Landscapes, fauna and flora
Geologically Iceland is just a young “fledgling”, born less than 20 million years ago and still developing. The island is created by volcanic eruptions but is also located in the Arctic region both reflects in the fascinating combination of fire and ice. The landscapes are full of contrasts: colorful active volcanic areas, glimmering white ice shields of the glaciers, remote green valleys, steep mountains and fjords, black sandy deserts and roaring rivers with powerful waterfalls.
Iceland’s wildlife reflects the youth and isolation of the country.
There are relatively few insect species and only a handful of wild mammals. When the first settlers arrived in Iceland in the 9th century the only native mammal was the arctic fox. Later on other species were introduced by man. The marine mammals, on the other hand are many both in the number of species as well as individuals. Iceland’s vast and uninhabited coast still offers many inaccessible areas which offer sanctuary for the species of seals which bear their pups on the island. It has been a well known fact since the Middle Ages that the waters around Iceland also supported a large number of whales of different species.
Well over 300 species of birds have been recorded in Iceland even though only about 80 species are regular breeders, others are passing migrants or strays. Iceland’s vast coastline hosts millions of birds in spring, summer and autumn, and the ever bountiful ocean supports some of the most numerous seabird colonies in the world.
Birds are still discovering Iceland and new species are regularly observed. There are no reptiles, amphibians and no other dangerous animals!
Iceland’s flora is believed to comprise some 5,000-6,000 plant species. Fungi and algae account for around 2/3 of the total: around 600 moss species, 700 lichen species and 2,000 species of fungi have been found. One of the main differences between vegetation in Iceland and the neighbouring countries is how few higher plant species grow wild here. Iceland spent the last Ice Age under ice and glaciers, which erased most of the vegetation that had previously established itself on the island. Other major contributing factors to the lack of species diversity in Iceland is its isolation and the limited means by which species could spread to the country. Humans have brought a number of new species to Iceland over the years and some plants introduced as garden plants have gradually made their way into the wild.
Europe’s largest national park
Vatnajökull is the largest and most voluminous Icelandic icecap and the biggest in Europe. It is located in the south-east of the island, covering more than 8 percent of the country. Few if any regions in the world offer such a mixture of dynamic ice caps and outlet glaciers, geothermal energy and frequent sub glacial volcanic activity, coupled with outburst floods. This was the reason why in 2008, Iceland put the Vatnajökull area of 12.000 sqkm under protection as Europe’s largest national park. Visitor Centres are the park’s core service facilities and will be based at the national park’s main entrance points. Two centres, at Ásbyrgi and Skaftafell, already exist and four more will be added.
Sheep, horses and reindeer
The first settlers brought their domestic animals with them. The Icelandic horse and sheep belong to Icelandic landscapes like the waterfalls, mountains or glaciers. They are closely connected with the settlement of Iceland and the survival of the population. Til this day they are a characteristic part of Icelandic tradition and way of life. Because of its isolated position, and also because of strict rules not to breed with animals from abroad, the breeds haven’t changed since Vikings brought them to Iceland. Both sheep and horses spend the summer in the mountains, but in the autumn they are rounded up and brought down to the valleys for the winter.
In 1771, 13 reindeer were imported to Iceland originally for farming, but for Icelanders reindeer farming the Scandinavian style did not work out and the animals were let loose. Therefore, reindeer in Iceland were never domesticated. Nowadays there is a population of about 3.000 animals mostly in the eastern and southeastern parts of Iceland, keeping mostly to the higher grounds in the summer, but seek closer to the lowlands in the winter.