The History of Woodland in Fnjóskadalur

Skrifað um August 9, 2014 · in Gróður


General survey

Physiognomic description

Iceland lies on the North Atlantic Ridge, between the latitudes of 63°24′ and 66°32′ N and longitudes of 13°30′ and 24°32′ W. It has an area of 103‘125 km2. The island is mountainous and 75% of the land area is above 200 m elevation. The major part of this area consists of a 500 to 700 m high plateau, from which rise mountains, the highest point being 2119 m. About 11.5% of the land area is covered by glaciers.

Geologically, Iceland is young with frequent volcanic activity. Volcanic eruptions have often caused severe damage by ashfall, lava or glacial burst. Since the country was settled, 1100 years ago, about 200 eruptions have occurred from 40-50 craters, an average of 1 every 5 years. During the last 10‘000 years lava flows have covered some 10‘000 km2, most of which are barren or sparsely vegetated.

The climate is cool temperate, oceanic and variable. The most peculiar features of the weather conditions are sudden, alternate invasions of polar air from the north and warm or transitional air masses from the Atlantic. Many of the vigorous North Atlantic cyclones originate or regenerate in the Newfoundland region, and moving northeastward, reach their maximum intensity in the vicinity of Iceland. A depression that becomes stationary or slowmoving off the southwestern coast of Iceland may maintain a warm or semi-warm flow of Atlantic air over the country for a considerable period. This causes thaws in winter, but rainy and rather cool weather in summer in the south part. In other cases the depressions may cross the country and slow down or almost stop over the sea between its eastern coast and Norway. This situation, frequently combined with high pressure over Greenland, causes a persistent flow of polar air over Iceland and a spell of cold weather, especially in the north.

The central highlands, with mountains and glaciers, form an effective barrier against winds and weather between the various districts of Iceland. Therefore, the northern and southern coasts, or the eastern and the western ones, will seldom have quite the same kind of weather simultaneously.

The flora includes some 450 species of higher plants, which is poor compared with those of neighbouring countries. The species-richest families are: Cyperaceae (51 spp.), Gramineae (47 spp.), Caryophyllaceae (27 spp.), Compositae excl. Hieracium and Taraxacum (20 spp.), Juncaceae and Rosaceae (18 spp.), Cruciferae and Scrophulariaceae (17 spp.), Saxifragaceae (16 spp.) and Polygonaceae, Potamogetonaceae and Ranunculaceae (each about 10 spp.). Other families have less than 10 species and in more than 20 families there are only 1 or 2 species.

There are no great differences in the species composition of the plant communities in the various regions. However, there are marked differences in the distribution of the species by elevation, although up to 300 m there are, generally speaking, few differences. The exceptions being maritime and weed species.

The above enumeration does not give a correct picture of the vegetation, as grasses and low shrubs are the characteristic species. There are no reliable figures available for the exact extent and condition of the vegetation, but it is likely that the total area is less than 25‘000 km2. Nearly half of this area is marshland. Furthermore, large areas of well-drained soils carry only a sparse cover of vegetation. In many places the vegetation is intersected by deep gullies, formed by wind and water erosion, whilst in other areas small patches of vegetation stand out in a barren wilderness like islands. Only 1% of the land area is covered by forest, composed of birch, Betula pubescens, trees or shrubs.


Fig. 1. A typical gully caused by wind erosion in Fnjóskadalur. The white stripe is one of the layers of volcanic ash found in usual ''loess-soil“ profiles. The layer is a prehistoric one originating from the mountain Hekla or its vicinity. - 1974. Photo P. Jonsson.

Fig. 1. A typical gully caused by wind erosion in Fnjóskadalur. The white stripe is one of the layers of volcanic ash found in usual ''loess-soil“ profiles. The layer is a prehistoric one originating from the mountain Hekla or its vicinity. - 1974. Photo P. Jonsson.

Historical aspects

There has been much discussion on what the country looked like at the time of settlement in AD 874, how large an area carried vegetation and what type of vegetation existed. Historical and scientific evidence has been put forward to show that over half of the land carried vegetation and most of this was forest, dominated by birch trees or shrubs. Unlike most European countries, Iceland has written records, from the 12th century, which describe the settlement of the country.

