In spite of being a stark, volcanic land with very little vegetation, Iceland has evolved to become home to a diverse array of animal species. Discover what animals give Iceland its distinct national character. Read ahead to learn all about the animals of Iceland.
Before humans began to settle Iceland in the 9th Century, it had but one land mammal, the Arctic fox. The rest of the creatures were either birds or marine animals. A millennium later, however, a wealth of life has adapted to the harsh climate.
From its unique domestic livestock, that quite literally kept Icelanders alive during their most trying times, to the creatures that have escaped captivity and formed a wild population, the animals of Iceland are thriving and are part of the draw that pulls guests here from around the world.
The vast majority of animals you will see as you travel around Iceland are domestic. This, after all, is a nation that relies heavily on agriculture.
While farm animals may not seem to be the most fascinating creatures, the way they have adapted to the country's climate, and their roles throughout Icelandic history, have been essential for human survival.
Sheep were the lifeblood of Iceland for centuries. Brought over with the first settlers from Norway, it was only because of their wool and meat that anyone was able to survive Iceland’s harsh conditions.
One only needs to read Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness’s novel Independent People to understand the reverence Icelanders have had for these creatures; they are the central conversation topic between most of the countryfolk.
The Icelandic sheep is held very dear to farmers, brilliantly captured in the award winning Icelandic film Rams which tells the tale of two sheep farming brothers that don't speak to one another.
While not being the most interesting animals in Iceland, their role in the country’s history has been incredibly significant; whenever the nation has gone through terrible struggles or a surge in growth, it has always come back to sheep.
Take, for example, the 1783 eruption of the volcano Laki, the most fatal in the country’s history. Up to 25 percent of the population died, largely because of famine, caused by the fact that 80 percent of the nation’s sheep were lost to the poisons of the ash.
On the other hand, however, Iceland’s great period of growth and industrialisation during World War One was due to these creatures. With European countryside ravaged by war, Icelandic wool was in high demand. The wealth that came from sheep products during these four years helped propel Iceland into the modern nation it is today.
There are approximately 800,000 sheep in Iceland, well over two times more than there are people. Their wool is used to create unique handicrafts, such as the Icelandic sweater, otherwise called a ‘Lopapeysa’, and their meat is featured in almost all traditional dishes that do not have fish. Perhaps the nation’s most classic dish is the lamb soup, which is world-renowned.
The reason that the Icelandic lamb tastes as delicious as it does is rather morbid; as they are free-roaming throughout summer, the sheep graze on Icelandic thyme, unwittingly flavouring their meat while they are still alive.
Icelandic sheepdogs, like the livestock of Iceland, developed from their Nordic cousins when brought to Iceland by early settlers hundreds of years ago. Since then, they have been essential in aiding farmers, herding and guarding property.
Like most animals brought to Iceland, they are little smaller than their relatives abroad. They are also much more susceptible to disease due to Iceland’s isolation, to the extent that they faced extinction from the late 19th Century. After a ban of other dog breeds entering the country, and later pet vaccines and modern veterinary care which made this first step redundant, the population has recovered.
Other than their size, Icelandic sheepdogs share the same fluffy coat and curled tails as other sheepdog breeds. They also share the same behaviour; they are highly energetic, resilient, agile and friendly, and thus make great companions for those with the time or space to let them exercise. The vast majority of individuals live out in the country, where they can utilise their high energy and natural herding instincts to help their owners.
Icelandic horses are not at all like other breeds. On first sight, it appears that they only differ in terms of height, as they rarely reach 150 cm tall; after a few minutes in their company, however, it becomes apparent that they are more sociable, curious and intelligent than other horses. These character traits have made them a central part of Icelandic identity.
The reason for their unique charm is due to their descendants. When Iceland was first settled, only one horse could fit within a longboat; and since many of the early settlers were wealthy chieftains, they would only take the very best of their stock with them. That meant that, as the settlement period ended, Iceland had a healthy population of the sturdiest, strongest and smartest horses from Norway.
