An Icelandic Deer Tale

How reindeer were introduced and adapted to the land of fire and ice.

Sofia Regalado

On the slopes of northeastern Iceland, right at the edge of the Arctic Circle, herds of wild reindeer are often seen roaming the snow covered hills that run along the country’s rugged coastline. Three hundred years ago however, the sight of these animals anywhere on Iceland would have been unimaginable. When the first Vikings arrived in Iceland, they found a boundless, uninhabited land, ripe for the taking. In their early days there, they exploited the wildlife as much as they could. They soon realised however, that diversity in Iceland was not as rich as it was in the countries they had left behind. The largest mammals on the island were arctic foxes and in very rare cases, polar bears that had managed to reach the shore on drifting ice caps from Greenland. Thus the only way to survive as they marched through their new alien and volatile home was to hunt every animal on sight from foxes to seabirds to seals.

– ICE FLOW OFF ICELAND © SOFIA REGALADO

Once all of Iceland had been discovered and explored, the Vikings began to settle down. All the arable land they managed to find was distributed between their crews and family members in order to build villages and farms. With land settlement came sheep and livestock, which was enough for Icelanders to survive. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that reindeer were first introduced to Iceland from Norway when a plague wiped out a significant portion of the country’s sheep. In 1771, the first thirteen reindeers arrived on the shores of Iceland and the idea was to domesticate these animals and teach the Icelandic people how to use them for farming purposes just like the Saamis did.

In 1771, the first thirteen reindeers arrived on the shores of Iceland

Not long after, three more herds were brought over for a total of thirty-five founding Icelandic reindeer. Unlike Greenland, Finland and Norway however, where reindeer husbandry was and still remains of large economic and cultural significance, this late generation of Icelanders had no prior experience or connection to these animals. It didn’t take much time for the people to realize that Scandinavian reindeer domestication was not for them and after expressing little interest in reindeer husbandry, most herds were simply released into the wild.

Left to fend off on their own, the reindeer began to eat lichen, which Icelanders used as food, and they also ruined their sheep pastures. Once the sheep had recovered, the annoyed Icelanders officially saw no use for the deer and they became a nuisance to be unrestrictedly hunted. By the late nineteenth century, reindeer herds had already disappeared from most places where they had been introduced and only one third of the population had survived.

– AN ICELANDIC WATERFALL © SOFIA REGALADO

Aware that the country’s wildlife is not particularly diverse, the sharp decline in reindeer spurred conservation efforts amongst locals and a new regulated hunting system was introduced. Under the new hunting quotas, the land where reindeer could still be found was separated into nine different hunting areas and the annual quota for each area was divided so that none of them were overly exploited. Additionally, culled females and their calves could not be hunted. Under this highly regulated management plan, reindeer slowly began to proliferate and today their numbers are low enough that the land is not overgrazed and pastures are protected but high enough that their population can still rebound and remain healthy after harsh winters. Since 1940 their population has remained stable at around four thousand reindeer, but they remain confined to the northeastern and eastern region of Iceland where they move around seasonally.

Currently, the reindeer population in Iceland faces three main threats despite its recent stability. Firstly, because they haven’t been exposed to many parasites, diseases or predation, they have maintained a low genetic diversity which makes them more vulnerable to ecological changes. Secondly, harsh winters and thick ice crust frequently lead to high mortality rates due to food scarcity. Although reindeer populations have been able to rebound in the warmer months despite high mortality in winter, climate change could affect their survival rates. Lastly, human caused disturbances and increased tourism have caused a slight increase in their mortality rate. Due to protected surroundings and lack of predators, the reindeer are not yet used to being afraid of vehicles, which have significantly increased over the past decades with development of national parks and more roads.

Although hunting is not commonly regarded as a form of conservation and often seen as insensitive to wildlife, ethical hunting can be a crucial part to maintaining a balanced ecosystem and a harmonious coexistence with an undeniably human populated world. Too many reindeer would mean a strained human-wildlife relationship due to their tendency to overgraze farmer’s pastures. Additionally, competition between reindeer would lead to food scarcity, and eventually, starvation. Controlling reindeer population through hunting means that they provide just enough nutrients to the soil, they eat vegetation in a sustainable amount that allows for regeneration, and they can live in a mutually beneficial relationship with humans and other species.

This approach has proven to be an effective tool in maintaining a sustainable, thriving relationship between the land, people and wildlife not only in Iceland but all over the world. Ideally, nature itself is the culler. In places like Scotland however, where wild carnivores have disappeared, uncontrolled herds of red deer threaten to counter land conservation efforts and restoration of the Caledonian forest. Their populations have burgeoned to the extent that farmland quality has been downgraded and tree saplings cannot flourish under the destructive trampling of herds.

In order to keep populations in check in places like Scotland where humans have already wiped out large carnivores, or in Iceland’s case where they never existed, controlled and selective hunting has become a vital strategy for sustainable wildlife management and for a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem.

Sofia Regalado was raised amongst tropical flowers and birds at the bottom of a volcano in El Salvador, only minutes away from black sand beaches and the Pacific Ocean. Growing up, she traveled far and wide with her family, photographing her way across continents. She was constantly exposed to the beauty of the natural world and always fascinated by the way everything in nature was perfectly interconnected. Impassioned by conservation issues and ecology, now at 21 years old Sofia has just returned from a year of studying diverse Australian landscapes and is finishing her Environmental Science degree in the United States.