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A-Z Around the World: Iceland

Good Morning!!! Welcome back to A-Z Around the World.

Today is all about Iceland.


Iceland is a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic, with a population of 358,780 and an area of 103,000 km2(40,000 sq mi), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The capital and largest city is Reykjavik, with Reykjavik and the surrounding areas in the southwest of the country being home to over two-thirds of the population. Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau characterized by sand and lava fields, mountains, and glaciers, and many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate, despite a high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle. Its high latitude and marine influence keep summers chilly, with most of the archipelago having a tundra climate. According to the ancient manuscript Landnámabók, the settlement of Iceland began in 874 AD when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island. In the following centuries, Norwegians, and to a lesser extent other Scandinavians, emigrated to Iceland, bringing with them thralls (i.e., slaves or serfs) of Gaelic origin. The island was governed as an independent commonwealth under the Althing, one of the world's oldest functioning legislative assemblies. Following a period of civil strife, Iceland acceded to Norwegian rule in the 13th century. The establishment of the Kalmar Union in 1397 united the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Iceland thus followed Norway's integration into that union, coming under Danish rule after Sweden's secession from the union in 1523. Although the Danish kingdom introduced Lutheranism forcefully in 1550, Iceland remained a distant semi-colonial territory in which Danish institutions and infrastructures were conspicuous by their absence. In the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Iceland's struggle for independence took form and culminated in independence in 1918 and the founding of a republic in 1944. Until the 20th century, Iceland relied largely on subsistence fishing and agriculture.

Industrialization of the fisheries and Marshall Plan aid following World War II brought prosperity and Iceland became one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the world. In 1994, it became a part of the European Economic Area, which further diversified the economy into sectors such as finance, biotechnology, and manufacturing. Iceland has a market economy with relatively low taxes, compared to other OECD countries. It maintains a Nordic social welfare system that provides universal health care and tertiary education for its citizens. Iceland ranks high in economic, democratic, social stability, and equality, currently ranking first in the world by median wealth per adult. In 2018, it was ranked as the sixth most developed country in the world by the United Nations' Human Development Index, and it ranks first on the Global Peace Index. Iceland runs almost completely on renewable energy. Hit hard by the worldwide financial crisis, the nation's entire banking system systemically failed in October 2008, leading to a severe depression, substantial political unrest, the Icesave dispute, and the institution of capital controls. Some bankers were jailed. Since then, the economy has made a significant recovery, in large part due to a surge in tourism. A law that took effect in 2018 makes it illegal in Iceland for women to be paid less than men. Icelandic culture is founded upon the nation's Scandinavian heritage. Most Icelanders are descendants of Norse and Gaelic settlers. Icelandic, a North Germanic language, is descended from Old West Norse and is closely related to Faroese. The country's cultural heritage includes traditional Icelandic cuisine, Icelandic literature, and medieval sagas. Iceland has the smallest population of any NATO member and is the only one with no standing army, with a lightly armed coast guard. Etymology

The Sagas of Icelanders say that a Norwegian named Naddodd (or Naddador) was the first Norseman to reach Iceland, and in the 9th century he named it Snæland or "snow land" because it was snowing. Following Naddodd, the Swede Garðar Svavarsson arrived, and so the island was then called Garðarshólmur which means "Garðar's Isle". Then came a Viking named Flóki Vilgerðarson; his daughter drowned en route, then his livestock starved to death. The sagas say that the rather despondent Flóki climbed a mountain and saw a fjord (Arnarfjörður) full of icebergs, which led him to give the island its new and present name. The notion that Iceland's Viking settlers chose that name to discourage over-settlement of their verdant isle is a myth. History 874–1262: Settlement and Commonwealth

According to both Landnámabók and Íslendingabók, monks known as the Papar lived in Iceland before Scandinavian settlers arrived, possibly members of a Hiberno-Scottish mission. Recent archaeological excavations have revealed the ruins of a cabin in Hafnir on the Reykjanes peninsula. Carbon datingindicates that it was abandoned sometime between 770 and 880. In 2016, archeologists uncovered a longhouse in Stöðvarfjörður that has been dated to as early as 800. Swedish Viking explorer Garðar Svavarsson was the first to circumnavigate Iceland in 870 and establish that it was an island. He stayed over winter and built a house in Húsavík. Garðar departed the following summer but one of his men, Náttfari, decided to stay behind with two slaves. Náttfari settled in what is now known as Náttfaravík and he and his slaves became the first permanent residents of Iceland. The Norwegian-Norse chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson built his homestead in present-day Reykjavík in 874. Ingólfr was followed by many other emigrant settlers, largely Scandinavians and their thralls, many of whom were Irish or Scottish. By 930, most arable land on the island had been claimed; the Althing, a legislative and judicial assembly, was initiated to regulate the Icelandic Commonwealth. Lack of arable land also served as an impetus to the settlement of Greenland starting in 986. The period of these early settlements coincided with the Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures were similar to those of the early 20th century. At this time, about 25% of Iceland was covered with forest, compared to 1% in the present day.Christianity was adopted by consensus around 999–1000, although Norse paganism persisted among segments of the population for some years afterwards. The Middle Ages

The Icelandic Commonwealth lasted until the 13th century, when the political system devised by the original settlers proved unable to cope with the increasing power of Icelandic chieftains. The internal struggles and civil strife of the Age of the Sturlungs led to the signing of the Old Covenant in 1262, which ended the Commonwealth and brought Iceland under the Norwegian crown. Possession of Iceland passed from the Kingdom of Norway (872–1397) to the Kalmar Union in 1415, when the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark and Sweden were united. After the break-up of the union in 1523, it remained a Norwegian dependency, as a part of Denmark–Norway. Infertile soil, volcanic eruptions, deforestation and an unforgiving climate made for harsh life in a society where subsistence depended almost entirely on agriculture. The Black Death swept Iceland twice, first in 1402–1404 and again in 1494–1495. The former outbreak killed 50% to 60% of the population, and the latter 30% to 50%. Reformation and the Early Modern period