Initially, the horses were almost solely used for transportation, and sometimes battles between clans. Over the centuries, however, they were used more and more for farm work and became central to the nation's survival.
Those in possession of a horse were able to travel from the country to the towns and trading posts, allowing them to develop more wealth and opportunity; those without one were left isolated and more impoverished as a result.
As equestrian sports became more and more popular, Icelandic horses became noted for something else; while most breeds around the world have three or four ‘gaits’ (style of walking, such as trot and gallop), Icelandic horses had five. Their unique gait, the 'skeið,' is a style which developed due to Iceland’s rough terrain and is noted for being comfortable with the potential for rapid acceleration.
Because of their character, appearance, and unique qualities, Icelandic horses have become very popular in dressage. More Icelandic horses now live outside the country than in it; 100,000 live abroad, compared to 80,000 domestically.
Those that leave Iceland, are never able to return, and no other breeds are allowed on the island; this is because the isolated native breed is susceptible to diseases and a foreign infection could cripple the whole population.
Riding an Icelandic horse is as near to an essential Icelandic experience as there is. There are a wealth of horse-riding tours across Iceland, and because horse-rides only usually last a few hours, it is possible to combine this excursion with many others, such as snorkelling, caving, or sightseeing around the Golden Circle.
A less commonly seen farm animal in Iceland is the cow, but the country does have a unique breed. Icelandic cattle, like the horses, were brought over with the earliest settlers from Norway, and have since developed to have their own special traits; two that they share is that they are smaller than their European counterparts and very susceptible to foreign diseases.
Unfortunately, however, while the other qualities of Icelandic horses compare favourably to similar breeds around the world, those of the Icelandic cattle do not.
The Agricultural University of Iceland recently released a study saying that Swedish cows would produce more milk at a lower cost than the native breed and suggested that making the switch would benefit the economy. Although the Icelandic population is not as connected to their cows as they are to their horses, there was still resistance to this idea.
Icelandic cattle have, for a millennium, produced important dairy products, many of which have become an integral part of the nation’s culture. One particularly notable example is Skyr, a thick yoghurt. For this reason, many consider them too important to Icelandic heritage to desert. They are also favoured for their diverse colourations and patterns.
Iceland only had one native land animal when the Norse first arrived here, and yet today, there are multiple species to be found across the country. None arrived naturally, either being taken over by humans or sneaking across on boats, but all have established themselves successfully, for better or worse.
Reindeer were brought over to Iceland much later than the domestic animals, in the 18th Century. Initially, they were to be farmed as they were across Scandinavia, but Icelanders never took to the practice. The population, therefore, became wild.
About 3000 reindeer now live in the country, all concentrated in the east. They are most commonly found around Snæfell, on the higher ground throughout summer and in the warmer lowlands throughout winter, but have been seen as far south as Jökulsárlón and as far north as Vopnafjörður. Those driving through or staying in the East Fjords have a reasonable chance of spotting a herd.
While the reindeer are well-loved across Iceland, their population is controlled seasonally, as it is a concern that they may take food away from the grazing lands used by the free-roaming sheep. This would cause significant damage to the economy in the case of a brutal winter or large-scale volcanic eruption, both of which are not at all uncommon in Iceland.
Whenever humans, throughout history, discovered and settled new lands, they brought rodents with them, and Iceland is no exception. Brown rats, as well as wood and house mice, came over either with early settlers or later with trading ships, and formed populations; the rats primarily live in populated areas, while the mice have spread all across the country.
Iceland also has a population of wild mink, which was established more recently. They were imported for use in fur farms throughout the early 20th Century, but escaped and became wild. Now, they are often spotted fishing in the waterways around Reykjavík, hunting for bird-eggs along nesting cliffs, and have become the bane of chicken farmers across the country.
Rabbits are another invasive species, and came about even more recently than the mink; the majority of them are descendants from pets that were released in 2010. Now, they have spread across the country and wreak havoc wherever they go.
In Öskjuhlíð, a forested area in Reykjavík, they gnaw through tree roots and fences, damaging nature and human constructions alike; in farms across the country they dig into and ruin hay meant for other animals and their habit of running into the roads have caused several crashes. Still, however, they make for a charming sight in the capital’s green spaces.
Picture from Akureyri Whale Watching
As has been noted, Iceland has just one indigenous land mammal. That is not to say, however, that the native wildlife lacks diversity. Iceland has a wealth of fauna in its seas and skies, which draw visitors from the world over; it is one of the best places to visit in terms of bird watching, seal watching, and whale watching.
Before human settlement, Arctic Foxes were the only land mammal that lived in Iceland. During the last ice-age, they walked over the sea-ice to the island, only to be stranded there when it melted over 10,000 years ago. Incredibly adaptable creatures, they managed to sustain themselves feeding on eggs, birds, invertebrates and berries.
When humans arrived, the foxes were hunted extensively for fur and to protect livestock; with the development of fur-farms, the former reason no longer applies, but farmers still maintain that population control is still essential for their economy. While hunting obviously disrupted the fox populations, human arrival meant a wealth of new food in the form of rodents, food waste and lambs, allowing the species to survive.
The Arctic Foxes in Iceland come in two colour morphs, white and blue. White foxes change their coat completely between seasons, going from snow-white in winter to a brown and white in summer. Blue foxes do not change coat, but their fur is bleached throughout summer so that they are much lighter by the arrival of winter. Both variants thicken their fur throughout the colder months, however, and lose it when the weather warms.
Arctic Foxes can be found all across Iceland, but are especially concentrated in the Westfjords, most notably the remote Hornstrandir Reserve in the very north where they are protected. In this region, they are noted for being quite fearless of humans, so wildlife photographers often come here for some very intimate shots.
Since 2007, there has been an Arctic Fox Centre in the village of Súðavík. This has led the way in researching these animals, educating people about their threats, and promoting eco-tourism.
Iceland’s fertile sub-Arctic waters, fed by the Gulf Stream, are home to over twenty different species of whale and dolphin. It is one of the best places in the world for whale-watching, especially during the summer when the great whales migrate here to feed. This industry is changing the way that Icelanders view the creatures of the deep, as the relationship between the two is historical and complex.
As seafarers, many accounts from early Icelanders depict whales as terrible leviathans; an especially notable story tells of a warlock who attempted to take over Iceland by transforming into one, before being rebuffed on all four shores by a different guardian spirit.
Picture from Húsavík Traditional Whale Watching
While feared when in their natural environment, however, whales were hugely appreciated when they washed up on the beaches. The meat from a single stranding could feed communities, and their oil could supply candles and lanterns to help sustain people through the dark winters. The word for ‘windfall’ in Icelandic is the same as the word for a beached whale.
Iceland began commercial whaling in the late 19th Century, later than most other nations, and struggled with the pressures against it for many decades. It has been outlawed then reinstated several times, due to issues with stock populations, international pressure, and local opinions.
While whaling continues to this day, it is a constant debate within the country as to whether or not it has a future. What certainly does have a future, however, is whale-watching. Tours are leaving from ports all across the country, with incredibly high success rates, and a diverse wealth of life to see.
Seals have used Iceland’s shores as a place to haul out, breed and shed for millenniums. It’s cold fertile waters, and long stretches of rocky, uninhabited coast, allowed large colonies to evolve before humans ever set foot here.
Their numbers and lack of fear of humans were a blessing when settlers did arrive; seals provided the people with essential resources, from food to clothing to oil, which helped make the stark new country habitable. Their populations were dwindling heavily by the 20th Century when more and more were taken for fashion rather than necessity, but their numbers today are quite stable.
Seals are still hunted occasionally in Iceland, due to the damage they cause to fishing equipment and how they pass ringworm to fish stocks; some are still hunted on private property for fur. These practices have come under increasing question as the seal-watching industry has boomed, especially since the opening of the Icelandic Seal Centre in Hvammstangi, which is dedicated to researching these animals and raising awareness about their threats.
