Complete Guide to Animals in Iceland
With its fierce weather conditions and sparse tree coverage Iceland can be quite an inhospitable place for wildlife. You have to be pretty tough and adaptable to make your home here. In fact the only native land mammals in Iceland are Arctic Foxes. Aside from these shy creatures there is native birdlife and of course plenty of activity going on in the ocean.
However the Arctic Fox is not alone on the land these days. Since the arrival of humans in the 9th Century there has been a steady flow of domestic animals in Iceland. The foxes have also been joined by rodent stowaways and by some commercial animal introductions gone awry. The wildlife in Iceland is a little more diverse since we humans got involved.
The Native Wildlife of Iceland
As mentioned the Arctic Fox is the only land mammal native to Iceland. Many people hold out hopes of spotting polar bears here but this is almost unheard of. There have been rare cases of them drifting over on icebergs from Greenland. But this is extremely rare.
The Arctic Foxes are pretty hard to spot too. They are shy creatures and they live way out in the wilds of North Iceland. Their ancestors arrived here during the last ice age wandering over and then becoming stranded when the ice melted. They survived on a diet of berries and insects and had the whole place to themselves until the first humans ventured over.
Species of Bird in Iceland
Iceland gets quite busy with birdlife during the summer months. Seafaring puffins come here to nest on the steep coastal cliffs. They set up in noisy colonies and are fun to watch. These characters aren’t too wary of humans so you can see them from the land. It is more usual to go puffin spotting from the ocean though and boat trips run regularly in summer.
The inland hotspot for birdlife is around Lake Mývatn in North Iceland. If you are driving the Iceland Ring Road or touring the Diamond Circle then you will stop here. It has a great campsite and makes a good place to base for a few days. The lake and surrounding wetlands host all manner of birds. You will see several types of duck, geese and falcon. You could also spot sandpipers and guillemots as they pass through.
Sea life around Iceland
The icy North Atlantic Ocean surrounds Iceland and its sheltered bays welcome an abundance of sea life. Whale watching boat trips head out from the island to spot Minke and Sperm whales. The huge Blue Whale is also spotted regularly in the open water here. These true giants of the ocean can reach thirty metres in length. The capital for whale watching tours in Iceland is the town of Húsavík in northeast Iceland. You are pretty much guaranteed to spot both whales and white beaked dolphin in the bay here.
Many species of fish feed in the waters around Iceland. And shoals of herring will often tempt Orca or killer whales really close to the shore. You can sometimes spot them off the coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in west Iceland. The grey seal also frequents the beaches of the peninsular.
Domestic Animals in Iceland
The biggest population of any animal in Iceland (including humans) is the sheep. Icelandic sheep roam the landscape unhindered by fencing. So if you are driving in Iceland you should watch out for them straying onto the road. If you are hiring a camper van then do keep your speed down as this is a really regular occurrence. Of course along with sheep some dogs. The Icelandic sheepdogs are real characters. Fluffy and friendly they were brought over by Iceland’s early settlers.
The Icelandic horse is another charismatic breed. These sturdy and sociable creatures are again descended from the horses of the early settlers. Bringing a horse across the high seas to Iceland was no mean feat. So the high-ranking settlers chose the very best of their breed. The Icelandic horse is now a breed in its own right and is well protected. No other horses are allowed to enter Iceland and if they leave an Icelandic horse can never return. Dramatic eh?
To meet an Icelandic horse you might like to book a horse-riding tour. This is a fantastic way to see the island at a different pace and a great family activity in Iceland. Kids and teenagers will love the experience and even nervous riders will be in good hands… or should we say hooves?
Other creatures great and small
Other animals on Iceland include an array of rodents that have stowed away on boats over the years. There are cows and chickens as well as a troublesome population of rabbits. These were escaped pet rabbits that went forth and multiplied (as rabbits do).
Finally there are a few populations of animals that were brought over with business in mind. Minke were introduced in the early 20th Century. The idea was that they could be farmed for fur. Farming minke didn’t catch on though and the creatures escaped into the wild.
Pre-dating the Minke was the introduction of reindeer by royal decree in the 18th Century. The idea being that reindeer would thrive in Iceland. This was not so and few of the reindeer introduced are still around today.
All in all the animals in Iceland are a friendly bunch. When you’re out hiking or camping you don’t need to worry about coming across any dangerous or hostile creatures. If you do encounter an Arctic fox then you would be wise to keep your distance. But this is a very rare occurrence and only plausible if you are travelling in the remote Hornstrandir Reserve.