Around the middle of the 16th century, as part of the Protestant Reformation, King Christian III of Denmark began to impose Lutheranism on all his subjects. Jón Arason, the last Catholic bishop of Hólar, was beheaded in 1550 along with two of his sons. The country subsequently became officially Lutheran and Lutheranism has since remained the dominant religion. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Denmark imposed harsh trade restrictions on Iceland. Natural disasters, including volcanic eruption and disease, contributed to a decreasing population. Pirates from several countries, including the Barbary Coast, raided Iceland's coastal settlements and abducted people into slavery. A great smallpox epidemic in the 18th century killed around a third of the population. In 1783 the Laki volcano erupted, with devastating effects. In the years following the eruption, known as the Mist Hardships (Icelandic: Móðuharðindin), over half of all livestock in the country died. Around a quarter of the population starved to death in the ensuing famine. 1814–1918: Independence movement

In 1814, following the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark-Norway was broken up into two separate kingdoms via the Treaty of Kiel but Iceland remained a Danish dependency. Throughout the 19th century, the country's climate continued to grow colder, resulting in mass emigration to the New World, particularly to the region of Gimli, Manitoba in Canada, which was sometimes referred to as New Iceland. About 15,000 people emigrated, out of a total population of 70,000. A national consciousness arose in the first half of the 19th century, inspired by romantic and nationalist ideas from mainland Europe. An Icelandic independence movement took shape in the 1850's under the leadership of Jón Sigurðsson, based on the burgeoning Icelandic nationalism inspired by the Fjölnismenn and other Danish-educated Icelandic intellectuals. In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland a constitution and limited home rule. This was expanded in 1904, and Hannes Hafstein served as the first Minister for Iceland in the Danish cabinet. 1918–1944: Independence and the Kingdom of Iceland

The Danish–Icelandic Act of Union, an agreement with Denmark signed on 1 December 1918 and valid for 25 years, recognized Iceland as a fully sovereign and independent state in a personal union with Denmark. The Government of Iceland established an embassy in Copenhagen and requested that Denmark carry out on its behalf certain defense and foreign affairs matters, subject to consultation with the Althing. Danish embassies around the world displayed two coats of arms and two flags: those of the Kingdom of Denmark and those of the Kingdom of Iceland. Iceland's legal position became comparable to those of countries belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations such as Canada whose sovereign is Queen Elizabeth II. During World War II, Iceland joined Denmark in asserting neutrality. After the German occupation of Denmark on 9 April 1940, the Althing replaced the King with a regent and declared that the Icelandic government would take control of its own defense and foreign affairs. A month later, British armed forces conducted Operation Fork, the invasion and occupation of the country, violating Icelandic neutrality.In 1941, the Government of Iceland invited the United States to take over its defense so that Britain could use its troops elsewhere.

1944–present: Republic of Iceland

On 31 December 1943, the Danish–Icelandic Act of Union expired after 25 years. Beginning on 20 May 1944, Icelanders voted in a four-day plebiscite on whether to terminate the personal union with Denmark, abolish the monarchy, and establish a republic. The vote was 97% to end the union, and 95% in favor of the new republican constitution.Iceland formally became a republic on 17 June 1944, with Sveinn Björnsson as its first president. In 1946, the US Defense Force Allied left Iceland. The nation formally became a member of NATO on 30 March 1949, amid domestic controversy and riots. On 5 May 1951, a defense agreement was signed with the United States. American troops returned to Iceland as the Iceland Defense Force, and remained throughout the Cold War. The US withdrew the last of its forces on 30 September 2006. Iceland prospered during the Second World War. The immediate post-war period was followed by substantial economic growth, driven by industrialization of the fishing industry and the US Marshall Plan program, through which Icelanders received the most aid per capita of any European country (at US$209, with the war-ravaged Netherlands a distant second at US$109). The 1970's were marked by the Cod Wars—several disputes with the United Kingdom over Iceland's extension of its fishing limits to 200 nmi (370 km) offshore. Iceland hosted a summit in Reykjavík in 1986 between United States President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, during which they took significant steps toward nuclear disarmament. A few years later, Iceland became the first country to recognize the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as they broke away from the USSR. Throughout the 1990's, the country expanded its international role and developed a foreign policy oriented toward humanitarian and peacekeeping causes. To that end, Iceland provided aid and expertise to various NATO-led interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq. Iceland joined the European Economic Area in 1994, after which the economy was greatly diversified and liberalized. International economic relations increased further after 2001, when Iceland's newly deregulated banks began to raise massive amounts of external debt, contributing to a 32% increase in Iceland's gross national income between 2002 and 2007. Economic boom and crisis

In 2003–2007, following the privatization of the banking sector under the government of Davíð Oddsson, Iceland moved toward having an economy based on international investment banking and financial services. It was quickly becoming one of the most prosperous countries in the world but was hit hard by a major financial crisis.The crisis resulted in the greatest migration from Iceland since 1887, with a net emigration of 5,000 people in 2009. Iceland's economy stabilized under the government of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, and grew by 1.6% in 2012.The centre-right Independence Partywas returned to power in coalition with the Progressive Party in the 2013 elections. In the following years, Iceland saw a surge in tourism as the country became a popular holiday destination. In 2016, Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned after being implicated in the Panama Papers scandal. Early elections in 2016 resulted in a right-wing coalition government of the Independence Party, the Reform Party and Bright Future. This government fell when Bright Future quit the coalition due to a scandal involving then-Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson's father's letter of support for a convicted paedophile.Snap elections in October 2017 brought to power a new coalition consisting of the Independence Party, the Progressive Party and the Left-Green Movement, headed by Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Culture