Two species of seal live on Iceland’s shores permanently: the harbour seal and the grey seal. They live all around Iceland, but the best places to reliably spot them are the Westfjords, the Vatnsnes Peninsular, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
They are not the only species to frequent Icelandic waters, however. Harp, bearded, hooded and ringed seals are all occasional visitors, and even walruses are sometimes seen in the Westfjords. Walruses used to have a large population here but were hunted to extinction in the 17th Century.
- Learn more about seals and seal watching in Iceland.
Puffins are considered to be rare and elusive birds in the majority of the world, but in Iceland, there is a wealth of them. Their arrival in April and May mark the beginning of summer, and they can be easily seen up close in many parts of the country until August.
Approximately sixty percent of the world’s population of North Atlantic puffins breed in Iceland’s cliffs; there are millions of nesting pairs. These birds do not like to roost anywhere where there are not others of their species, so wherever you can find one, you are likely to find hundreds more.
Puffins can be appreciated by boat and by land. From Reykjavík’s Old Harbour, it is easy to jump on an hour-long tour to one of two islands, Lundy and Akurey, just out in the bay, where they nest in the thousands. These vessels are small enough to get close to the rocky shores, and many tours include binoculars so you can see them even more clearly. Many whale-watch tours include a detour to these islands.
Those travelling to the Westfjords in summer need not even board a boat to see puffins. The Látrabjarg cliffs, which are up to 440 metres high and stretch for 14 kilometres, are impressive in their own right, but the wealth of birdlife make them awe-inspiring.
By walking along the edge of this cliff, it is possible to get within arm’s length of the nesting puffins. They have no fear of people, and will only fly off if someone is trying to touch them. At such proximity, the details of their painted beaks and adorable expression are on clear display.
These are not the only places puffins nest, however. They can be found in huge populations around the Westman Islands, on the Dýholaey rock arch, in the East Fjords, and on Grímsey Island in the North.
As is well-documented, Icelanders have a quite a penchant for unusual meats. It is, therefore, the only country in the world where you can spend the day watching puffins, then enjoy one for dinner.
Puffins are by far the most popular bird in Iceland, but this little island has an enormous wealth of avian life. The cliffs of Látrabjarg in the Westfjords and Krýsuvíkurbjarg on the Reykjanes Peninsula are home to thousands of individuals and many different species, such as guillemots, fulmar, gulls, auks, sandpipers and peewits.
Arctic terns and sea eagles can also be found around the coasts. In freshwater, there is an equal amount of diversity; Lake Mývatn alone is home to fourteen different species of duck, as well as geese and whooper swans. Outside of aquatic environments, there are even more; gyrfalcons, golden plovers, snipes and ptarmigans all call the island home.
No discussion about the birds of Iceland, however, would be complete without a mention of the raven. While this is one of the world’s most widely spread animals, they are very common here and revered for their intelligence and importance to Icelandic folklore and pagan beliefs.
- Learn more about The Birds of Iceland
Contrary to the belief of many, polar bears do not have a permanent population in Iceland. Very occasionally, however, they come from Greenland on ice-floes, and land in the Westfjords.
Unfortunately, when they arrive they are likely to be starving, and as one of the few animals known to actively hunt humans, pose a significant threat to those living in the region. Considering this and the cost of capturing, bringing to health, and returning the polar bear to its home (estimated at reaching 75,000 Euros), they are killed upon arrival.
The last polar bear seen in Iceland was in July of 2016. As the climate changes and more ice melts, however, it is expected that more and more will start to arrive.
In just over a millennium, Iceland has come a long way from being a stark island with just one creature walking its land.
Now, if you travel through any part of the country, you will at least see a huge wealth of domestic life thriving in the harsh climate. If you know where to look, you are likely to find much more. From the great whales to the runaway rodents, Iceland’s animals and wildlife are ever shaping this nation’s character.