3. Environment and Geography
- Animal Life
Little change in its animal life due to the isolation
Due to the isolation of the country, there has been little change in its animal life. Most of the animal species have been introduced and it is thought that only one type of mammal, the fox (locally called “tófan”), had its home in Iceland prior to human settlement. The other mammals have been brought to Iceland since settlement. These include the sheep, which has often kept people alive during difficult times, and the horse, most likely the best-known of animals in Iceland.
Reindeer were introduced to Iceland in the eighteenth-century and now number around 5000. They are the only type of deer to be found in Iceland and live on the heath lands to the north and east of Vatnajökull.
The rivers and lakes of Iceland abound with a rich stock of fish and salmon and trout fishing are popular sports. The bird life is rather diverse in the country and along the coastline. The coastal waters are home to great biological diversity, and here too Icelanders have often sought life-saving sustenance.
Despite rapid changes in Icelandic work patterns, the Icelandic sheep still has an important place in Iceland. The sheep accompanied the early Icelandic settlers more than 1100 years ago and has had to endure variable days spent in inhospitable country. But its particular cost-effectiveness and its ability to survive even when there is little food, has meant that it has often kept people alive during difficult times.
Although the nation no longer builds its profits from agriculture and sheep herding, sheep products remain an important part of the economy. Icelandic wool is endowed with special qualities, which make it manageable and strong, and clothes which are made out of Icelandic wool are particularly good cover against both cold and wet conditions.
Icelandic wool has long been used for making clothes, but it was also once used to make a type of homespun cloth called “vaðmál” which, together with wool and sheep skin, was the largest Icelandic export until stockfish took over in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries. Icelandic wool products are now amongst those items which overseas visitors seek out when they visit.
Lamb meat is also important. It was the main feature of the Icelandic diet over the centuries, eaten either fresh, smoked (called hung meat, that is “hangikjöt”), salted or pickled in sour whey: the entire animal was used. Today, traditional foods such as liver sausage, blood pudding, sheep’s head, and soured ram’s scrotum are still considered delicacies and are amongst the most favoured dishes at the Icelanders’ annual traditional feast called the “Þorrablót”.
For many years, Sunday dinner in Iceland has meant a roast leg of lamb with caramel potatoes and green peas, rightly called Icelanders’ national dish.
Icelandic bird life is extremely varied, especially amongst its sea birds. The most common variety of sea bird is the puffin, “lundi”, which in Iceland numbers in the millions. About half of the world’s puffin population nests in Iceland, especially on the islands off the coast. In total, about 370 bird species can be seen in Iceland, and about 75 species lay their eggs in Iceland annually. The best-known area for bird watching is around Mývatn, which is home to one of the largest duck nestling grounds in the world.
Egg harvesting and down collecting were once good sources of variety, and access to such areas was considered to be something of a bonus. Today, egg harvesting is pursued more out of fun rather than for profit, although the gathering of down from the eider duck remains a line of work for some.
Some birds are closer to Icelanders’ hearts than others. For instance, the golden plover (in Icelandic, the “lóa”) arrives in Iceland in early spring and is thought to announce the coming of summer. This much-loved bird has attracted the praise of poets, and all Icelanders know this verse in particular:
The plover has arrived to send away the snow,
She is able to send away the gloom,
She’s said to me the whimbrel arrives just now,
Sun shine in the dale, fields in bloom.
(trans. Kári Gíslason)
It is impossible to discuss Icelandic bird life without making some mention of the raven, “hrafn”. Also known as “krummi”, this bird has long held a place in the national consciousness. For example, Óðinn, the ancient Nordic god, owned two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who flew around the world to collect news for their master.
Indeed, the raven is the one bird known to all Icelanders. It features in many poems and stories and has always been prominent in Icelanders’ minds and hearts. The raven makes its nest in cliffs and crags, often in the vicinity of farms, where it often becomes something of a friend of the household. There are many tales about ravens that relate the bad consequences that follow for those who treat ravens poorly.
The Icelandic Horse
The Icelandic horse is the only breed of its kind. It has been bred continuously since Icelandic settlement and, due to the country’s isolation, it has not been crossed with other breeds. The horse has adapted to the cold conditions: in winter, its coat is thick and rough, but in spring it sheds its winter coat to become soft and shiny. The Icelandic horse is rather small, agile and spirited and is sometimes thought to be a pony. It is considered a good riding horse and the only one able to do all five riding strides: the slow trot, amble, trot, gallop and walk.
Whilst the Icelandic horse is small, it is nevertheless strong and vigorous. Travelling in Iceland was once very difficult and so the horse has long been called “man’s most useful servant”. It is safe to say that all transportation in Iceland took place with the aid of these helpers.
The horse continues to play an important role in the lives of many Icelanders. While, in modern society, it has ceased to be the most useful servant, horsemanship is now a popular sport that is pursued by a great many, be they from the country, towns, or the city. There is a large number of horses in Iceland, and those with a mind to overgrazing and the environmental damage they cause see them as a nuisance. Others, who enjoy horsemanship, find it pleasurable to see so many. There are horses on most farms and separate areas for stables are found in almost all urban areas. The Icelandic horse retains some kind of a connection with a rural way of life that is in fast retreat in the face of rapid technological change and urban development.
As witnessed by the many tales about them, whales have long fascinated man. As well as being in fear of these giant kings of the deep, people have been enchanted by them. Many stories describe the heroic struggles between man and whale, probably the most famous of which is Moby Dick, a novel by the American writer Herman Melville.
The most famous of the Icelandic whales is the killer whale Keikó. About thirty years ago, a killer whale was caught in waters around Iceland so as to become a performer in an American ocean zoo. It was here the whale was named Keikó and, amongst other things, performed in Free Willy, a film about a whale who was caged in an ocean zoo but managed to regain his freedom. The movie had a strong influence on popular opinions about whaling and many organizations were established to protect whales. Keikó’s own story was so like that of Willy the whale that the decision was made to return him to his original environment, off the shores of Iceland. Preparations began for this enormous project and, in September 1998, the killer whale was transported by plane to Heimaey Island in the Vestmannaeyjar. In the summer of 2002 Keiko travelled across the North Atlantic to the cost of Norway were he stayed until he died in December 2003.
There was a lot of debate about this matter in Iceland, and many believed that things had gone rather too far, others pointed out that Keikó’s story revealed that money can be made from whales without whaling: around the world, there is now great interest in whales and this can be exploited in a different way.
Whaling was practiced in Iceland from the Middle Ages until at least 1986, when Iceland banned whaling except for the purposes of scientific research. In 1989, all whaling was ceased, but in October 2006 it was allowed again.
Today, whale watching trips are becoming ever-more popular, and make up a specialized branch of the Icelandic tourism industry. Those who lead the whale watching trips are opposed to whaling. Others point out that whaling and whale watching can co-exist very well.