The records give no detailed descriptions of the natural vegetation but in many places they mention birch forest where now there are only eroded hills. In the oldest of the Icelandic chronicles, the Íslendingabók – Landnámabók, written by Ari the Learned between 1122 and 1133, it is written: “At that time (i.e. of the settlement) Iceland was covered by woods from sea shores to the mountain-sides.”

Many other manuscripts describe similar scenes. In Kjalnesingasaga (written ca. AD 1300) it is written : “Then (ca. AD 900) all Kjalarnes was covered by forest and the only openings were those cleared by man for farmsteads and roads.” To-day this area is completely deforested and the cultivated fields are surrounded by eroded hillsides, infertile, sparsely vegetated gravels and marshes. Many other examples can be given and whereas there is much disagreement as to the historical accuracy of the events described in the Sagas, it is generally agreed that both place and geographical descriptions are accurate. Therefore it is unlikely that the recording of forests will be disputed. Later chronicles, especially farm registers from the 18th century, record extensive devastation of vegetation. The most noteworthy of these references is the Farm Register (Jarðabók) compiled by Árni Magnússon and Páll Vídalín, after a country-wide survey between 1702 and 1712. Magnússon and Vídalín visited all parishes to record revenues, livestock, leaseholds, charges, etc. Their record is one of the most reliable sources available as all information given to them by the farmers was checked by independent witnesses. The register gives an excellent description of the condition of the vegetation, with special emphasis on woodlands, stating their condition, utilisation and whether erosion was present. The present article owes a great deal to this register and it will be referred to later.

In addition to written sources on soil and vegetation destruction, many place names indicate that forests occurred in areas which are now devasted, such as Fitjaskógar, Hólaskógar, Dynskógar (“-skógar” means woodland). Furthermore, there are still remnants of vegetation on otherwise barren and denuded sites, which indicate that neighbouring areas were once vegetated. In many places the remains of old charcoal pits can be found on open land, which shows that they were once forested. One irrefutable proof of more extensive vegetation cover can be obtained by measuring the rate of soil accumulation between volcanic ash of known age. Tephrochronological investigations have shown that prior to settlement soil accumulation was very slow (0.1 mm per year). After AD 900 the rate increased considerably, reaching 0.5 mm per year during the last two centuries. Before settlement a fragile equilibrium prevailed between regrowth and deposition, but later on deposition increased considerably due to increased erosion.

The causes of erosion have long been disputed. Earlier, many blamed climatic deterioration, volcanic eruption, avalanches and glacial bursts. Recent research has not been able to correlate erosion with climatic deterioration or any other natural phenomena, such as volcanic activity, or indeed that these disturbed the existing equilibrium. Local exceptions can be found but it is worth mentioning that the few existing woodland remnants in South Iceland are in fact near the most active volcanic areas. On the other hand, most evidence shows that erosion followed destruction of the forests and therefore can be attributed to human interference (Fig. 1).

So far only a few factors bearing on the vegetation of earlier times have been discussed. Whilst the sources are of varied origins they all indicate that the vegetation cover was different than it is to-day. Little research has been conducted on the history of the Icelandic vegetation cover and much more is needed. The remainder of the article will be devoted to a certain valley in North Iceland, Fnjóskadalur, as its vegetational history is well documented compared with other regions. Reliable information on the woodlands in the valley is available from the time of the Farm Register of 1712. Changes in vegetation which have occurred in the valley since then are by no means exceptional to that area, but typical for many districts in Iceland.


Fig. 2. A map of Fnjóskadalur.

Fig. 2. A map of Fnjóskadalur.

