Polar bears or penguins are not native to Iceland. They occasionally drift from Greenland to Iceland on icebergs. Polar bears were last spotted in June 2008. The local police shot the animals dead because they are considered a threat to livestock and humans.
If someone has assured you that you will get to see polar bears or penguins in Iceland, you should not believe them. However, Iceland has its own share of fauna and you will come across aplenty to find yourself entertained during your adventure tour.
Icelandic fauna at a glance
Wild creatures that you may find in Iceland include the Arctic fox, reindeer, mink, rats, rabbits and mice. Ornithologists, in particular, visit the country to view species of birds during the summer nesting season. It is also the base of several seabirds like kittiwakes, skuas and puffins.
Prior to humans settling down in Iceland in the ninth century, the Arctic fox was the only native land mammal who walked over the frozen sea in the ice age. The domestic breeds that arrived with the settlers have remained unchanged. The most renowned example of this is the Icelandic horse. Domestic animals in the island are the Icelandic sheep, the Icelandic sheepdog, cattle, chicken and goat.
You will find whales, seals, dolphins and more than 300 species of fish in seas around Iceland.
Evolution of fauna in Iceland
Domestic livestock has played a big role in keeping Icelanders alive from the time they moved in. Some of these creatures may have escaped domestic captivity and become part of the wild herd. Thanks to the efforts of the Icelandic government and public support, the wildlife is now thriving. Visitors here from all across the globe are quite eager to contribute to the sustenance of Icelandic wildlife, in whichever way they can.
Iceland had a dense forest cover before humans arrived. Humans interfered with the delicate ecosystem leading to overgrazing, forest exploitation, glacier movement and volcanic activity. This further lead to steady soil erosion and currently, just a quarter of Iceland is under green cover.
The country has large areas of stony deserts, bare rocks, lava fields and sandy wastelands. The flora here is generally subarctic and consists of abundance of grass, sedges and related species. The country has extensive grasslands, bogs and marshes. You will find vegetation like crowberry, heather, bearberry, bog whortleberry, dwarf birch, and willow.
Farm animals in Iceland
Most animals you see around in Iceland are domestic animals. This is not surprising at all as the nation relies heavily on agriculture. Farm animals have wonderfully adapted to the Icelandic climate and have helped humans immensely in surviving there.
The Icelandic Sheep
The Icelandic sheep formed the core of the Icelandic way of life for a long time. The sheep’s wool and meat kept the people alive in the harsh climate. The sheep’s role in Icelandic history has been incredibly significant. In 1783 when volcano Laki erupted, 80 percent of the sheep in Iceland perished, resulting in the death of up to 25 percent of the human population subsequently, as it was at that time.There were times in history when Icelandic wool was in high demand in Europe. The wealth that Iceland gained through the export of these products made it the modern nation that it is today.
Icelandic sheepdogs bred from their Nordic cousins. Right from the early days of the human settlement, these dogs have been assisting their masters in guarding property and herding. A bit smaller than their relatives abroad, they are agile and friendly.
The Icelandic Horse
Though not as tall as other horse breeds, the Icelandic horses are more sociable, curious and intelligent. When the early settlers arrived in Iceland, they brought with them the best of horses in their stock. As the settlement period ended in the year 930, Iceland had quite a number of sturdy and smart horses. For centuries, horses have been used for farm work and play a key role in the Icelandic economy.Icelandic horses are known for their unique gait, a style that they learned because of challenging conditions in Iceland. This style allows them to be comfortable and accelerate their pace anytime.
Riding an Icelandic horse is a sort of an essential Icelandic experience. Horse riding won’t last more than a few hours so you can easily combine it with your other travel plans.
Icelandic cows are smaller than their European counterparts and have other special traits as well. The Agricultural University of Iceland once recommended that bringing in Swedish cows would help Icelanders get more milk at a lower cost. However, the population was opposed to this suggestion. Dairy products in Iceland, thanks to this cattle, have become a part and parcel of the natives’ routine diet. A popular example of these products can be Skyr, a thick, yoghurt-like cheese.
Most wildlife species found today in Iceland aren’t native to the country. They were either brought by humans or sneaked across on boats.
Approximately 3,000 reindeers reside in Iceland for now, all in the eastern part. They are generally found in higher ground during the summer season and in the warmer lowlands in winters, though they can be seen as far south as Jökulsárlón and as far north as Vopnafjörður. If you are driving through the East Fjords, you are highly likely to spot them. Although the human population is supportive of the reindeers, occasional drives are launched to control their population so that they do not encroach on the lands earmarked for sheep grazing.
Very adaptable creatures, Icelandic arctic foxes have been able to sustain themselves on eggs, birds, berries and invertebrates. With the development of fur-farms, the danger of extensive hunting for fun is no longer there, but farmers still stress that the population of arctic foxes needs to be kept in control for the health of their own economy. Arrival of humans in a way went in favour of the arctic foxes, who found new food in the form of lambs, food waste and rodents.You would find the arctic foxes of two colour morphs in the country – white and blue. White foxes get new skin while shedding the old between seasons, while the skin of blue foxes remains as it is.
If you are driving in Iceland, you can check some of our tours: