iceland divided over its fox

Believe me, if someone calls you a fox, take it as a compliment. See, my grandfather once told me a story of a fox that I wouldn’t have…

Believe me, if someone calls you a fox, take it as a compliment.

See, my grandfather once told me a story of a fox that I wouldn’t have believed had anyone else recounted it to me.

He saw a fox come trotting over the heath with a bird in her mouth, and surmised she was on her way to give her prey to her young, who, given the time of spring, were very young and in their den.

He wouldn’t have paid her much attention, but for the fact that she was acting very strangely.

Every few steps, she’d stop, lay down the bird in her mouth, trot back, fetch something, then pick the bird up again and continue her trip.

So my grandfather, who thankfully was downwind from her, waited absolutely still until she got closer.

He could hardly believe his eyes.

The fox held a dead ptarmigan in her mouth. She had ripped the innards out and was using the body as a bag for the dead ptarmigan’s young.

This is true.

She had stuffed the dead young into their mother’s belly, so she could carry supper home to her young, just like a mother coming from the supermarket.

He told me he could not have believed it, were it but for the fact that he actually saw it.

But one would not need this story to know that the arctic fox is an interesting animal.

The only mammal that existed in Iceland when the Vikings first settled it in the late 9th century was the arctic fox, Alopex logopus.

How many they were, no one knows, but now, there are about 4,000 of these animals in the country.

The fox has probably lived here since the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, according to the Natural History Museum of Kópavogur in Iceland.

The arctic fox is found in coastal and inland arctic and alpine tundra, in the arctic regions of Eurasia, North America, Greenland and Iceland, but evidence from Canada shows these foxes are well capable of migrating over 1,000 kilometres in one season.

Researchers believe that in other parts of the world, its southern limit is controlled by the larger red fox, which, in turn, has its northern limit determined by nature.

But red fox live in Iceland.

The arctic fox is smaller and with more rounded ears than red fox, with a rounder head and shorter, broader muzzle.

It comes in two distinct colour morphs, “blue” and “white,” and each colour phase also changes seasonally.

The white is nearly purely white in winter, whereas in summer it turns grey to brownish-grey dorsally, and light grey to white below.

The blue moults from chocolate brown in summer to a lighter brown tinged with blue sheen in winter.

While both morphs occur in almost all populations, most of the Icelandic fox is of the latter colour, according to Icelandic fox specialist Páll Hersteinsson.

This makes sense, as the blue more often exists near ocean, where it needs to fetch its prey by the beach. Blue serves as a better camouflage in winter.

Fully grown, the animals are about 25 to 30 centimetres high at the shoulders, and females weigh between two to seven kilograms.

Males reach about 55 centimetres in length, not counting the tail. Female are a few centimetres shorter.

In some other parts of the world, lemming is the arctic fox’s favourite food, but there are no lemmings in Iceland.

The arctic fox in Iceland lives on birds — in particular, fulmar, ptarmigan, eider, goose and others, and in summer, it particularly favours eggs and young birds.

Fox also eat mice, beached seals and sometimes lambs, along with berries and mushrooms.

They are most often seen at dawn and dusk.

In Iceland, most foxes practice monogamy, and often have several non-breeding female helpers, often yearlings from the previous year, helping at dens, according to Páll Hersteinsson.

This is probably a good idea — the pups number between four and 16.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a large number of bred blue foxes (not the same as the blue arctic fox) escaped from fox farms, which had been the Icelandic government’s attempt to boost farming.

Many of them died, but those who lived now breed with the arctic fox, and the offspring have a very distinct look, quite different from any other fox.

It was, of course, a huge environmental accident, and one that can never be rectified.

Thought the arctic fox is protected in most other countries, it is not in Iceland, except from April 30 to August 1 – with one exception.

(Though it must be said that this law is frequently under review, which points to the controversial feelings of Icelanders regarding the fox.)

This is because the fox has been known to eat lambs, so farmers have long considered it an enemy.

Therefore, county officials often hire one or two fox killers during this period of ‘protection.’

They go to known fox dens (one den is used, on and off, for about 300 years) and wait in hiding for the adults to come out. Often, the young are left to fend for themselves, which most often means death from starvation.

Sometimes smoke is used to force the animals out. Then they are shot.

The dens usually have more than one opening, so though the hunter finds one opening to a new den, he must search for the other ones before the smoke technique can work.

But the fox is also cunning, so more often than not, the hunters come back empty-handed.

Sigrún María Kristinsdóttir is an Icelandic/Canadian writer, who until recently lived in the Yukon, but now resides in Reykjavík.