Interview: Asdis Birgisdottir

Asdis Birgisdottir is a designer as well as a certified trekking guide. She has traveled Iceland on foot, by horseback and by super-jeep and has worked at the Þingvellir National Park as a supervisor with diving and as a ranger…

EarthTalk: What was Iceland like prior to human habitation and what was the state of the flora and fauna?

Birgisdottir: So Iceland, an isolated island up here in the North Atlantic Ocean, was actually quite well vegetated and wooded at the time the first settlers arrived here in 870. So in those days about 25 percent of the country was covered with the birch forest, that is a forest of maybe two to four meter high trees. Today it’s about 2 percent. In those days it was fully vegetated at about 65 to 70 percent. Today it’s less than 30 percent vegetated. So forests, grasslands, meadowland, and fields of moss were much more common in those days than today. That had to do with, it had been a warm climate and the vegetation hadn’t had any interruption. There were no animals to graze on it and the weather had been good so therefore it was very well vegetated.

E: Okay and the settlers brought animals and that caused a lot of destruction and erosion, right?

Birgisdottir: Yes. It is believed that in the 2 or 300 years after settlement, after 870, the landscape changed quite a bit. Now, the settlers, they brought with them domestic animals from Norway. We had cows—cattle, horses, goats, and sheep and pigs as well as other animals such as chickens and cats and dogs. And there was free-for-all grazing. So the sheep, the goats, the cattle, they grazed simply on what was at hand and they do love young birch plants, for instance. But what happened is that the vegetation, the environment changed quite a bit over these 2 to 300 years. And accompanying that was also climate change—it was getting colder. So here in Iceland where we have volcanic soil, that’s a soil which is very loose, if you don’t have the roots of the plants to bind that soil it erodes very easily both due to water and to wind. So the vegetation growing less and the wind and water had access to it so it hurried up the process of erosion. So that in only about 300 years the country became much as it is today, 2 percentforest and only about 30 percent vegetation; the rest is desert.

E: Great. And can you talk just a bit about animal life and how that’s changed?

Birgisdottir: Yes. The animals that are native to Iceland, that is to say the animals that were here prior to the settlers, was only the Arctic Fox, which had come to Iceland via an ice-bridge some time during the ice age. And then birds. We have many, many different kinds of birds, a lot of local birds as well as domestic birds. So this changed dramatically. You’ve got all of a sudden animals that graze. And also with the Vikings came two types of mice and eventually also rats. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reindeer were introduced to Iceland as a supplement to some of the farmers. And they are free grazing now in the east of Iceland. And then around the middle of the twentieth century, fox farming and mink farming was also tried and unfortunately some of those animals got into the Icelandic ecosystem. Especially the mink has been bad for the bird life.

E: Okay, so what’s the state of the Icelandic ecosystem with all of this erosion and all of these invasive species, what’s the state of the ecosystem now and how are the government and people of Iceland handling it?

Birgisdottir: Well, in the early twentieth century there was a huge awakening towards trying to stop the process erosion. So many had of course at that time been to other neighboring countries and saw what was happening there. And there was a huge thought in trying to stop the erosion. So there have been reforestation, revegetation programs running since the early twentieth century. And these involve, for instance, various types of thinking, various processes. So the easiest process, for instance, and actually one of the more successful ones, is simply to limit grazing. Then there has also been sowing of plants that bind the sand and the soil. This has especially been done along the ring road in the south part of Iceland where the sand was a huge problem with travel and cars. Now, the other is then simply planting trees. The reforestation program run in Iceland, which is a governmental program, it takes on plots of land and reforests them by planting trees. We use native species such as birch and willow. But there’s also thought to introducing species which have worked well in other northernly countries. That goes for Alaska, Canada, and also the north Nordic countries. So we have actually introduced here into the Icelandic forest species such as spruce trees and pine trees and larch trees and different kinds of leaf trees as well, poplar and asp and many others. These have worked quite well. Plants that have been introduced to bind the soil are for instance the Alaskan Lupine, that is a species which also spreads very easily and it also provides the soil with nitrogen, which is of course important as a nutrient for other plants to come in. So very many areas around Iceland are covered with Alaskan Lupine. This is an invasive species also because, since our soil is very, missing in many nutrients, the lupine has been a little bit of a controversy about because it doesn’t always leave for other plants to come in. It actually does spread a bit into the Icelandic natural fauna. And being a high plant it does also tunnel out native species by not providing sunlight for them. So there’s a lot of controversy about this. There’s a general consensus today that invasive species of trees, we don’t have the natural conifers here. So spruce and pine do look quite foreign in our landscape. So there has been more emphasis in the later years to use Icelandic species to revegetate and reforest.

E: What’s the process of reforestation in your country?

Birgisdottir: Ya that’s interesting, that is a huge project because we have so much land. This is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. So seeing pictures of Iceland you see it’s very barren. Well, spots are chosen for the purpose, the government has acres and acres of land that they work on, but this is also very much a public issue. So almost everyone is involved in reforesting Iceland in some way. This starts out quite early. We start working at the age of 14, holding down summer jobs, which are provided by the municipality. Many of these jobs involve environmental things such as planting trees. Now, you might continue when you get older. Maybe you’re owning a plot of land where you might have a summer house. There, you will plant trees. If you work for a large company, the company will probably have fostered some acres of land, and that would be part of an outing for the people working there to take a day. The company will buy some lunch and then you will do some planting of trees for some hours and enjoy being together. So this is both a governmental project, it could be a company project, and then this could also be simply an individual project that you want to partake in.

E: Thanks very much.

Birgisdottir: You’re welcome.