Icelandic culture has its roots in North Germanic traditions. Icelandic literature is popular, in particular the sagas and eddas that were written during the High and Late Middle Ages. Centuries of isolation have helped to insulate the country's Nordic culture from external influence; a prominent example is the preservation of the Icelandic language, which remains the closest to Old Norse of all modern Nordic languages. In contrast to other Nordic countries, Icelanders place relatively great importance on independence and self-sufficiency; in a public opinion analysis conducted by the European Commission, over 85% of Icelanders believe independence is "very important," compared to 47% of Norwegians, 49% of Danes, and an average of 53% for the EU25. Icelanders also have a very strong work ethic, working some of the longest hours of any industrialized nation. According to a poll conducted by the OECD, 66% of Icelanders were satisfied with their lives, while 70% believed that their lives will be satisfying in the future. Similarly, 83% reported having more positive experiences in an average day than negative ones, compared to an OECD average of 72%, which makes Iceland one of the happiest countries in the OECD. A more recent 2012 survey found that around three quarters of respondents stated they were satisfied with their lives, compared to a global average of about 53%. Iceland is liberal with regard to LGBT rights issues. In 1996, the Icelandic parliament passed legislation to create registered partnerships for same-sex couples, conferring nearly all the rights and benefits of marriage. In 2006, parliament voted unanimously to grant same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples in adoption, parenting and assisted insemination treatment. On 11 June 2010, the Icelandic parliament amended the marriage law, making it gender neutral and defining marriage as between two individuals, making Iceland one of the first countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriages. The law took effect on 27 June 2010.The amendment to the law also means registered partnerships for same-sex couples are now no longer possible, and marriage is their only option—identical to the existing situation for opposite-sex couples. Icelanders are known for their deep sense of community: An OECD survey found that 98% believe they know someone they could rely on in a time of need, higher than in any other industrialised country. Similarly, only 6% reported "rarely" or "never" socialising with others.This high level of social cohesion is attributed to the small size and homogeneity of the population, as well as to a long history of harsh survival in an isolated environment, which reinforced the importance of unity and cooperation. Egalitarianism is highly valued among the people of Iceland, with income inequality being among the lowest in the world. The constitution explicitly prohibits the enactment of noble privileges, titles, and ranks. Everyone is addressed by their first name. As in other Nordic countries, equality between the sexes is very high; Iceland is consistently ranked among the top three countries in the world for women to live in. Cuisine

Much of Iceland's cuisine is based on fish, lamb, and dairy products, with little to no utilization of herbs or spices. Due to the island's climate, fruits and vegetables are not generally a component of traditional dishes, although the use of greenhouses has made them more common in contemporary food. Þorramatur is a selection of traditional cuisine consisting of many dishes, and is usually consumed around the month of Þorri, which begins on the first Friday after 19 January. Traditional dishes also include skyr (a yoghurt-like cheese), hákarl (cured shark), cured ram, singed sheep heads, and black pudding, Flatkaka (flat bread), dried fish and dark rye bread traditionally baked in the ground in geothermal areas. Puffin is considered a local delicacy that is often prepared through broiling. Breakfast usually consists of pancakes, cereal, fruit, and coffee, while lunch may take the form of a smörgåsbord. The main meal of the day for most Icelanders is dinner, which usually involves fish or lamb as the main course. Seafood is central to most Icelandic cooking, particularly cod and haddock but also salmon, herring, and halibut. It is often prepared in a wide variety of ways, either smoked, pickled, boiled, or dried. Lamb is by far the most common meat, and it tends to be either smoke-cured (known as hangikjöt) or salt-preserved (saltkjöt). Many older dishes make use of every part of the sheep, such as slátur, which consists of offal (internal organs and entrails) minced together with blood and served in sheep stomach. Additionally, boiled or mashed potatoes, pickled cabbage, green beans, and rye bread are prevalent side dishes. Coffee is a popular beverage in Iceland, with the country being third placed by per capita consumption worldwide in 2016,and is drunk at breakfast, after meals, and with a light snack in mid-afternoon. Coca-Cola is also widely consumed, to the extent that the country is said to have one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world. Iceland's signature alcoholic beverage is brennivín (literally "burnt [i.e., distilled] wine"), which is similar in flavoring to the akvavit variant of Scandinavian brännvin. It is a type of schnapps made from distilled potatoes and flavored with either caraway seeds or angelica. Its potency has earned it the nickname svarti dauði ("Black Death"). Modern distilleries on Iceland produce vodka (Reyka), gin (Ísafold), moss schnapps (Fjallagrasa), and a birch-flavored schnapps and liqueur (Foss Distillery's Birkir and Björk). Martin Miller blends Icelandic water with its England-distilled gin on the island. Strong beer was banned until 1989, so bjórlíki, a mixture of legal, low-alcohol pilsner beer and vodka, became popular. Several strong beers are now made by Icelandic breweries.

Fauna of Iceland

Before humans began to settle Iceland in the 9th Century, it had but one land mammal, the Arctic fox. The rest of the creatures were either birds or marine animals. A millennium later, however, a wealth of life has adapted to the harsh climate.

From its unique domestic livestock, that quite literally kept Icelanders alive during their most trying times, to the creatures that have escaped captivity and formed a wild population, the animals of Iceland are thriving and are part of the draw that pulls guests here from around the world.

The vast majority of animals you will see as you travel around Iceland are domestic. This, after all, is a nation that relies heavily on agriculture.

While farm animals may not seem to be the most fascinating creatures, the way they have adapted to the country's climate, and their roles throughout Icelandic history, have been essential for human survival.

Sheep were the lifeblood of Iceland for centuries. Brought over with the first settlers from Norway, it was only because of their wool and meat that anyone was able to survive Iceland’s harsh conditions.

