2 November 2001

CHILLY TIMES FOR ICELAND

Its not only in the UK that farming is going through difficult

times. Welcome to Iceland, where more than a quarter of

all farms have been abandoned. Mike Williams and

George Dodds, who were there in the summer, explain

SEVEN and a half thousand acres of land. No crops. No stock. That was the farm we stayed on in Iceland belonging to Skuli Magnusson and his wife Anna. Farming may be going through hard times in the UK at present but things are tough in Iceland, too.

Iceland is a country half the size of the UK yet with a population around the size of Plymouth. Lying just below the Arctic circle, it has a milder climate than might be imagined, thanks to the effect of the Gulf Stream. Some 12% of the land area is glacier, 11% is lava and a further 54% is classified as barren – rock, stone or sand. This is a challenging country to farm but until recent years farms reached from the coastline to the edge of the snow. Family farms passed from generation to generation and stable rural communities thrived.

Now 1700 of the countrys 6700 farms are abandoned. Serious soil erosion caused by overgrazing has made much land unproductive. The westernisation of the traditional Icelandic diet means much less demand for farmings major output – high quality, home-produced lamb – and much greater demand for imported foreign foods.

To tackle soil erosion and keep lamb prices up the government first imposed sheep quota and is now buying it up. Sheep numbers have halved since 1978; our hosts could not buy sheep quota if they wanted it.

On top of that few young people want to farm. It is a hard life, poorly rewarded and very isolated. One sheep farmer we visited made a 100-mile round trip to the nearest shops, much of that on unmade roads. The young people prefer to move to Reykjavik, the vibrant capital city, where almost 70% of the countrys population now lives.

Skuli and Anna do not know if their children will want to farm. They themselves are not expecting to make an income from farming, even with 3000ha (7500 acres). Anna works full-time in the local bank and Skuli is employed part-time in the town museum.

For two months in the autumn Skuli leads hunters from all over Europe who come to shoot reindeer or ptarmigan. The couple also supplement their income by breeding pheasants and selling them to restaurants and hotels all over the country.

On top of that they are now entering a grant-aided tree-planting project, aiming to plant 200ha (500 acres) of woodland over the next ten years. This is true diversification. They are happy with their way of life and with their income but remain uneasy about the future of their region.

Two neighbouring dairy farmers, each with around 30 cows, have recently sold their herds. One farmer has taken a job in town and the other is retiring at 55. Another adjoining farm is just used for hunting, the tree planting project and as a summer house.

The government claims it wants to keep farmers farming and it is committed to slowing down the trickle of people away from the countryside and into Reykjavik. If it cannot make farming an attractive, profitable business then large areas of the country may be abandoned as farmland, sweeping away the rural culture that in many ways is the real Icelandic culture. Iceland appears to be a very different country from the UK but there may be parallels and lessons for us here and perhaps for many other rural areas of the world.

&#8226 Mike Williams and George Dodds are FWAG farm conservation advisers in Herefordshire and Northumberland respectively. They were in Iceland to look at environmental and social issues in the rural east of the country and were funded by the Leonardo Foundation, a European Union fund helping people working in environmental careers to learn about projects elsewhere in Europe.

Above: Farming in Iceland can be an isolated business. Right: Skuli and Anna Magnusson.