The Curious History of Reindeer in Iceland

At the beginning of February I took a trip to Iceland in winter conditions and learned about the fascinating history of reindeer on this island country in the North Atlantic. Although I did not spot any reindeer, the history of the animals their interesting story is worth sharing nonetheless.

Icelandic reindeer

Similarly to the reindeer here in the Cairngorms, reindeer in Iceland were introduced from another part of the world. However, unlike Scotland reindeer in Iceland were never native to the country at all. All land mammals in Iceland aside from the arctic fox were introduced to the country over the course of its natural history. Reindeer are the largest amongst all of them. In the late 1700s reindeer from Norway were brought to Iceland because the king believed that the reindeer would be a perfect match to the cold, harsh conditions. Being that farming was the most common trade in Iceland, it was assumed that all of the farmers would then take up reindeer herding.

The reindeer were brought to four different regions in Iceland: the South, Southwest, North, and East. And right from the start this venture was a complete failure. Within the first few years the majority of reindeer in Iceland had died off. The harsh volcanic landscape proved difficult to maintain the food resources necessary for the animals to survive. To this day, the only surviving group is in East Iceland where the habitat is more suitable to the needs of the reindeer and food resources are abundant.

Hen’s photo of reindeer in East Iceland, back in 2007.
The stark volcanic landscape of Northern Iceland

Those reindeer continued to thrive though and herding them never took off at all leaving an estimated 6-7000 wild reindeer roaming about the Eastern Fjords. The Ministry of Agriculture found that ‘reindeer farming’ would not be viable given the amount of resources compared to the large population of wild reindeer. Ultimately the decision was made to not begin any sort of commercial reindeer farming.

Our Cairngorm reindeer free ranging on a beautiful February day.

Just like in Scotland, the reindeer in Iceland do not have any natural predators to control their population. So each year the government issues 1200-1300 permits to hunt reindeer as a means to prevent overpopulation which would collapse an already fragile ecosystem. Where as here in the Cairngorms, the numbers of reindeer are much smaller which allow us to control the population through selective breeding each Autumn. As a result of this, when the snow begins to melt in the spring we are looking forward to another wonderful calving season, just around the corner.

Bobby

One Reply to “The Curious History of Reindeer in Iceland”

  1. Thanks Bobby a very interesting account as we were in Iceland in October 2019 and after much searching did not find any reindeer. We were told they were in the south-east, then told the north and generally were not popular as there were too many and they were a nuisance. Being an adopter and volunteer at CRC I was shocked at the mere thought of a reindeer being a nuisance, well apart from a few cheeky acts of ‘affection’ from one or two, Celt and Svalbard particularly when I have a bag of hand-feed! Iceland is a very interesting landscape, beautiful but rugged and well worth a visit, whether you find reindeer or not!

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