One only needs to read Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness’s novel Independent People to understand the reverence Icelanders have had for these creatures; they are the central conversation topic between most of the country-folk.

While not being the most interesting animals in Iceland, their role in the country’s history has been incredibly significant; whenever the nation has gone through terrible struggles or a surge in growth, it has always come back to sheep.

Take, for example, the 1783 eruption of the volcano Laki, the most fatal in the country’s history. Up to 25 percent of the population died, largely because of famine, caused by the fact that 80 percent of the nation’s sheep were lost to the poisons of the ash.

On the other hand, however, Iceland’s great period of growth and industrialisation during World War One was due to these creatures. With European countryside ravaged by war, Icelandic wool was in high demand. The wealth that came from sheep products during these four years helped propel Iceland into the modern nation it is today.

There are approximately 800,000 sheep in Iceland, well over two times more than there are people. Their wool is used to create unique handicrafts, such as the Icelandic sweater, otherwise called a ‘Lopapeysa’, and their meat is featured in almost all traditional dishes that do not have fish. Perhaps the nation’s most classic dish is the lamb soup, which is world-renowned.

The reason that the Icelandic lamb tastes as delicious as it does is rather morbid; as they are free-roaming throughout summer, the sheep graze on Icelandic thyme, unwittingly flavouring their meat while they are still alive.

Icelandic sheepdogs, like the livestock of Iceland, developed from their Nordic cousins when brought to Iceland by early settlers hundreds of years ago. Since then, they have been essential in aiding farmers, herding and guarding property.

Like most animals brought to Iceland, they are little smaller than their relatives abroad. They are also much more susceptible to disease due to Iceland’s isolation, to the extent that they faced extinction from the late 19th Century. After a ban of other dog breeds entering the country, and later pet vaccines and modern veterinary care which made this first step redundant, the population has recovered.

Other than their size, Icelandic sheepdogs share the same fluffy coat and curled tails as other sheepdog breeds. They also share the same behaviour; they are highly energetic, resilient, agile and friendly, and thus make great companions for those with the time or space to let them exercise. The vast majority of individuals live out in the country, where they can utilise their high energy and natural herding instincts to help their owners.

Icelandic horses are not at all like other breeds. On first sight, it appears that they only differ in terms of height, as they rarely reach 150 cm tall; after a few minutes in their company, however, it becomes apparent that they are more sociable, curious and intelligent than other horses. These character traits have made them a central part of Icelandic identity.

The reason for their unique charm is due to their descendants. When Iceland was first settled, only one horse could fit within a longboat; and since many of the early settlers were wealthy chieftains, they would only take the very best of their stock with them. That meant that, as the settlement period ended, Iceland had a healthy population of the sturdiest, strongest and smartest horses from Norway.

Initially, the horses were almost solely used for transportation, and sometimes battles between clans. Over the centuries, however, they were used more and more for farm work and became central to the nation's survival.

Those in possession of a horse were able to travel from the country to the towns and trading posts, allowing them to develop more wealth and opportunity; those without one were left isolated and more impoverished as a result.

As equestrian sports became more and more popular, Icelandic horses became noted for something else; while most breeds around the world have three or four ‘gaits’ (style of walking, such as the trot and gallop), Icelandic horses had five. Their unique gait, the 'skeið,' is a style which developed due to Iceland’s rough terrain and is noted for being comfortable with the potential for rapid acceleration.

Because of their character, appearance, and unique qualities, Icelandic horses have become very popular in dressage. More Icelandic horses now live outside the country than in it; 100,000 live abroad, compared to 80,000 domestically.

Those that leave Iceland are never able to return, and no other breeds are allowed on the island; this is because the isolated native breed is susceptible to diseases and a foreign infection could cripple the whole population.

Riding an Icelandic horse is as near to an essential Icelandic experience as there is. There are a wealth of horse-riding tours across Iceland, and because horse-rides only usually last a few hours, it is possible to combine this excursion with many others, such as snorkeling, caving, or sightseeing around the Golden Circle.

A less commonly seen farm animal in Iceland is the cow, but the country does have a unique breed. Icelandic cattle, like the horses, were brought over with the earliest settlers from Norway, and have since developed to have their own special traits; two that they share is that they are smaller than their European counterparts and very susceptible to foreign diseases.

Unfortunately, however, while the other qualities of Icelandic horses compare favourably to similar breeds around the world, those of the Icelandic cattle do not.

Non-Native Animals

Iceland only had one native land animal when the Norse first arrived here, and yet today, there are multiple species to be found across the country. None arrived naturally, either being taken over by humans or sneaking across on boats, but all have established themselves successfully, for better or worse.

Reindeer were brought over to Iceland much later than the domestic animals, in the 18th Century. Initially, they were to be farmed as they were across Scandinavia, but Icelanders never took to the practice. The population, therefore, became wild.

About 3,000 reindeer now live in the country, all concentrated in the east. They are most commonly found around Snæfell, on the higher ground throughout summer and in the warmer lowlands throughout winter, but have been seen as far south as Jökulsárlón and as far north as Vopnafjörður. Those driving through or staying in the East Fjords have a reasonable chance of spotting a herd.

While the reindeer are well-loved across Iceland, their population is controlled seasonally, as it is a concern that they may take food away from the grazing lands used by the free-roaming sheep. This would cause significant damage to the economy in the case of a brutal winter or large-scale volcanic eruption, both of which are not at all uncommon in Iceland.

Whenever humans, throughout history, discovered and settled new lands, they brought rodents with them, and Iceland is no exception. Brown rats, as well as wood and house mice, came over either with early settlers or later with trading ships, and formed populations; the rats primarily live in populated areas, while the mice have spread all across the country.

