Vegetation & Wildlife
Wildlife in Iceland is rich with birdlife and marine mammals. It is a popular country with ornithologists who visit to see dozens of species of bird during the summer nesting season. It is also home to many seabirds, among them puffins, skuas, and kittiwakes who nest on sea cliffs around the country.
When the country was settled in the ninth century, the only native land mammal was the Arctic Fox, which came to the island at the end of the ice age, walking over the frozen sea. However, most of the domestic breeds that the settlers brought with them have remained unchanged in isolation. The Icelandic horse is perhaps the most well-known example of this. Other domestic animals include the Icelandic sheep, cattle, chicken, goat, and the Icelandic sheepdog.
Wild mammals in Iceland include the Arctic Fox, mink, mice, rats, rabbits and reindeer. Polar bears occasionally visit the island, traveling on icebergs from Greenland. Icelandic waters are rich with marine life, including seals, whales, dolphins and over three hundred species of fish.
When Iceland was first settled, it was extensively forested. According to the late 12th century Íslendingabók, Ari the Wise described Iceland as "forested from mountain to sea shore". The arrival of humans disturbed the delicate ecosystem. Forest exploitation, overgrazing, volcanic activity, glacier movement and unfavorable climate all contributed to soil erosion. Only about a quarter of Iceland has a continuous plant cover today.
About 470 species of native vascular plants are found in Iceland, and about half are thought to be glacial survivors from the Ice Age. There are large areas of bare rock, stony deserts, sandy wastelands and lava fields all over the country.The vegetation is mostly 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. Other forms of vegetation include low-growing shrubs, especially heather, crowberry, bog whortleberry, bearberry, willow and dwarf birch. Only a few small birch stands now exist in isolated reserves.
Lately, 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. The planting of new forests has increased the number of trees, but does not compare to the original forests. Some of the planted forests include new foreign species.