Forests and the forestry sector
About four-fifths of the land area of Iceland consists of glaciers, lakes and mountainous lava desert. Forests consist mainly of small areas of birch woodlands or plantations of native or exotic species, covering only 1.4 percent of the total land area ¿ the lowest coverage in Europe, apart from Malta.
However, fossil evidence indicates that a mixed boreal forest grew in Iceland before the onset of Ice Age glaciations. Successive glaciations caused the extinction of most tree species, although pines survived at least three glaciations and several broadleaved species were present until the last glaciation. Birch (Betula pubescens) is the only tree species to survive all glaciations, and quickly colonized most lowland areas after the last glacial retreat 10 000 years ago.
At the time of settlement 1 100 years ago, birch woods covered about 25 percent of Iceland and tundra dominated by willows another 30 percent. The birch woods were utilized for building materials, fuel and charcoal for iron smelting, and large areas of woodland were burned to create grazing land. Grazing by sheep prevented regeneration, and by 1900, birch woods only existed as scattered remnants covering a total of less than 1 percent of Iceland¿s land area.
Other wooded land, in the form of low tree and scrub formations of birch, mountain ash, willow and poplars, makes up the greater part of the total forest area.
Planting of introduced species in Iceland began on an experimental scale more than a century ago. The oldest surviving trees are a wych elm (Ulmus glabra) and a sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), which were planted in 1888 in Reykjavík. Since then more than a hundred exotic tree species and probably more than a thousand different provenances have been tried. However, with the exception of a few very small plantings, plantation forestry did not commence in Iceland until around 1950. The level of planting was 200 to 500 ha per year from 1950 to 1989, increasing to 1 000 to 1 400 ha per year since 1990. The introduced species being planted include lodgepole pine, Sitka and white spruce, Siberian larch and poplars. Alaskan lupins are often sowed as nitrogen fixers prior to planting. The planting is partly for land reclamation and erosion control, partly for commercial purposes on farms and partly to improve amenity around urban areas. Just under one-third of forest and other wooded land is publicly owned; the remainder is owned by private individuals.
Soil erosion is the greatest ecological problem facing Iceland today. This is primarily the result of deforestation and uncontrolled sheep grazing. In large areas, especially near the volcanic belt that runs through Iceland from the southwest to the northeast, forest is the only vegetation that can effectively bind the loessal soil, sand and volcanic ash and thereby prevent erosion. Only about 10 to 15 percent of Icelandic birch woodlands are enclosed and protected from grazing. The rest is more or less utilized for sheep grazing ¿ which is thus the main use of most of Iceland¿s woodlands. The sustainability of this type of use depends on the intensity and annual period of grazing. It appears that Icelandic birch woods can tolerate considerable grazing in July and August, but are severely damaged by winter grazing. A reduction in winter grazing due to increased cultivation and recent reductions in sheep quotas has permitted successful regeneration of birch in many areas where it was not previously possible and has made more land available for forest planting. However, some woodland areas are still overgrazed and in decline, and summer grazing is still uncontrolled.
The future of forestry in Iceland is perceived as being bright. There is a high general awareness of the benefits provided by trees and forests and a willingness to plant trees for land reclamation, recreation and commercial use. However, the future of the majority of birch woodlands depends on agricultural policies and the attitudes of landowners.
Products and trade
Iceland does not have sufficient forest resources or location to support a large-scale forest industry. A significant part of its sawnwood imports comes from the Baltic countries, while paper is imported mainly from Finland and Sweden. Christmas trees harvested in Iceland account for 25 percent of the domestic market. Thinning of larch and Sitka spruce stands planted in the 1950s has also started to provide some income to the Iceland Forest Service. Other products obtained from the country¿s forests include fodder, forage, decorative foliage, bark, mosses berries and mushrooms.
Last updated: September 2001