Iceland also has a population of wild mink, which was established more recently. They were imported for use in fur farms throughout the early 20th Century, but escaped and became wild. Now, they are often spotted fishing in the waterways around Reykjavík, hunting for bird-eggs along nesting cliffs, and have become the bane of chicken farmers across the country.

Rabbits are another invasive species, and came about even more recently than the mink; the majority of them are descendants from pets that were released in 2010. Now, they have spread across the country and wreak havoc wherever they go.

In Öskjuhlíð, a forested area in Reykjavík, they gnaw through tree roots and fences, damaging nature and human constructions alike; in farms across the country they dig into and ruin hay meant for other animals and their habit of running into the roads have caused several crashes.

As has been noted, Iceland has just one indigenous land mammal. That is not to say, however, that the native wildlife lacks diversity. Iceland has a wealth of fauna in its seas and skies, which draw visitors from the world over; it is one of the best places to visit in terms of bird watching, seal watching, and whale watching.

Arctic Foxes of Iceland

Before human settlement, Arctic Foxes were the only land mammal that lived in Iceland. During the last ice-age, they walked over the sea-ice to the island, only to be stranded there when it melted over 10,000 years ago. Incredibly adaptable creatures, they managed to sustain themselves feeding on eggs, birds, invertebrates and berries.

When humans arrived, the foxes were hunted extensively for fur and to protect livestock; with the development of fur-farms, the former reason no longer applies, but farmers still maintain that population control is still essential for their economy. While hunting obviously disrupted the fox populations, human arrival meant a wealth of new food in the form of rodents, food waste and lambs, allowing the species to survive.

The Arctic Foxes in Iceland come in two color morphs, white and blue. White foxes change their coat completely between seasons, going from snow-white in winter to a brown and white in summer. Blue foxes do not change coat, but their fur is bleached throughout summer so that they are much lighter by the arrival of winter. Both variants thicken their fur throughout the colder months, however, and lose it when the weather warms.

Arctic Foxes can be found all across Iceland, but are especially concentrated in the Westfjords, most notably the remote Hornstrandir Reserve in the very north where they are protected. In this region, they are noted for being quite fearless of humans, so wildlife photographers often come for some very intimate shots.

Since 2007, there has been an Arctic Fox Centre in the village of Súðavík. This has led the way in researching these animals, educating people about their threats, and promoting eco-tourism.

Whales of Iceland

Iceland’s fertile sub-Arctic waters, fed by the Gulf Stream, are home to over twenty different species of whale and dolphin. It is one of the best places in the world for whale-watching, especially during the summer when the great whales migrate here to feed. This industry is changing the way that Icelanders view the creatures of the deep, as the relationship between the two is historical and complex.

As seafarers, many accounts from early Icelanders depict whales as terrible leviathans; an especially notable story tells of a warlock who attempted to take over Iceland by transforming into one, before being rebuffed on all four shores by a different guardian spirit.

While feared when in their natural environment, however, whales were hugely appreciated when they washed up on the beaches. The meat from a single stranding could feed communities, and their oil could supply candles and lanterns to help sustain people through the dark winters. The word for ‘windfall’ in Icelandic is the same as the word for a beached whale.

Iceland began commercial whaling in the late 19th Century, later than most other nations, and struggled with the pressures against it for many decades. It has been outlawed then reinstated several times, due to issues with stock populations, international pressure, and local opinions.

While whaling continues to this day, it is a constant debate within the country as to whether or not it has a future. What certainly does have a future, however, is whale-watching. Tours are leaving from ports all across the country, with incredibly high success rates, and a diverse wealth of life to see.

Seals of Iceland

Seals have used Iceland’s shores as a place to haul out, breed and shed for millenniums. It’s cold fertile waters, and long stretches of rocky, uninhabited coast, allowed large colonies to evolve before humans ever set foot here.

Their numbers and lack of fear of humans were a blessing when settlers did arrive; seals provided the people with essential resources, from food to clothing to oil, which helped make the stark new country habitable. Their populations were dwindling heavily by the 20th Century when more and more were taken for fashion rather than necessity, but their numbers today are quite stable.

Seals are still hunted occasionally in Iceland, due to the damage they cause to fishing equipment and how they pass ringworm to fish stocks; some are still hunted on private property for fur. These practices have come under increasing question as the seal-watching industry has boomed, especially since the opening of the Icelandic Seal Centrein Hvammstangi, which is dedicated to researching these animals and raising awareness about their threats.

Two species of seal live on Iceland’s shores permanently: the harbour seal and the grey seal. They live all around Iceland, but the best places to reliably spot them are the Westfjords, the Vatnsnes Peninsular, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.

They are not the only species to frequent Icelandic waters, however. Harp, bearded, hooded and ringed seals are all occasional visitors, and even walruses are sometimes seen in the Westfjords. Walruses used to have a large population here but were hunted to extinction in the 17th Century.

Puffins of Iceland

Puffins are considered to be rare and elusive birds in the majority of the world, but in Iceland, there is a wealth of them. Their arrival in April and May mark the beginning of summer, and they can be easily seen up close in many parts of the country until August.

Approximately sixty percent of the world’s population of North Atlantic puffins breed in Iceland’s cliffs; there are millions of nesting pairs. These birds do not like to roost anywhere where there are not others of their species, so wherever you can find one, you are likely to find hundreds more.

Puffins can be appreciated by boat and by land. From Reykjavík’s Old Harbour, it is easy to jump on an hour-long tour to one of two islands, Lundy and Akurey, just out in the bay, where they nest in the thousands. These vessels are small enough to get close to the rocky shores, and many tours include binoculars so you can see them even more clearly. Many whale-watch tours include a detour to these islands.

Those travelling to the Westfjords in summer need not even board a boat to see puffins. The Látrabjarg cliffs, which are up to 440 meters high and stretch for 14 kilometres, are impressive in their own right, but the wealth of bird-life makes them awe-inspiring.

