small mammals brought in by man which have since become naturalised include the house mouse, wood mouse, brown rat and black rat.

Although insects are not very numerous due to the climate and the isolation, there are about 800 species, none of them poisonous. The most important ones are flies, gnats and midges, the last of which can be a nuisance, especially around Mývatn and near marshy ground.

Only five species of fish are found in the lakes and the rivers — salmon, trout, char, eel and the three–spined stickleback. There are no reptiles nor are there any amphibians.

But it is the bird life that is of greatest interest — in fact many ornithologists from all over the world come to Iceland to study its birds. It is not the vast numbers that are so important (though there are great numbers of some birds), but the mix that is present in such a small area. Iceland lies on the borders of four different geo–zoological regions and high arctic birds live alongside birds more commonly found much farther to the south. This is the only European home of the North American Barrow's goldeneye and the harlequin duck, while other birds are definitely European: the golden plover, for example. Altogether, about 240 species are known with around 80 of them breeding in Iceland and the recent warmer climate has seen an increase in the numbers.

One of the most spectacular areas for birds is Mývatn. As it is fed by warm springs it never completely freezes over and its shallowness allows a luxuriant growth of aquatic plants. During the summer this becomes one of the world's biggest concentrations of breeding ducks, with seventeen species making up a population of perhaps 15,000 breeding pairs. The most numerous are the tufted duck, common scaup, European widgeon and Barrow's goldeneye. The eider duck, Iceland's most common species, is farmed for its feathers in over two hundred colonies. The female grows very soft down between the breast and belly feathers which is shed at the beginning of the breeding season and used to line the nest. After breeding, these feathers are collected by the local farmers. The eiderdown is named after the feathers of these ducks, with which it is stuffed.

On the moors the most common — as well as the noisiest — birds are the golden plover and the whimbrel; the rock ptarmigan and common snipe also live there. In the rough lavafields on the central highlands snowy owls are found, feeding on field mice and small birds, while the short–eared owl lives on the lower moors and preys on rock ptarmigan. The best–known bird of prey is the gyr falcon: its speed and ability to hunt and catch a bird in flight made it much sought after. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries it was exported to Denmark and sent from there to many countries, but today its numbers are so few that it is protected by law and even photographing it on its nest is not allowed without a permit. The gyrfalcon is the only kind of falcon found in Iceland and is the largest member of the falcon family.

The breeding sites of the predatory arctic skuas and great skuas are situated on the barren areas of the southern coast's glacial sands. These vicious birds will readily attack other birds carrying fish, even going to the extent of grabbing a bird`s tail until it drops or disgorges its catch. They also fiercely attack any intruders daring to go near their breeding areas — so beware! Another bird that may attack people is the arctic tern which is found in many parts of the island, both inland and near the sea. It is the most intrepid migratory bird found in Iceland, often spending winter in Antarctica.

Iceland is also the world`s main breeding area for the pink-footed goose. The breeding site was only discovered in 1929, when 3,000 breeding pairs were found in an oasis in a desert area near the Höfsjökull glacier.

The sea cliffs are important breeding grounds for millions of seabirds; the most important coastal colonies are on the Westman Islands, on the south and west coasts of the Reykjanes peninsula, on the south coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, in the fjords of the north–west and the east, and on the islands of Drangey and Grímsey. Here, millions of kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, gannets and fulmars completely cover the narrow ledges of the high cliffs, while the puffins prefer the grassy slopes below.

Bird catching and the collection of eggs used to be of major importance to the Icelanders and men with large nets climbed down sheer cliffs, catching the birds as they flew off their nests. This form of hunting is still practised in the Westman Islands, although it is of little economic importance now.

The first record of a big bird colony was the vast number of fulmars recorded in Grímsey in 1640. By 1852 the farmers were taking 30,000 fledglings a year and in 1900 the number had increased to 56,000. This harvest was very important to the local economy and no part of the bird was wasted: the meat was salted or smoked and stored for the winter; the guts, head and wings were dried and used for fuel; the fat was used as lamp oil or as butter substitute and the feathers made warm bedding and clothing. Almost inevitably, the numbers of these birds dwindled. Ironically, they were saved by the colonies becoming infected with psittacosis, making their meat hazardous to eat. From this near-extinction in the 1930s, the fulmars have rapidly increased their numbers and are now crowding out other birds.

While the fulmar was saved from extinction, the flightless great auk was not so fortunate. The bird that was hunted by Neanderthal Man was finally killed off in June 1844 by some sailors on the southern island of Eldey.

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The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy