A NATURE EXCHANGE VISIT TO ICELAND IN JUNE 2012
This is a personal report on a visit to Skalanes Natural and Heritage Centre 17-23 June 2012. The visit was promoted and organised by the ARCH Trainer Exchange (Nature Exchange 9) and funded by the Leonardo da Vinci programme of the European Commission.
Flying from Glasgow to Keflavik provided a good opportunity to compare Scottish and Icelandic vegetation. The thick cloud parted as we passed over the Western Isles revealing the shell sand beaches along the Sound of Taransay and the extensive open rock of the South Harris hills separated by narrow areas of wet heath. An hour or so later, approaching Iceland, the ‘modern’ island or Surtsey only formed in 1963 came into view below. The vegetation cover which is slowly establishing there was visible only as a slight green tinge to parts of the bare rock field. Approaching Keflavik we flew over lava flows grey-green with a continuous carpet of a single plant species the woolly hair moss (Racomitrium laguniosum) and vast open areas of volcanic rock and sand with hardly a plant to be seen. South Harris, one of the sparsest vegetated parts of the UK, started to seem lush.
Mountain avens (Dryas octopetala)
Within minutes of landing something different came into view from the window of the Icelandair jet. Towards the horizon of the flat landscape, was a solid band of blue-purple, our first view of the much talked about lupin. The bus journey into Reykjavik brought us a closer view of the non-native Nootka lupin (Lupinus nootkatensis). This species has also been introduced to Scotland, occurring on river gravels in the Scottish Highlands and along roadsides, but never in the quantity found in Iceland. From the bus we could also see patches of a beautiful native plant mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) it’s bold eight petaled flowers at their best. This attractive species was widespread in Britain during and after the last glaciation but is now rare and restricted to limestone rock and shell sand. Throughout the visit the sight of mountain avens was a constant reminder of how ’young’ the vegetation of Iceland is compared to home.
After the flight across Iceland and the journey by car from Eglisstadir, arriving at Skalanes brought more botanical revelations. Along with familiar plants which are also widespread in Scotland such as crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) species very rare in Scotland such as alpine catchfly (Lychnis alpina) and alpine bartsia (Bartsia alpina) grew in profusion close to the house. There were also extensive stands of Nootka lupin.
A walk with Oli around the hill slopes behind the Skalanes house the following day provided a better picture of the land use history of the area and in particular of Skalanes. Like much of the more productive land around Seydisfjordur, Skalanes has a long history of livestock farming going back to the times of the early settlers. Sheep farming has now ended at Skalanes although a few sheep from neighbouring farms stray onto the reserve. Free of grazing the previously supressed native tree and scrub species have started to recover. Downy birch (Betula pubescens) is most widespread large stature native tree species but a range of willows including arctic willow (Salix arctica) and woolly willow (Salix lanata) are also present along with dwarf birch (Betula nana).
Lupin invading dwarf shrub heath west of Skalanes
The Nootka lupin was planted at Skalanes by the previous owner. Lupin planting was actively promoted across Iceland by government agencies to combat the erosion of the volcanic soils induced by centuries of sheep grazing. The lupin has been highly effective in stabilising and enriching eroding soils but has also invaded dwarf shrub heath and other valuable native plant communities. This contrasts with Scotland where invasive non-native plant species most frequently originate from garden escapes or accidental introductions rather than a land improvement tool.
At Skalanes the lupin has expanded to cover much of the lower ground, in places right down to the sea shore. Open or eroded habitats are most rapidly colonised. Where an existing plant community has a dense sward such as dwarf shrub heath and grassland the lupin invasion is slower. Wetland communities including springs and flushes dominated by moss species as well as cotton grass bog appear to be too wet for the lupin but elsewhere its march appears relentless. An upper altitudinal limit hasn’t been reached yet and, based on lupin stands elsewhere in Iceland, it seems likely that it will spread up to the edge of the late snow beds. Here the plant communities, often dominated by mosses and liverworts, are adapted to an extremely short growing season.
Woodland restoration is a priority at Skalanes and many thousands of mainly native trees have been planted in both open eroding habitats as well as dwarf shrub and moss heaths. Following encouragement from the Iceland Forestry Commission some non-native species including alder have also been planted. Priority is given to areas where lupin invasion is imminent so that a woodland canopy can be established planting before this happens. Tree planting in this environment is truly daunting with restricted vehicle access, steep slopes and skeletal soils. The challenges are no less for the trees themselves as they face drought, winter frost heave and blasting by snow drift. Despite all the factors working against it tree cove is becoming established with progress, unsurprisingly, better in more sheltered locations.
Non-native alder (Alnus) planting and invading lupin
The lupin is a dilemma both for for Skalanes as a nature reserve and Iceland as a whole. Iceland looked for solutions to the chronic and widespread erosion of the young glacial soils exposed when the delicate vegetation cover had been damaged by sheep grazing. The Nootka lupin, a native plant of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and British Columbia offered a solution. The Nootka lupin is able to germinate and establish on open bare habitats and to cope with both frost heave and low fertility. As it is a legume its root nodules harbour symbiotic bacteria which fix atmospheric nitrogen so the plant both stabilises and enriches the soil.
Since 1945 deliberate introduction and state-encouraged broadcast of seed of this ‘wonder plant’ has led to it being widely distributed across much of Iceland. If the lupin only prospered in eroded areas and was a short-lived vegetation stage quickly replaced by native plants it could be truly be seen as a wonder plant. It hasn’t worked out this way and the lupin also invades native vegetation, establishes mono-specific stands with a long lifespan (30 years plus), creates a dense seed bank and changes the soil chemistry making it hard for native species to compete. Free from its natural enemies above and below ground which keep it in check within its native range it suffers only minor damage from two native moth species in Iceland. Icelandic society has polarised views either ‘pro-lupin’ or ‘anti-lupin’. Government guidelines now recognise the threat it poses and the priority of prevent it from spreading to new areas.
At Skalanes, a place set aside for nature, the expanding stands of non-native lupins present an obvious anachronism and a kneejerk reaction that “something must be done”. The cold reality is that eradication here is not viable in economic terms. Lupins can be killed off with herbicide but the scale of the problem at Skalanes makes this economically unfeasible with the added problem that herbicide kills living plants but leaves the seed bank intact. New lupin plants regenerate from seed so repeated applications of herbicide are be required until the seed bank is exhausted. Whilst this form of treatment might be appropriate in certain key areas e.g. if lupin invasion threatens the wet grassland of the arctic tern colony its use is unlikely to be widespread.
Mapping of the expansion of the lupin areas at Skalanes is taking place this year (Glasgow University), building on previous baseline mapping. At Skalanes a policy of living with and adapting to the lupin is emerging rather than any attempt to control it or eradicate it on a large scale. Oli asked for views and ideas on lupin management. As looking at the lupin problem was only part of the week the following suggestions are preliminary and may need investigation to gauge their feasibility.
a) Monitor the expansion of lupins by carrying out surveys using GPS technology and fixed point photography every 2-3 years.
b) Produce a detailed map of plant communities and habitat types at Skalanes
c) Assess each plant community/habitat for its susceptibility to lupin invasion using both direct observations at Skalanes and in surrounding areas
d) Assess the value and sensitivity each plant community/habitat for a range of other criteria including such as ease of invasion, rarity, naturalness, diversity at a regional and local scale.
e) Build up information on other important factors such as the areas planted with trees and areas earmarked for planting.
f) Combine and assess all the information in a) to e) to develop a model of lupin expansion and impact.
g) Consider protecting high risk areas e.g. bird nesting and feeding habitats from invasion by a range of methods.
h) Continue and develop lupin control trials (cutting etc.) and record the results. Existing trials showed that some cutting treatments diversified the lupin stands and in one case alpine catchfly (Lychnis alpina) had reappeared in quantity.
i) Using aerial photography, interviews with previous owner etc. attempt to create a record of the age of the lupin stands at Skalanes and at mature stands (e.g. those on the mountain side south of town of Seydisfjordur. Investigate and record the plant succession on the lupin stands above the town to predict the likely succession at Skalanes.
j) Investigate experimentally if plant succession in lupin areas at Skalanes can be accelerated by active planting of other species. Be cautious of the fact that often one invasive non-native is replaced by another. Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) has been observed replacing the lupin elsewhere in Iceland.
k) Develop a better understanding of the effect that lupins have had on bird populations at Skalanes particularly the eider duck and redwings. Redwings readily nest in lupins but where do they forage to feed their young?
l) Prevent a lupin monoculture affecting breeding birds in the areas around the house at Skalanes by diversifying the habitat. Introduce/re-introduce cultivation of potatoes and haymaking.
m) Create further areas of wetland to attract breeding godwits, phalarope, snipe etc.
These projects could be undertaken by students (degree and masters theses) or by volunteers. The work might attract government or charitable funding. A team coming to Skalanes later in 2012 will look at chemical changes in the soils in areas invaded by lupins this will add to the picture.
Beyond the lupin issue
Another non–native invasive non-native species we spotted was an American mink (Neovison vison) on the north shore of Seydisfjordur. Mink are rare in the area now thanks to hunting and trapping effort by local residents and ground nesting birds have benefited from this. The mink was seen during a day spent with an inshore cod fisherman. An inshore cod fishery of mainly single-handed boats operates from the harbour at Seydisfjordur. These boats use modern fish detection, depth and navigation gear to catch cod with weighted lines baited with multiple lures operated on hydraulic winches. To protect fish stocks commercial fishing days are strictly limited. Our boat had caught 800 kilos of cod the previous day but was allowed out for hand operated sport fishing on non-fishing days. The numbers of fish (mainly cod and some pollock) we caught in the mouth of the fjord and their size (up to 6 kilos or more) showed the efficiency of the technology, the depth of knowledge of the local fishermen but also the healthy state of Icelandic fish stocks.
A part day spent looking at the history of settlement in around Seydisfjordur painted a picture of life before the fishing boom of the mid-1800s which bore similarities to life on St Kilda or the Western Isles. Isolation from the rest of the world, simple dwellings made from local materials, sheep farming and high infant mortality were common to all. The arrival of Norwegian fishing companies changed Seydisfjordur and established a much greater interconnection with mainland Europe. For a while it looked like Seydisfjordur might become the capital of Iceland.
Looking down the reverse face of the dam to the river-less gorge below
We visited the Karahnjukartilfa dam. The scale of this engineering feat and the huge expanses of fresh concrete were a reminder that there is a price to pay in landscape an ecology terms to generate renewable electricity. The sight of the spectacular gorge below now dry and separated from the water which formed it seemed particularly poignant.
A brief visit to the Vallarnes organic farm to hear from the owner Eymunder Magnuson how he had developed his business and woodlands was more inspiring. A combination of technology (insulated poly tunnels), return to tradition (growing barley for human consumption), use of volunteer labour (Woofers) and habitat creation (planting of many thousands of trees) has created a vibrant business. We followed this with a visit to the National Arboretum at Hallormstadaskogur. By Scottish standards the trees were small but the walk through the areas of native birch woodland gave a good sense of the woodland which covered much of Iceland at the time of the first human settlers. By contrast the exotic trees (mainly conifers) showed the potential for commercial timber growth.
Skalanes – eider colony and fjord