By walking along the edge of this cliff, it is possible to get within arm’s length of the nesting puffins. They have no fear of people, and will only fly off if someone is trying to touch them. At such proximity, the details of their painted beaks and adorable expression are on clear display.

These are not the only places puffins nest, however. They can be found in huge populations around the Westman Islands, on the Dyrhólaey rock arch, in the East Fjords, and on Grímsey Island in the North.

As is well-documented, Icelanders have a quite a penchant for unusual meats. It is, therefore, the only country in the world where you can spend the day watching puffins, then enjoy one for dinner.

Other Birds of Iceland

Puffins are by far the most popular bird in Iceland, but this little island has an enormous wealth of avian life. The cliffs of Látrabjarg in the Westfjords and Krýsuvíkurbjarg on the Reykjanes Peninsula are home to thousands of individuals and many different species, such as guillemots, fulmar, gulls, auks, sandpipers and peewits.

Arctic terns and sea eagles can also be found around the coasts. In freshwater, there is an equal amount of diversity; Lake Mývatn alone is home to fourteen different species of duck, as well as geese and whooper swans. Outside of aquatic environments, there are even more; gyrfalcons, golden plovers, snipes and ptarmigans all call the island home.

No discussion about the birds of Iceland, however, would be complete without a mention of the raven. While this is one of the world’s most widely spread animals, they are very common here and revered for their intelligence and importance to Icelandic folklore and pagan beliefs.

Polar Bears from Greenland

Contrary to the belief of many, polar bears do not have a permanent population in Iceland. Very occasionally, however, they come from Greenland on ice-floes, and land in the Westfjords.

Unfortunately, when they arrive they are likely to be starving, and as one of the few animals known to actively hunt humans, pose a significant threat to those living in the region. Considering this and the cost of capturing, bringing to health, and returning the polar bear to its home (estimated at reaching 75,000 Euros), they are killed upon arrival.

The last polar bear seen in Iceland was in July of 2016. As the climate changes and more ice melts, however, it is expected that more and more will start to arrive.

In just over a millennium, Iceland has come a long way from being a stark island with just one creature walking its land.

Now, if you travel through any part of the country, you will at least see a huge wealth of domestic life thriving in the harsh climate. If you know where to look, you are likely to find much more. From the great whales to the runaway rodents, Iceland’s animals and wildlife are ever shaping this nation’s character.

Flora of Iceland

As you arrive in Iceland, you could be forgiven for thinking you have landed on another planet; the lava landscapes which surround Keflavík International Airport are so otherworldly that you might find yourself wondering how anything, let alone people, can survive on this rock in the middle of the Atlantic.

Look a little closer, however, and you will discover a rich and delicate eco-system, finding life in even the most extreme conditions.

There might not be many trees in Iceland, but including fungi and lichen, there are between 5000-6000 known plant species fighting for survival in this challenging environment.

It is not within the scope of this article to discuss all of the plants in Iceland, instead what follows will be a summary of some of the most iconic flora in the Icelandic psyche and scenery.

Trees in Iceland

The old joke goes like this: "What do you do if you find yourself lost in an Icelandic forest? ...Stand-up!". This joke rests on the fact that there are very few trees in Iceland and the ones that make it, are quite small.

This wasn't always the case; we know from the written sources of the early settlers that the country was "forested from mountain to shore".

It is estimated that before the arrival of the Viking colonists over 1000-years ago, 40% of Iceland was wooded. Mass deforestation occurred as the early Icelanders needed materials to build their ships, homes and fires to keep them warm.

This process only took approximately 300-years and since then, Iceland has suffered desertification as well as issues with soil erosion, leaving the barren treeless geography that characterizes most of Iceland today.

That is not to say that there are no trees in Iceland! In recent years, considerable efforts have been made to re-cultivate woodlands with a significant degree of success.

Over 85 foreign tree species have been introduced to Iceland, the most common and triumphant to flourish include the sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta). These varieties originate from Alaska and are grown as a sapling in Icelandic greenhouses as it is illegal to import live trees into Iceland.

Common native plants species include the downy birch (Betula pubescens), the rowan (Sorbus Aucuparia), the tea-leafed willow (Salix phylicifolia), and less frequently the Aspen (Populus tremula). Most of these grow to shrub height with the birch reaching the maximum height of 15-metres (but most often only 4-5-metres).

The largest forest is Hallormsstaðaskógur and it can be found in the East of Iceland, close to the idyllic town of Egilsstaðir.

Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala)

The mountain avens or, 'Holtasóley', was voted the National Flower of Iceland by the public in 2004. It is a white Arctic-alpine flowering plant and it flourishes in every region of Iceland.

This pretty wildflower is the favourite food of the rock ptarmigan, or 'Rjúpa' leading it to be nicknamed 'Rjúpnalauf' which directly translates to 'rock ptarmigan's leaf'.

Throughout the ages, humans have made use of its herbal qualities; mainly as an astringent as well as an agent to reduce inflammation. Dried Holtasóley leaves once served as a valuable substitute to highly coveted tobacco and tea.

In Icelandic folklore, the flower is allegedly imbued with the power to attract wealth from the earth. To harness the flower's power you have to follow some pretty deplorable steps.

First, you must steal money from an impoverished widow while she is attending church and then bury the spoils underneath a spot where the flower grows. The legend goes that your ill-gotten gains will then double.

This folk-belief most likely contributed to another name the plant has been given: 'Thief's Root' and historically thieves were frequently hung at sites where the flower was found in abundance.

Arctic Thyme (Thymus praecox arcticus)

Arctic Thyme, '´Blóðberg' as it is known in Iceland, can be found across the island due to its proclivity for sandy and gravelly soils of which there is no shortage.