Description of the valley of Fnjóskadalur

The district, known as Hálshreppur, lies in the valley of Fnjóskadalur and is more often called after the valley. The valley is approx. 10 km east of Akureyri. It is enclosed by high, basaltic mountain ridges which lie in a S-N direction. Fnjóskadalur valley (hereafter called Fnjóskadalur) is about 40 km long. In the north it changes direction to E-W and opens onto the Eyjafjörður coast. This part of the valley belongs to another district and is not included in this review. A wide mountain pass, Ljósavatnsskarð, opens from the east, midway in the valley. The farms at the mouth of the pass are included in the district politically but are not geographically a part of the valley. At its southern end the valley splits into three tributaries. While there are reports that there were a few farmsteads in these valleys in former days, inhabitation has rarely gone beyond the main valley. A freshwater river, Fnjóská, flows through the valley, dropping evenly in elevation to the sea from its source 121 km in the highlands. Fnjóská is fast flowing, with an average discharge of 45 m3/sec; however, stream flow varies considerably, according to weather conditions, from 10 to 200 m3/sec.

The valley floor slopes evenly northwards with a 200 m elevation drop from south to north. It is narrow, being between 1 and 2 km wide at the most. Along its western edge the mountains are 500-700 m in height with an even slope, while to the east the mountains are 700-900 m high, steep and gullied. Apart from around the farms Draflastaðir (no. 2) and Sörlastaðir (no. 18) there is little lowland (see Fig. 2).

Due to the E-W direction of its mouth, moisturebearing north winds do not penetrate the valley directly and precipitation is low. Meteorological observations have only been recorded over the last 20 years but the Meteorological Office has estimated the climatic data for the period 1931-1960. Mean annual precipitation is 658 mm, 70 % of which falls in the winter when snowcover is usually deep. Mean annual temperature is 2.6°C, the valley bottom being at a relatively high elevation. The frost-free period is short and mean summer temperature lower than expected. Mean monthly precipitation and temperatures are shown in Fig. 3.

Fig. 3 . Monthly mean temperature and monthly mean precipitation at Vaglir, 1931 – 1960.

Fig. 3 . Monthly mean temperature and monthly mean precipitation at Vaglir, 1931 – 1960.


Generally speaking, soils are well-drained: silt loams, 15-100 cm thick with low moisture-holding capacity and low fertility over a gravelly and stoney subsoil; or sloping gravels, stoney alluviums and steep, stoney tali. There are no lakes, only a few tarns and small patches of marshland. Natural hot water is found at three places.
A detailed description of the settlement of the valley is not attempted here. The valley has, however, been inhabited since the time of settlement, when Þórir Snepill settled at Lundur (no. 22). The farms stand, more or less equidistantly, along both sides of the river. The average distance between farms is 2 km, so the valley can be considered as sparsely settled. Most farms stand well above the river on an ice-age gravel terrace.
This article and the accompanying map (Fig. 2) are based on the Farm Register of 1712. Then there were 38 farmsteads plus 6 tenancy sub-holdings. There were 49 tenants as five of the farms were joint tenures. Since then there have been various changes:
(a) Several farms have been abandoned, most of them between 1920- 1960, especially in the south of the valley.
b) Some were abandoned for a while but have been reoccupied.
(c) The tenancy sub-holdings have fallen into disuse, except two which are now independent farms.
(d) Several new farms have been formed out of older ones in the middle part of the valley. 

Despite these changes the number of farms has changed little and in 1976 t
here were 40 inhabited farms.

Deterioration of the birch woodland
The history of the birch forest in Fnjóskadalur from 1712-1973 will now be described. As mentioned earlier, the description is based on the Farm Register of 1712. Earlier records from the Sagas and other chronicles are ignored although they give similar information. Furthermore, journals by visitors, both foreign and Icelandic, are used, but here one must remember that most of these travellers kept to the main road, which crossed the valley to the Ljósavatnsskarð Pass, and only describe the middle part of the valley. Other sources of information are the oral communications of people who lived in the valley during the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century three Icelandic scholars investigated the woodlands and their descriptions are valuable sources of information. Finally, the distribution of birch woodland in 1973 is described. The author mapped the birch woodland and made, in addition, several vegetation surveys in the valley.

(a)1712, Farm Register of Magnusson and Vídalín. In September 1712 all the farm tenants in Fnjóskadalur were called to the parsonage at Háls (no. 24) to give information on their holdings to the above authors. Furthermore, they were made to corroborate the information given by their neighbours. The Farm Register is orderly and all descriptions are standardised, which makes it easy to compare the farms. Woodlands are classified into three utilisation types:
(i) Woodland yielding “logs” (i.e. small timber)
(ii) Woodland yielding charcoal
iii) Woodland yielding firewood

Each type is further classified according to its yield conditions : excellent – good – plentiful – sufficient – tolerable – deficient – little (amount) – cleared. Furthermore, other uses of the woodlands (than timber) such as for haymaking and other agricultural purposes are mentioned. Sometimes the general condition of the woodland is recorded, especially if the trees are suffering from wood-rot or are dilapidated.

In the following (Table I), the information from the Farm Register is classified according to the descriptions of the Farm Register (the tenancy sub-holdings are included with the main farms). The table shows that there is woodland on 31 of the 38 farms, 14 farms of which have woodland yielding “logs” that varies from “deficient” to “excellent”, and three others where the woodland has been cleared or almost so. Charcoal woodland occurs on 25 farms, again varying from “little” to “excellent”, but has been destroyed on 4 farms. Woodland yielding firewood was found on 31 farms, again varying from “little” to “excellent” but “plentiful” on most farms.

On seven farms no woodlands occur. However, it is said that at Birn ingsstaoir (no. 25) an old hayfield is so infested with birch shrubs as to be useless. According to the Register the largest deforested areas are : One in the north at Austari- and Vestari-Krókar (nos. 36 & 37) and another in the south at Steinkirkja (no. 11) and Fjósatunga (no. 12). The main thorough fares from the neighbouring districts, which were by then deforested, passed through both these areas. It is almost certain that these woodlands were cleared by men from other parishes, who deliberately sought to use the woodlands in Fnjóskadalur. There was also no woodland at Végeirsstaðir (no. 32). According to the Farm Register this farm was very small and the occupant had to lease both winter and summer grazing and pay for it by indefinite fees and services. It is not unlikely that he had to encroach on his woodlands to pay for grazing.

From the Farm Register it is obvious that Fnjóskadalur was heavily wooded at this time. Apart from the above-mentioned clearings, most of the valley was covered by birch woodland, probably some 10‘000 ha. On 8 farms the occupants complained of the difficulties of haymaking as nearly all their land was wooded. On the other hand, it is clear that in many places the woodlands were deteriorating.

It was not without reason that the absentee landlord of Víðivellir (no. 5), who was sheriff of a different county, forbade his tenant to sell charcoal or tim ber without his permission. As can be seen from Table I, it is “log” woodland that was most endangered, being more heavily utilised. On many farms “log” woodland was recorded as cleared or in very small areas. At both Lundur (no. 22) and Vaglir (no. 23) the “log” woodlands are classified as excellent, but these are exceptions. At Háls (no. 24) the “log” woodlands are classified as good and extensive, while at Víðivellir (no. 5), Þórðarstaðir (no. 21) and Fornastaðir (no. 28) they are classified as plentiful. By plentiful we can be sure that it was meant that the woodland was extensive and abundant.

One should also bear in mind that the farmers tended to minimise the benefits and exaggerate the disadvantages as they suspected the register would be used for taxation.

(b) 1752, Eggert Ólafsson, naturalist, and Bjarni Povelsen, physician. They stated that the woodlands in Fnjóskadalur were superior to all others in Iceland, but they had greatly deteriorated since the last century. They said that 100 years earlier trees which were 12,5 m up to the first branches had grown there. But now the woodlands were abused and in need of protection.

1777, Ólafur Olavius, naturalist. Before he began his journey he had been told that the trees were so tall that a man on horseback, holding up his whip, would be hidden underneath the trees. He was greatly disappointed because at the farmstead of Háls “there are no trees, large or small, young or old, only stumps, which show that a forest had once grown there, and a small area of shrub on the opposite side of the river”. He found it incredible that such devastation should happen over only 20 years, but unfortunately it was true.

