Sheep grazing in Iceland has been in steep decline over the past 150 years. This background text provides some context regarding its impact over time on the Icelandic environment and touches on the political and economic backdrop with which it entwines.
A complex set of factors influence herbivore impacts on ecosystems, including the herbivore itself, the plants it consumes, and the environment it lives in. In both natural and managed ecosystems, herbivores play an important role in determining ecosystem functions. They play a crucial part in landscape change and nutrient cycling by consuming plants, as well as serving as food for predators.
It is possible for herbivores to negatively impact the plants they eat. Grazing, however, rarely results in the death of the plant, and plants are capable of reviving after being eaten. Some plants, such as grasses, can even increase their growth rate when subjected to moderate levels of herbivory. Herbivores often modify plant communities by selectively eating some plants and not others. This impacts on the productivity and diversity of grazed ecosystems. Leaves trampled by herbivores serve as natural fertilizers for plants. Large herbivores may flatten and disrupt vegetation cover, exposing patches of bare ground to new plant growth. Herbivores also transport nutrients and seeds across landscapes through their dung.
A plant’s response to herbivory will be determined by its ability to grow and reproduce during the relatively warm summer months. Northern regions experience seasonal patterns in light availability, a vital resource for plants to produce their food. For example, north of the Arctic Circle summers have nearly 24 hours of daylight while winters have nearly 24 hours of darkness. Plant productivity is lower in cold regions, and wild herbivores have adapted to cope with these conditions. Plant availability and predators regulate herbivore numbers in wild populations.
Herbivory effects vary widely between sites throughout the circumpolar north. Grazing by a particular species can greatly reduce the abundance of shrubbery in some areas, whereas in others, these effects are less pronounced. Impacts are significantly influenced by the biotic and abiotic elements of the environment in which plants and herbivores coexist.
During winter, when food is scarce, it is only possible to farm a certain number of sheep in an ecosystem as the carrying capacity is relatively limited. Icelandic sheep have a significant impact on the land depending on how they are managed: how many are kept, when they are brought up to the mountains, and how long they stay there. When they are decoupled from natural resource availability, for example, when they are supplemented with food throughout the winter, populations increase. As a consequence of higher managed populations, summer overgrazing may occur, depending on how plants respond to or are depleted by grazing, alongside other ecological, geological and climatic conditions.
Icelandic ecosystems are particularly sensitive to sheep grazing, still, the impacts vary from area to area: areas closer to the active volcanic zone with less developed soils, and areas at higher elevations with a colder climate, such as the Highlands, where there are a large number of extensive grazing areas, are more sensitive to grazing. Due to the short growing season in Iceland, vegetation does not have much time to develop, therefore ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to sheep grazing as it disrupts vegetation cover to expose patches of bare ground to the erosive forces of wind and water.
Iceland’s andosol soils, which are of volcanic origin, are characterized by their fertility and lack of cohesiveness. In the absence of vegetation, these soils can be easily blown or washed away. They are extremely prone to erosion, especially in the volcanic active zone. In addition, volcanic activity and ash deposition can suffocate and kill vegetation, leaving more areas of bare soil. High winds caused by the polar cell and Icelandic Low also carry difficulties for stabilizing favorable conditions for vegetation to survive in beyond the dispersal of ash. Heavy grazing causing bare patches which contribute to erosion further contribute to the degradation of woodlands. Consequently, birch forests and willows that once protected many of the most fragile soils are no longer regenerated.