The pretty purple flowers have long been used to make tea and Blóðberg is considered a staple in the world of Icelandic herbs. It is regarded to have medicinal properties as well as health benefits such as strengthening the heart and head, cleansing the blood and contributing to menstrual regulation.

It is also naturally quite tasty and the strong fragrance it exudes has been likened to oregano. The scent is so strong that a good nose will often be able to smell it before it can be spotted by the eye. If you would like to sample this versatile herb, many shops in Reykjavík sell Blóðberg tea or flavoured salts.

Lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis)

There is no other plant in Iceland as controversial as the iconic Lupine. The perennial plant is native to North America and was introduced to Iceland in 1945 to tackle topsoil erosion.

Since its arrival, the lupine has prospered and spread all over the country, sometimes in locations where it is not wholly welcome. In many areas, it poses a threat to a number of indigenous plants, including some moss species which are notoriously difficult to establish or recover.

Worries about a lupine mono-culture homogenizing the natural flora of Iceland fuel anti-lupine sentiment but it has proven difficult to halt the proliferation of the species.

Not everyone is against the lupine! Many take pleasure from the color it has added to the Icelandic countryside and the pretty purple flowers provide ample photo opportunities for visitors and locals alike.


Icelanders love berries and it is a cultural tradition to harvest these natural fruits each season to make a wealth of jams and jellies or, to stockpile a healthy addition to much-loved desserts such as pies or the nation's favourite—Skyr.

Going out to collect berries is called 'Berjamó' and it is characterized by red tongues and empty ice cream containers to stash your bounty.

Berry-picking season in Iceland is traditionally between August and mid-September, but this, of course, depends on what time of berry you are after. Berries grow wild in Iceland and are free from pesticides, making for a real treat. Here's a guide to Icelander's favourite berries.

Bog Bilberry (Vaccinium ulignosum)

This is most likely, the most picked berry in Iceland since it grows across the entire country. It is called ‘Bláber’ in Iceland which translates to blueberry, however, it is in fact not a blueberry but a bog bilberry. Confusing but delicious as they are much sweeter than your typical North American blueberry.

Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

The common bilberry is also widely picked in Iceland and it is called 'Aðalbláber' which translates to 'main blueberry'. It is in fact, again, not a blueberry but a bilberry and grows abundantly in the North East of Iceland. Although it is slightly less sweet than its bog counterpart, it is widely collected and both are used to make jams and to garnish Skyr and other desserts.

You can tell the difference between these two types of bilberry as the 'main bilberry' is slightly smaller and darker in colour. The leaves are always a good indicator; the bog bilberry will have more rounded leaves.

Crow-berries (Empetrum nigrum)

This evergreen plant belongs to the heather family and produces small black berries which are called 'Krækiber' in Icelandic. Although they can be quite bitter to the taste, crowberries are great for cooking or being baked into muffins and many people pick them to make jam.

They have also been used to make Iceland's only native wine, 'Kvöldsól' which translates to 'Midnight Sun', acclaimed for its rich taste and high anti-oxidant properties.

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

The most coveted of Iceland's indigenous berries, the wild strawberry, or 'Jarðarber', is incredibly rare and hard to find in the wild.

They are most likely to be discovered in the north of the island and are incredibly sweet and tasty. If you find yourself in Reykholt in the West of Iceland, you can go visit astrawberry farm set up by a couple of horticulturalists from the Netherlands.

Redcurrant (Ribes rubrum)

The redcurrant is a member of the gooseberry family and although it is not indigenous to Iceland, it is grown in many gardens all over the country.

If you can beat the birds to the berries, they are excellent for making a delicate sweet jelly called 'Rifsberjahlaup' which is traditionally enjoyed on fine cheeses.

Stone Brambleberry (Rubus Saxitilis)

This delicate berry is called 'Hrútaberja' in Icelandic which translates literally to 'Ram's berry', and like redcurrants, they are popularly made into delicious jellies to be eaten enjoyed on special occasions.

The berries are small and red with a stone in the middle and are sour to the taste. Although they are found all over the country, they are most bountiful in the North of Iceland and the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

Sheep sorrel (or sometimes, 'red sorrel') is known as 'Hundasúra' in Iceland. It is a member of the buckwheat family and it is favoured for its tart and tasty leaves.

As young children, Icelanders know they can nibble the sour leaves and will do so throughout their lives. The leaves are a perfect addition to a salad or simply something to forage as you go for a hike.

Rhubarb (Rheum Rhabarbarum)

Rhubarb or 'Rabarbari' in Icelandic is not indigenous to Iceland; it was introduced at the end of the 19th century but since then has positively thrived in the climate, which is not common amongst exogenous plants.

No serving of Icelandic pancakes or waffles is complete without some rhubarb jam handy and young children will often enjoy a stick of rhubarb dipped in sugar. In the past, it has been used as a pesticide and dye. Be careful not to eat the leaves as they are poisonous!

Dandelion (Taraxacum family)

Dandelions grow everywhere in Iceland and in huge abundance. These wildflowers are suited to disturbed soils which are common across Iceland.

Although dandelions can be considered a family of wildflowers of which quite a few different species grow in Iceland, most Icelanders when referring to a dandelion would simply use the term 'Túnfífill' or simply 'Fífill'.

Dandelions are rich in vitamins and minerals and the whole plant is edible from flower to root. They have therefore long featured in the Icelandic diet be it as a tea or tonic or by adding the leaves to salads. The root of the plant has long been used as an invaluable coffee substitute since coffee was expensive and often in short supply.

Caraway (Carum carvi)

The wildflower caraway is treasured for its tasty seeds which are a favourite choice to garnish bread rolls as well as flavoring Iceland's most iconic drink, Brennivín. Also known as 'Black Death', the Icelandic schnapps Brennivín often accompanies rotten shark but it's also tasty in its own right.