(d) 1794, Sveinn Pálsson, physician. He wrote in his diary: “Fnjóskadalur is a beautiful district and had formerly been forested. The wood at Háls was renowned over all Iceland but during the last 50 years has been completely destroyed . . . apart from a small copse 1/4 mile south of the farmstead.”

(e) Oral communications.
In addition to the above references, traditions concerning the tall woodland in Fnjóskadalur have been passed down by the inhabitants of the valley who lived there in the middle of the century. It would be too much to mention them all, however tempting. A woman, who grew up at Hróastaðir (no. 9) and lived all her life in the valley (1761-1848), said that in her youth there had been so much woodland at Hróastaðir that it was necessary to tie bells on the cattle so they could be found. Now this is a barren hill-side, bearing no resemblance to its past glory, but the many, large, charcoal pits show that woodlands once grew there (Fig. 4). Furthermore, there is a tradition that tall woodland grew on the slopes above Snæbjarnarstaðir (no. 16) in the middle of the 18th century. One severe winter there was no hay for the sheep, so the occupant chopped all the branches off the trees which stood above the snow as fodder. The woodlands were completely destroyed and now the area is completely deforested. 

TABLE I . Classification of woodlands for different utilisation according to the Farm Register, 1712. 


No. Farm „logs“ charcoal firewood Hay-making Condition
1. Melar plentiful plentiful X
2. Draflastaðir
tolerable tolerable almost fallen due to decay
3. Dæli sufficient sufficient X decayed
4. Vatnsleysa deficient plentiful plentiful X
5. Víðivellir plentiful X
6. Ljótsstaðir sufficient plentiful X
7. Nes cleared little decayed
8. Skógar sufficient plentiful plentiful X
9. Hróastaðir sufficient plentiful plentiful X
10. Veturliðastaðir sufficient sufficient X
11. Steinkirkja none
12. Fjósatunga
13. Illugastaðir
14. Reykir almost cleared plentiful plentiful X
15. Tunga plentiful plentiful plentiful X
16. Snæbjarnarstaðir cleared plentiful
17. Hjaltadalur cleared sufficient
18. Sörlastaðir cleared sufficient
19. Bakki
almost cleared sufficient sufficient
20. Belgsá sufficient plentiful plentiful X
21. Þórðarstaðir plentiful plentiful plentiful X
22. Lundur excellent excellent excellent X
23. Vaglir excellent excellent excellent X
24. Háls good and extensive good good X decayed
25. Birningsstaðir no wood mentioned
26. Kambsstaðir no wood mentioned
27. Sigríðarstaðir plentiful plentiful X very decayed
28. Fornastaðir
plentiful plentiful plentiful X
29. Hallgilsstaðir cleared plentiful plentiful X
30. Veisusel tolerable almost fallen
31. Veisa tolerable almost fallen
32. Végerisstaðir no wood mentioned
33. Böðvarsnes cleared sufficient
34. Ytrihóll sufficient sufficient X
35. Garður little plentiful
36. Austari-Krókar no wood mentioned
37. Vestari-Krókar no wood mentioned
38. Þverá sufficient plentiful plentiful X


Fig. 4. The farm Hróastaðir on the west bank of river Fnjóská. The slopes above and south of the farm were covered with birchwood late in the 18t h century. The small patch of young birc hes below the hayfield has grown from self-sown seed ling within a protected area, 1974. Photo P. Jonsson.

Fig. 4. The farm Hróastaðir on the west bank of river Fnjóská. The slopes above and south of the farm were covered with birchwood late in the 18t h century. The small patch of young birc hes below the hayfield has grown from self-sown seed ling within a protected area, 1974. Photo P. Jonsson.

