This picture was taken in the great planted forest Hallormsstađaskógur
near Egilstađir, stretching for an estimated 18 km along the east shore of Lagarfljót, the lake featuring the monster serpent Lagarfljótsormurinn (and of course a passenger cruise ship with the same name). Notice the dandelion that needs no help.
When the first settlers came to Iceland more than a thousand years ago, an estimated 25–40% of the island was forested, essentially by Downy Birch (Betula pubescens). But the people needed building materials, firewood, and charcoal for smelting iron and making tools. Furthermore they needed pastures, and birch twigs was also used for fodder, therefore more forest was cut down than nature was able to replace on this thin volcanic soil and in this somewhat cold ocean climate. After deforestation the topsoil tends to be washed and blown away, preventing the growth of new trees. Also grazing by sheep and horses prevents new growth; particularly the horses, grazing the whole year, tend to pull up also the roots.
For the last hundred years planting of new forest has been going on. The planted species are the native Birch, Rowan and Aspen, but also foreign species like Siberian Larch (Larix siberica), Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) and various species of Alder (Alnus). Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), with fragrant buds and rather aggressive roots, have been planted in parks since 1950, later also in 'forests'; now it constitutes 5 percent of all planted trees, and one sample holds the present height record, 22 meters! (this tree's record in its homeland Alaska is 31 meters).
Soil not covered by plants leads to various trouble, like sandstorms and dirty shoes. From 1945 on the Alaskan Lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis) was introduced on a large scale. Lupine has symbiotic root bacteria that fixes nitrogen from the air so no nitrogen fertilizer is needed, and it yields lots of seeds. Therefore it can grow and spread out on infertile soils. It even fertilizes the soil and should make it possible for other species to establish, but they don't grow well in the shadows of the lupine. The lupine isn't easily removed; the roots survive and there is an enormous supply of dormant seeds. With less other choices, sheep may feed on lupine, but the don't get fat on it, and if they eat too much they may suffer temporal paralyzes. This picture is taken at the Geysir site
and the red soil color is due to iron compounds.
Lupines have spread over a large part of the lowlands and this is said to have reduced the sandstorm problem in southeast Iceland. But letting loose the wolf herb is rather controversial (we may only guess the reason for deriving the name from the Latin word Lupus, meaning wolf). Purists advocates that the native vegetation should do the job, or since it cannot, leave the land as it was. This picture is taken in Vík í Mýrdal
Elsewhere in Northern Europe Mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) grows in the highlands, but here it grows (also) in the lowlands. It's tough and can grow on any calciferous soil – as long as there is little competition – which is indeed the case here. Icelandic 'holtasóley' is the elected (2004) national flower (Ţjóđarblóm) of Iceland.
Moss Campion (Silene acaulis) is another spring flower on barren Icelandic soil. Indeed, it usually grows on barren soil, with some preference for the calciferous type – although in other subarctic countries it's found mainly in the highlands. In the old days Icelandic 'lambagras' (guess the literal meaning) was eaten during hard times.
The Icelandic horned sheep breed is derived from the Northern European short-tailed sheep, brought to Iceland by the early settlers. During the summer they are out grazing on whatever they can find, but they are rounded up in the autumn.
Although sheep provide wool also for handicraft, this is somewhat off topic. The picture is from a shop in Reykjavík showing a well-known pattern (for a Norwegian), the Selbu Rose
. Curiously, handicraft shops in Iceland also use the Selbu Rose
logo, but that's okay, it's not a registered trade mark.
Icelandic horses were brought to Iceland by the early settlers and further breeding and sometimes merciless natural selection has resulted in todays breed. They do not look a uniform breed, and indeed they have been bred for different purposes: Work, riding and meat. Riding horses are selected specially by the ability to perform the five different gaits. They have become popular abroad and are exported, so there are more of these horses abroad than in Iceland. But import or reimport to Iceland is prohibited. Horses on this isolated island have not acquired immunity to common horse diseases and an outbreak might have a disastrous result.
Horses at the broad Hérađsvötn river delta south of Sauđárkrókur, Skagafjörđur.
Today most horses are used for riding; for leisure, competition, and rounding up sheep in difficult terrains. Horse meat is also eaten in Iceland and some of it is exported. Some farmers even breed horses only for slaughter, but we might not see this advertised.
This is the common eider (Somateria mollissima) that breeds in the northern parts of the globe. It's quite large, feeds on mussels and other crisp seafood, and may be best known because of the eider down also harvested many places in Iceland.
Greylag geese (Anser anser) breed also in Iceland, even at ponds in Reykjavík. They migrate to Ireland in the autumn.
The Great Skua (Stercorarius skua) comes from all over the North Atlantic to Iceland's Breiđamerkursandur to breed. This is where Vatnajökull is closes to the coast and where you find Jökulsárlón
. They are rather aggressive birds, particularly towards intruders at their nests, but also towards other birds that they steal food from. And they're big, maybe 60 cm beak to tail.
Mývatn is an unusual lake. It's fertile, shallow (maximum depth 4.5 m, average 2.5 m), and even hides warm springs that keep some of it free of ice all year. The name Mývatn means 'midge lake' and it's given for a very good reason. Therefore the trout in the lake is well fed, and it's a paradise for insect and larva eating birds. Also vegetarian birds thrive here, and the wet area beyond the northeast shore is the nesting ground for a great many species and individuals. This is also where a lot of those telescope carrying guys goes. Shown here is the small charming Red-neck Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) stirring up goodies on the (iron-rich) bottom. It stays here during the breeding season, but migrate out to warmer regions in the Atlantic during winter.
To us those insects might be somewhat annoying. One of them ('bitmý') sucks blood, causing some swelling and itching, another one – oh, not one, zillions – crawl into your hair, eyes, ears – but they don't bite. Don't worry though, the souvenir shop sells nice mosquito head nets. Else you'll have no problem if you stay in the wind. Then you can walk on a path at the lake and enjoy the sight of low clouds of agitated insects ('rykmý' i.e. 'dust midge') almost hiding your shoes (predominately at the beginning of June and August). We stayed two nights at Mývatn and washed the care twice.
More about Mývatn: We saw them only in an aquarium, the Marimo balls, or 'kúluskítur' (i.e. 'ball shits') in Icelandic. They are dark green, somewhat fluffy looking balls of the algae Aegagropila linnaei (renamed 2002 from Cladophora aegagropila), in Mývatn growing to a maximum size of a grapefruit. They appear in colonies, but are free floating and are rolled by waves on the bottom (Mývatn is shallow). Although this algae is found in many lakes, colonies of this large spherical form are found only in two lakes: Mývatn in Iceland and Lake Akan in Japan.
The Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) come to Iceland to breed and are then seen all over the country. Late in autumn most of them migrate to the British Isles, but a few remain here in Mývatn where geothermal water prevents parts of the lake from freezing over. For these large birds it's often a close race getting the offspring airborne before ice prevents their access to food.
Tourists on the Geysir site
. Did you ever observe strange behavior of some tourists on major attraction sites? (Another example of this behavior on this website: The girl with the red coat
on the precipice.)