Iceland Plants & Animals

Only about one-quarter of the total area of Iceland has a continuous plant cover, due mainly to the unfavourable climate, volcanic activity, glacier movements and overgrazing. About 470 species of native vascular plants are to be found, exceptionally low figure, and about half are thought to be glacial survivors from the Ice Age. The most common vegetation consists of various low-growing shrubs, especially heather, crowberry, bog whortleberry, bearberry, willow and dwarf birch.

The vegtation has greatly deteriorated during eleven centuries of human habitation, accompanied by extensive soil erosion. Once widespread birch wood were destroyed by ruthless cutting and grazing, so that only stray remnants of them still survive.

Since early 20th century, steps have been taken to halt erosion by afforestation, reseeding and fencing off land to keep out sheep. And in recent years large-scale official and private volunteer afforestation schemes have been undertaken. The largest trees are now found in the birch woods Hallormstaðarskógur in the east and Vaglaskógur in the north.

In general the vegetation in Iceland is subartic in charater and distinguished by an abundance of grasses, sedges and related species. Grasslands, bogs and marshes are extensive, and there is much moorland and heatland. But all over the country, also in the inhabited lowlands, there are large areas of bare rock, stony deserts, sandy wastelands and lava fields.


In Iceland there are only seven species of wild mammals: foxes, reindeer, mink, brown rats, black rats, field mice and house mice. Reindeer were introduced from Norway in the 18th century and now live wild in herds in the northeast of the country. The Icelandic horse is special because of how small yet imposing it is. It is also special because of its five gaits. There is an indigenous breed of sheep dog, with much hair and renowned for its good nature. The sheep are a hardy breed that grazes freely in mountain pastures during the summer. The cattle are rather small, with a wide range of colours. About twelve hundred types of insects are found in Iceland, but are seldom seen. About the only ones that might bother humans are bees, hornets and mosquitos, but they are relatively rare. There are no reptiles.

Sea mammals are common off the shores of Iceland. There are thousands Grey Seals, 40 - 50 thousand Common or Harbour Seals and at least 15 species of whale. Life on the seabed off Iceland is diverse and colorful. The sea is usually crystal clear. Probably the most unusual life forms are found at sites where submarine geothermal activity occurs. Hot water and various substances spout from cracks in the rock or from tube-like formations, and feed organisms that can survive in temperatures of up to 130°C and do not need oxygen.


Iceland is paradise for bird-watchers. About 78 species nest in the country, of which the Eider Duck, the Swan, the rare Falcon, the Ptarmigan, Arctic Tern, Snow Bunting and the imposing Gannet are typical birds of Iceland. But there are few that can match the Puffin in terms of appeal or population size: 5 - 6 million birds, which is larger than that of any other Icelandic species. The rarest species is the Osprey, whose population numbers only about 100. At the coast there are great colonies of sea birds: Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Cormorants, Gannets, gulls and Puffins in their thousands. Inland there are fifteen species of duck, two species of geese and many waders, such as the Redshank and Whimbrel. The Plover is one of Iceland's most common birds. The Red-throated and Great Northern Divers are found on the lakes. Iceland is the only country in Europe where the Harlequin Duck and Barrow's Goldeneye are found. Other species include the Horned Grebe, the Red-Necked Phalarope, Grey Phalarope and the ill-tempered Great Skua.

The Icelandic Dog

The Icelandic Sheepdog is Iceland's only native dog, and one of the world's oldest dogbreeds. It's forefathers were brought over to Iceland (mostly from Norway, Finnmark, Norbotten and other parts of northern Scandinavia) by the original viking settlers who first arrived in the year 874 A.D. They soon became common all over the country, evolving seperately from other breeds of dogs on this isolated island (in a similar way as the Icelandic horse, cow and sheep). The Icelandic Dog is a rare breed, with only about 3.300 registered dogs around the world.

The Icelandic horse
The Icelandic horse is a special breed of horse that has been exported worldwide and is bred in many countries. It is small but powerfully built with a long, thick tail. It can tolerate all kinds of weather. An Icelandic horse can stay outdoors even in severe winters. Hair growth varies with the season, the coat being long and shaggy in winter but short in summer. The Icelandic horse is tough, strong, and equipped with an instinctive ability to find its bearings and negotiate the often rugged terrain of Iceland. A distinctive feature of the Icelandic horse is that it has five different kinds of gaits, when most breeds of horses have just three. Depending on the nature of the terrain, it can walk, trot, canter, pace and tölt, a typically Icelandic gait which is extremely comfortable for the rider; the footfalls are those for walking, but the speed is roughly the same as trotting. Icelander consider tölt to be the major pride of the Icelandic horse. It is the only breed that can do all five gaits.
Last edited Jan 30, 11 5:15 PM. Contributors: Aron H.
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