Travellers in the 18th century often spoke of the wood at Háls naturally enough, for it was famous. The farm had for centuries been a parsonage and a benefice and stands on the main road. It was common talk that the parson, Jón Þorgrímsson who was the beneficiary in 1736-1795, had more or less ruined the wood. He had been accused early in his career for his greedy and destructive woodcutting. The parson took the criticism badly and tried to clear himself of the accusations that the woods were being destroyed. In view of this he tried to convince people that the wood was destroying itself and he had not sold cutting rights to outsiders. He declared that he only felled trees to improve the wood, sanitary clearings, otherwise it would deteriorate and be of no use. Despite the parson’s attempt to justify his treatment, the wood deteriorated annually. The story circulated that he once hired four farmers to fell 1600 “logs” for his own disposition and 400 “logs” as their wages (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. The flat bottom of Fnjóskadalur west of Hals. Note the eroded mountain slopes above the farm and the small partches of birch below the terrace which have survived because of thick snow cover, 1974. Photo P. Jonsson.

Fig. 5. The flat bottom of Fnjóskadalur west of Háls. Note the eroded mountain slopes above the farm and the small partches of birch below the terrace which have survived because of thick snow cover, 1974. Photo P. Jonsson.


(a) 1814 , Ebenezer Henderson, agent of the British and Overseas Bible Society. In his travelogue he writes: “About a hundred years ago, the valley (i.e. Fnjóskadalur) exhibited one of the finest forests in Iceland, but now there is not a single tree to be seen-such has been the havock made by the inclemency of the seasons, and the improvident conduct of the inhabitants. The remains of this forest are still visible on the east side of the river, which divides the valley, in the numerous stumps of birch trees which present themselves, some of which exceed two feet in diameter.”

(b) 1850-1856, Thorsteinn Sigurðsson, then labourer at Háls. He said that at that time there was no erosion in the area to the north and west of Háls, the vegetation was mainly heath with low shrub but no woodland. This area is now eroded to the subsoil and barren.

(c) 1892, Sæmundur Eyjólfsson, agriculturalist and theologian. He says that tall woodland only occurs at three places, namely Háls (no. 24), Vaglir (no. 23) and Þórðarstaðir (no. 21), but virtually no woodland remnants occur on any other farms. He adds that the wood at Háls had almost been destroyed in the 19th century but had now regenerated itself, mainly on the slope south of the farm above the river, although it was far less extensive than before (Fig. 6). Open glades and strips extended in many places into the wood and the soil was rapidly eroding on these sites. At Vaglir tall wood still occurred at places but lately it had been felled so drastically that he had never seen such treatment. He considered the wood at Þórðarstaðir to be the most beautiful in the country. For this he thanked the farmer who had lived there for many years and appreciated it so much and that he had taken care to protect it.

(d) 1896, Thorvaldur Thoroddsen, geologist. On his travels in the valley he lodged at Þórðarstaðir (no. 21). The farmer told him that in 1802 there had only been enough timber in the forest for axe-shafts but now it was both tall and extensive. The tallest tree which Thoroddsen measured was 8 m in height and 55 cm in circumference at ground level. He also mentions the woods at Háls and Vaglir. The latter had deteriorated considerably due to poor management. Thoroddsen remarked that there was no woodland on the west side of the Fnjóská river although shrubs grew at a few places at the beginning of the century. Otherwise he has little to say on the distribution of woodlands in the valley except that shrubland occured in the valley south of Sörlastaðir (no. 18) on the east side of the river.


Fig. 6. The terrace SW of H als 22 years after it was protected from grazing. On the few patches left of origi nal soil, birches have sprouted vigorously from old roots. The eroded terrace is almost as barren as it was previous to enclosure, 1968 . Photo H. Bjarnason.

Fig. 6. The terrace SW of Háls 22 years after it was protected from grazing. On the few patches left of origi nal soil, birches have sprouted vigorously from old roots. The eroded terrace is almost as barren as it was previous to enclosure, 1968 . Photo H. Bjarnason.

(e) 1899, Sigurður Sigurðsson, agriculturalist. He visited the valley to survey the distribution of woodland. Woodland occurred on only 5 farms, namely, Belgsá (no. 20), Þórðarstaðir (no. 21 ), Lundur (no. 22), Vaglir (no. 23) and Háls (no. 24), with a total area of less than 500 ha. In addition, shrubland occurred south of Sörlastaðir (no. 18) and at Þverá (no. 38). It had recently grown at Melar (no. 1) but had been cleared. At various places in the woodlands large openings broke up the canopy, especially at Vaglir and Háls. Sigurðsson remarks that often the trees are leaning and crooked due to heavy snowfalls and grazing. Sigurðsson had acquainted himself with forestry in Norway beforehand and was born and brought up in Fnjóskadalur; therefore one can rely on his descriptions.