There are several erosion forms distinctive to Iceland, including the Rofabard, an erosion escarpment typical of areas near active volcanic zones. Rofabards are formed from thick but non-cohesive andosols that are layer over more cohesive materials. Rofabards may also be regarded as remnants of previously vegetated surfaces, as they maintain a turf of vegetation while the sides of the escarpment are eroded.1 2
Frost, bare soils and desert surfaces all create unstable conditions. Grazing in poorly vegetated areas can prevent plants and soils from developing, and sub-zero temperatures can cause water in the soil to freeze. Fragile biological crusts must be left undisturbed to maintain stability and prevent the formation of needle-ices. Sheep that trample and disturb the crust create the conditions for ice needles to form. These ice needles push seedlings out of the frozen ground and prohibit plants from colonizing the surface.3
Accelerated transitions towards land degradation and desertification almost always occur after human settlement. In the case of Iceland, high density sheep grazing degraded vegetation and caused erosion spots to develop over centuries. This coalesced with other natural and human processes, such as clear-cutting, to form larger patches of bare soil. This eroded state has been maintained by feedback processes over time: aeolian deposition further suffocates vegetation, while processes such as frost heaving prevent the establishment of vegetation in exposed areas. Transitions, once ecological thresholds are crossed, are often not reversible even if the pressure driving the shift is removed. Thus, at this point in time, the removal of sheep alone is not nearly sufficient to restore Iceland to anywhere near its pre-settlement state.
Political destabilization and economic upheaval brought about by the 2008 financial crisis, farming subsidies,6 7 and failed marketing, have all contributed to the industry’s overall decline in recent years.8 Still, lamb meat has historically been one of the country’s most popular exports, and in 2016 the country saw record domestic sales, with just under 6,800 tones sold that year, attributable in part, to the tourism boom.9 Since that time however, several factors, including a decrease in the value of the Króna, the Russian embargo of 2014, more recent sanctions as the result in the Ukraine war, and a drop in tourism during Covid, changed the economic outlook for Icelandic lamb.
A 2003 landmark agreement between farmers and the government provides a percentage of sheep farming subsidies that are tied to a Quality Management System (QMS), including sustainable land use.10 This ‘green’ subsidy agreement was expected to have a positive environmental impact by linking financial incentives to land conditions and improvements and by encouraging a reduction of grazing pressure on marginal highland areas, without resorting to the prohibition of grazing practices.11 A decade on, however, recovery from sheep grazing effects on plant diversity patterns in tundra highlands has not improved.12 This suggests that irreversible degradation has occurred in the highland environment.
Other research suggests that the criteria for the green subsidies tied to sustainable land use are not being met by the QMS. Iceland’s Land Improvement Plans and Soil Conservation of Iceland show that the conditions attached to the subsidies are failing to lessen pressure on barren areas, curb active soil erosion, and improve vegetation conditions on public lands. Complaints have been levelled against QMS for operating without transparency or scientific rigor. Further, their parameters for “sustainable land use” are fuzzy and used to validate grazing on collapsed ecosystems.14
Complaints against the QMS have yet to be investigated. Overgrazing on degraded lands is continuing to be subsidized, and conflicts between environmental and agricultural sectors at agency and ministerial levels are amplified by unclear legislative structures. This indicates that it is vital to reconstruct the framework for ‘green’ sheep farming subsidies based on sound science and best available practices, with a more engaged stakeholder participation involving multi-sectoral agencies and scientists, NGOs, communities, the general public, and land users.15
Despite all the subsidies, Icelandic sheep farmers barely make a living. Unlike sheep, which require vast grazing areas (a scarce resource in Iceland), cows, pigs, and chickens can be farmed in small enclosures. At the same time, Icelanders are consuming more beef, pork, and chicken, resulting in a decline in their consumption of lamb per capita. For all these reasons, sheep farming is not as viable as it once was.
Iceland’s sheep industry is thus at a crossroads. Sheep farming is an age-old Icelandic tradition. The question is whether anyone should be guaranteed the right to make a living in their chosen profession regardless of the cost to the nation, as strains on health care and affordable housing amass against farming subsidies and alongside environmental degradation, the ethics of meat-eating, and the impacts of climate change.
Every autumn, as new stocks of lamb meat arrive on the shelves, the market may continue to be the determining factor that decides the fate of sheep farming. And what if this cultural tradition is lost? Will this mean Iceland can regain some of its lost environmental integrity, or has that tipping point already and irrevocably passed?
1 There are various types of rofabards ranging between 20 cm and 3 m in height. As active erosion progresses, rofabards retain their escarpment-like shape while retreating. While the height of a rofabard is affected by the eroded material in the surrounding area, it does not reflect the original soil thickness.
