The Wild North | Posted: 12 May 2015
Puffins are perhaps the most iconic species to be found in Iceland
Look out for seals as you explore along Iceland's coast
Lupins add colour to Iceland's dramatic scenery

Michael Leonard works at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík and is a contributor to the pan-European research project, Arctic Encounters. Here he shares his thoughts on the flora and fauna of his adopted home.

One of the first things travellers notice about Iceland is a void in its landscape. Where are all the trees? Although the country was once lined thick with forests from its coast to its mountainous highlands, it’s partly down to the Vikings’ penchant for shipbuilding that most of its tall trees are now gone. The wind from the Atlantic stunts the number and size of the few trees that do grow amid the electric green moss blanketing the lava fields. Today, the landscape is often described as barren and otherworldly, with scraggly swathes of birch* trees inspiring the most famous Icelandic quip:

Q: What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?
A: Stand up.

Joking aside, the country is something of a haven for those afraid of creepy-crawly, frightful things. Terrified of snakes? Don’t worry, St Patrick (or his Icelandic relative) seems to have banished any serpentine threat from Iceland. And while visitors to other Nordic countries are busy swatting away pesky mosquitoes from their summer barbecues, you will be free to bite into your Icelandic pylsa (hotdog) without any such airborne menace. Could this be the real reason why Iceland is often named the world’s most peaceful country?

Related Holidays & Further Information

Discover Iceland on foot

Iceland is one of those places that fills you with awe, but the good news is that you don’t need to be a keen walker to explore its landscapes on foot.

More about our walking holidays
in Iceland >

Arctic Encounters

To find out more about Arctic Encounters and its research into the role that tourism plays in the European Arctic, visit the project’s website. >

Of course, the Icelandic landscape isn’t merely characterised by what it’s missing. But although there is a bounty of flora and fauna here, many of the island’s species are actually non-native. The iconic Icelandic horse, with its slight stature and world-renowned ‘fifth gait’, was actually an import from Norway in the 9th century. And Nordic neighbours were also responsible for the introduction of reindeer to eastern Iceland in the 18th century. Although the Arctic fox is native to the island, its rapscallion and more easy-to-spot relative, the mink, was introduced back in the 1930s. Finally, the vast fields of lupin that paint Iceland with vivid purples and blues every summer are – yep, you’ve guessed it – also an invasive species.

But let’s not forget the North’s migratory visitors. There are eleven species of whale that visit Iceland’s waters every year, making spotting them an enjoyably adventurous day trip. Iceland is also home to one of the world’s largest puffin colonies, and just watching them swoop down from the rocky cliffs is enough to turn any grumpy traveller’s frown upside-down. One of the enduring symbols of the Arctic, the polar bear, makes only infrequent visits here, and when they do manage to show up on the odd ice floe, they are promptly removed by the authorities in order to protect local sheep.



*Björk, the name of Iceland’s renowned singer-songwriter, also happens to be the local word for its most bountiful tree.

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