Shortly after the turn of the century a real change in the history of the birch woodlands occurred. In 1907 a Forestry Law was enacted with the immediate policy of conserving the native woodlands together with establishing new forests of exotic species. The Fnjóskadalur woodlands were quickly chosen and the Icelandic Forestry Service has vigorously followed the policy of enclosing the woods as far as finances allow. The following woodlands have been enclosed (totally 2270 ha):
(1) Vaglir (no. 23) forest fenced in 1909.
(2) Sigríðarstaðir (no. 27) forest enclosed on two sides in 1931.
(3) The woodlands north of Melar (no. 1) in 1942.
(4) The woodland remnants at Háls (24), which border on to Vaglir (no. 23), in 1946.
(5) Part of the woods at Lundur (no. 22) and Þórðarstaðir (no. 21) and part of Belgsá (no. 20) in 1946.

As mentioned earlier, the author mapped the distribution of birch in Fnjóskadalur during the summer of 1973. The results are shown on the map included (Fig. 7). Briefly it can be said that woodland covers some 2060 ha, of which 1260 ha have been enclosed.


Fig. 7. Distribution of woodland in Fnjóskadalur, dark area ; ( a ) 1712 and (b) 1973. Drawing ÁHB.

Fig. 7. Distribution of woodland in Fnjóskadalur, dark area ; ( a ) 1712 and (b) 1973. Drawing ÁHB.


Judging by the accounts of the Farm Register of 1712 an area of 10‘000 ha of woodlands at that time would not be an overestimate (Fig. 7). It is also interesting to compare this result with Sigurosson’s survey of 1899. Within all the enclosures birch has greatly improved and spread to land which was open in 1899 from roots which had survived, and as naturally-sown seedlings on eroded land. The woods at Vaglir and Háls have shown the greatest improvement, but at Melar there is now birch woodland 4-6 m in height where Sigurðsson reported deforested land (Fig. 8). In the southern part of the valley birch shrubland, 3-4 m in height, has developed on unenclosed land. The major reasons for this regeneration have been the gradual abandonment of farms in this area (nos. 15 , 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20) and, since 1900, discontinuation of winter grazing (Fig. 9).

Fig. 8. Birchwood grown up from roots and stumps after 20 years of protection in the southern part of the woodland at Vaglir, 1930. Photo H. Bjarnason.

Fig. 8. Birchwood grown up from roots and stumps after 20 years of protection in the southern part of the woodland at Vaglir, 1930. Photo H. Bjarnason.

Most of the woodland in Fnjóskadalur has grown up from grazed trees on which signs of browsing can still be seen. It seems that the trees take a long time to recover from the many years of grazing before they make any real growth. On the other hand, the trees at Vaglir, where they have been protected for nearly 70 years, have developed normally and the tallest specimens are 13 m in height and 22 cm in diameter at chest height. Detailed yield measurements were made on the birch stands at Vaglir in 1956 . According to these investigations the volume growth of young birch stands is similar to that obtained in Norway, but as the stands mature the yield of the Icelandic birch lags behind the Norwegian birch. This is because the Icelandic birch makes very little height increment after reaching middle age. Information on total volume production per hectare is lacking but for normally thinned woodland, with 1940 trees/ha at 45 years of age the average standing volume is 30.21 m
3 , mean annual increment (m.a.i.) is 0.79 m3 and current annual increment 0.91 m3. If these figures are compared with Norwegian yield tables for birch growing in similar conditions, then one can expect the total production and m.a.i. of the Norwegian stands to be about 25% greater. It may also be added that birch growth in Fnjóskadalur is usually slightly less than in other regions, due especially to the low precipitation.