2 Arnalds, Olafur. (2008). Soils of Iceland. Jokull. 58. 409-421. 10.1007/978-94-017-9621-7
3 A needle ice column is formed by groundwater and resembles a needle. In order to form needle ice, the soil must be above freezing point and the air surface must be below it. Capillary action causes liquid water underground to rise to the surface, freeze, and contribute to the formation of needle-like ice columns.
4 When soil freezes, it swells upward in a phenomenon known as heaving. It is caused by the increasing presence of ice as it grows towards the surface from within the soil where freezing temperatures have been reached.
5 Hörður Kristjánsson, “The number of sheep in the country has decreased by almost half in 35 years, May 30, 2017. https://www.bbl.is/frettir/saudfe-i-landinu-hefur-faekkad-um-naer-helming-a-35-arum
6 In 2017, the market price weighed against the costs of production amounted to sheep farmers losing 150 to 200 ISK on every kilo of lamb exported. The government responded with a controversial decision to allocate 100 million ISK to promote lamb and mutton exports at a time when the health care system was in desperate need of reform and the housing market was becoming increasingly unaffordable to residents.
7 Andie S. Fontaine, “Iceland’s Sheep Farmers to Get 5.2 Billion ISK from the Government.” The Reykjavik Grapevine, January 15, 2019, https://grapevine.is/news/2019/01/15/icelands-sheep-farmers-to-get-5-2-billion-isk-from-the-government/#:~:text=There%20are%202%2C280%20sheep%20farms,in%20Iceland%20by%20about%20130%2C000
8 Popularity of the agrarian-based center-right Progressive Party (Icelandic: Framsóknarflokkurinn, FSF) who tend to capture the rural vote, and the pro-business Independence Party, who tend to carry the fishing industry vote, have both somewhat waned. The Progressive party has traditionally advocated on behalf of Icelandic farmers, who receive up to 40% in subsidies. They are the Progressive Party’s strongest base of support in rural areas, with the exception of fishing centers, which tend to support the pro-business Independence Party.
9 Andie S. Fontaine, “Iceland’s Looming Sheep Crisis”, Reykjavik Grapevine, August 28, 2017, https://grapevine.is/mag/2017/08/28/icelands-looming-sheep-crisis/
10 Olafur Arnalds, “Development of Perverse Environmental Subsides for Sheep Production in Iceland.” Agricultural Sciences 10, no. 09 (September 2019): 1135–1151. https://doi.org/10.4236/as.2019.109086
11 Arnalds, Olafur & Barkarson, Björn. (2003). Soil erosion and land use policy in Iceland in relation to sheep grazing and government subsidies. Environmental Science & Policy. 6. 105-113. 10.1016/S1462-9011(02)00115-6. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/223792138_Soil_erosion_and_land_use_policy_in_Iceland_in_relation_to_sheep_grazing_and_government_subsidies
12 Martin A. Mörsdorf et al., “Decades of Recovery from Sheep Grazing Reveal No Effects on Plant Diversity Patterns within Icelandic Tundra Landscapes.” Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 8 (2021). https://doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2020.602538
13 Arnalds, Olafur & Barkarson, Björn. (2003). Soil erosion and land use policy in Iceland in relation to sheep grazing and government subsidies. Environmental Science & Policy. 6. 105-113. 10.1016/S1462-9011(02)00115-6
14 Olafur Arnalds, “Development of Perverse Environmental Subsides for Sheep Production in Iceland.” Agricultural Sciences 10, no. 09 (September 2019): 1135–1151. https://doi.org/10.4236/as.2019.109086
15 Olafur Arnalds, “Development of Perverse Environmental Subsides for Sheep Production in Iceland.” Agricultural Sciences 10, no. 09 (September 2019): 1135–1151. https://doi.org/10.4236/as.2019.109086
16 Barrio, Isabel C & Arnalds, Olafur. (2022). Agricultural Land Degradation in Iceland. 10.1007/698_2022_920.