Caraway is called Kúmen in Icelandic, as is Cumin which can make for some confusion but nothing that can't be fixed with a good nose.

Angelica (Angelica archangelica)

Angelica ranks supreme in the world of Icelandic flora, referred to as 'Hvönn' and known as 'Angel herb' in Anglo-terms thanks to a monk in the midst of the plague. This medical marvel was assumedly brought to Iceland by its first settlers. Along with livestock, this plant was considered invaluable for the survival and success of an intrepid nation.

Recently, Angelica has been scientifically proven to alleviate and prevent, stomach ailments, respiratory problems, infections, antitumour activity, digestive agitation, congestion, cramp, flatulence, and liver problems, as well as cancer. The list is endless.

Not only has it alimentally sustained its earliest cultivators but it has also medically assisted the Vikings and their descendants ever since its original transition to the harsh conditions of the Icelandic environment.

Angelica was so widely valued that it served as currency within Iceland and abroad. It has been so highly prized throughout the years that in the 12th century AD there were laws set in place to protect cultivators from burglary.

The whole plant can be used including its roots; a lifeline for early Icelanders. This miracle plant is still valued today. Angelica literally translates from Latin as 'Angels' Root'; its precious value has never been overlooked. So much so, that many places in Iceland bare its name; Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest peak in Iceland is named after it and literally translates to 'Angel Root Valley Peak'.

Dulse (Palmaria palmata)

The history of Iceland is deeply intertwined with the sea. Not only did the Viking settlers have to cross it to reach Iceland but it has long served as a critical source of food and not only for fish.

Dulse is known as 'Söl' in Iceland, and it is a type of red seaweed which nourished Icelanders since the first settlers arrived in the 10th century. It was collected in vast quantities in the spring and summer and then dried to stockpile or for trade. Winters were long and hard and dulse could often be depended on as a reliable source of nutrition

Traditionally, it was boiled and eaten with butter or cod-liver oil. It's recently making a bit of a comeback as a tasty health food with some people likening its flavor to bacon!

Kelp/Brown Algae (Phaeophyta)

These brown algae are farmed in Iceland, especially in Breiðafjörður fjord in the Westfjords of Iceland. It is especially coveted for its role in skin care products and also in beauty products in general as it acts as an organic binding agent. It can also be dried and ground down for use in nutritional powders as well as animal feed.

Moss (Bryophtes)

It is not possible to write an overview of plants in Iceland and not mention moss. Famously thick woolly green moss covers much of Iceland's lava landscapes and there are over 600 species discovered so far. The endless fields of rolling green blankets leave no surprise that mosses account for more than half of all the vegetation cover in Iceland.

Mosses are multi-cellular flowerless plants that are capable of photosynthesizing and they grow in clumps or 'mats'. Scientists reckon that moss arrived in Iceland by reproductive spores and were most likely some of the first species to colonise the island.

Moss is very well suited to the Icelandic climate; they do well in wet conditions and during cold spells, they can 'hibernate' or stay dormant as they wait for better conditions.

In the challenging and barren landscapes, moss has flourished and Icelanders have a deep respect for this resilient group of species. Although they are robust in terms of being able to withstand the weather, they are delicate in that they take a long time to grow; only 1 cm per year in good conditions.

A lot of damage can be caused by walking over these carpets of moss and the Icelandic government has made noble efforts to educate those visiting Iceland to be mindful of where they roam so as not to cause unintentional damage underfoot.

One of the most infuriating purposeful cases of vandalism occurred on a hill near Nesjavellir in the South of Iceland whereby someone wrote ‘Send Nudes’ into the hillside by tearing up huge clumps of this precious vegetation.

Justin Bieber filmed shots for his ‘I’ll Show You’ music video on particularly delicate moss in the South of Iceland and received condemnation from the local park rangers. So if you're coming to Iceland, please don't step on the moss!

Moss balls/Marimo (Aegagropila linnaei)

Moss balls are extremely rare phenomena and are only found in a handful of lakes around the world. Here in Iceland, they are found in Lake Mývatn ('Fly Lake') in the Northern region of the country.

These unique algae formations are caused by very gentle wave action which round the plant matter into these rather adorable spherical organisms. In Iceland, they are called 'Kúluskítur' which translates to 'Dirtballs' and their survival might be threatened as their colonies have been rapidly declining in recent years.

In Japan, some enthusiasts treasure marimo as pets and here in Iceland, they have been a protected species since 2004.

Iceland Moss (Cetraria islandica)

Contrary to its name, Iceland moss is actually not a moss, it's a lichen. Algae and fungus form a mutually beneficial relationship to create lichen, a dynamic symbiotic. Along with moss, lichen is thought to be one of the first plant species to colonize the barren lava landscape and it can be considered an extremophile as it tends to thrive in extreme conditions.

Iceland moss has the appearance of a moss which is where it gets its name. It is called 'fjallagrös' which translates to 'mountain grass', and it has long been revered for its medicinal properties. It is used to treat loss of appetite, the common cold, irritation of the mouth or throat, dry coughs, indigestion, fevers, lung disease; the list goes on!

The main form of preparation is steeping the lichen in hot water to make a tea or it can be heated in milk for extra comfort. In times of hardship, Iceland moss was eaten and today, it has been used to flavor some liquors and schnapps.

Reindeer Moss (Cladonia rangiferina)

Once again, the name is misleading here as Reindeer moss is, in fact, a lichen. It is native to Iceland and has recently been discovered to secrete medicinally useful substances that could prove useful in the treatment of cancer.


Travel to Iceland: Lonely Planet

Hitting headlines, topping bucket lists, wooing nature lovers and dazzling increasing numbers of visitors – there seems no end to the talents of this breathtaking northern destination.


Hope you enjoyed today's in-depth look at Iceland.

Have an amazing day and see you next time :)

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