Apart from mapping birch woodland, the author investigated the major plant communities in the valley, especially with the object of comparing the sward under birch woodland with that of grazing areas. The investigation has not yet been published and it is not appropriate to go into any detail. It is noteworthy that the same species occur on both sites, although there are significant differences in their respective frequencies and abundance within and outside the enclosures. The most common species on both sites are Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Calluna vulgaris, Empetrum nigrum, Festuca spp., Poa spp. and Vaccinium uliginosum.

Fig. 9. Brushwood from old roots after decreasing grazing at the southern end of the valley, 1975 . Photo H. Hallgrímsson.

Fig. 9. Brushwood from old roots after decreasing grazing at the southern end of the valley, 1975 . Photo H. Hallgrímsson.

On the other hand, there are several species which are characteristic of grazed land but are rare in enclosed woodland (see Plant list I). In the same way a smaller number of species grow in the woodland, but scarcely thrive outside of woodland in the valley (see Plant list II). The latter species are not especially confined to woodlands but often occur in sheltered sites in lava fields in other districts.

Plant list I:      Plant list II:
Agrostis canina ssp. mont.
Alchemila alpina
Arenaria norvegicaArmeria maritima
Cardaminopsis petraea
Carex rupestris
Cerastium alpinum
Draba incana
Dryas octopetala
Juncus trifidus
Kobresia myosuroides
Loiseleuria procumbens
Minuartia biflora
Rhinanthus minor
Salix herbacaea
Silene acaulis
Tofleldia pusilla
Viscaria alpina
Agrostis tenuis
Coeloglossum viride
Deschampsia flexuosaGeranium sylvaticum
Hierochloë odorata
Ramischia secunda
Ranunculus acris
Roegneria canina
Rubus saxatilis

All in all, more species occur on the grazing land but the vegetation is much less vigorous and the upper soil layer suffers more from wind drying. The sward under birch differs considerably, it is far more vigorous and has a highly developed moss layer with Tomentypnum nitens, Climacium dendroides, Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus, Drepanocladus uncinatus and Hylocomium splendens as characteristic species.



The history of the woodlands in Fnjóskadalur has been sketched. From this one can conclude that most of the valley, about 10‘000 ha, was forested around 1700. Due to imprudent management the woodlands have been d estroyed on most farms, which has led to soil erosion, as witnessed by the bare hill-sides. Shortly after 1900 work was begun on enclosing woodlands. This, coupled with changed agricultural practises, has resulted in regeneration of the woodlands at several places over the last 50 years.


Table II: Changes in the livestock in Fnjóskadalur, 1712 – 1978.

Year    Cattle Sheep Goats Horses Hay pro-duction m3
1712 126 1192 421 134 3‘100
1942 162 38832 111 116 9‘333
1978 262 8715 0 101 30‘000

The causes of devastation have barely been discussed, but they are first and foremost agricultural practises. During the 18th and 19th centuries many bad seasons occurred and as a result the people were forced to abuse their land and grazing led to the deterioration of conditions for woodlands. Felling was usually uncontrolled, which by itself would not have caused deforestation if it had not been followed by grazing, especially year-round grazing with sheep and goats.
From the first years of settlement until the middle of the 17th century the ratio between cattle and sheep was 1:6. It then increased suddenly to about 1:25, where it has since remained. If one examines hay production for 1712 it is obvious that the livestock were forced to fend for themselves out-of-doors as long as weather and forage permitted and this custom was maintained for centuries. Since 1900 hay production has gradually increased. Apart from sheep, goats were common in Fnjóskadalur until 1960 and they are even more destructive to forest than sheep (see Table II). Furthermore, in 1771 reindeer were introduced to Iceland and ranged in Fnjóskadalur and neighbouring valleys to the south until 1857.
From this review it is clear that birch will rapidly spread once grazing pressure is reduced, even to eroded land. The history of the woodlands in Fnjóskadalur shows that nature is seeking a dynamic balance with the succession of plant communities, resulting in birch woodland.

The words of Ari the Learned that the country was wooded between the mountains and the shore at the time of settlement are likely to have been true.



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:: Ágúst H. Bjarnason