Geese are a favourite Christmas Eve food in Iceland, which is why many people have now begun thinking about the celebration supper on December 24.
On August 20, licensed hunters could start shooting graylag goose and pink-footed goose and, on September 1, the season for the less numerous white-fronted goose and barnacle goose opened.
Many hunters rent fields from farmers to hunt the geese. Some autumns, every field within a two-hour drive from Reykjavík is rented, according to Sigmar B. Hauksson, the president of Skotvís, the hunters’ association in Iceland.
However, this is dependent upon the weather, as in years where the fall is very mild, the geese have plenty to eat in the highlands long into the autumn and delay the return to the lowlands, where most of the geese hunters prowl about.
Icelanders have hunted birds since the land was first settled in about 874.
Still, with a few exceptions, not many traditions have evolved around hunting — perhaps because most people based their living on farming and the hunt was more of an occasional treat or desperate measures when all else failed.
In the latter half of last century, more and more Icelanders had acquired the means to hunt, but unfortunately, a small group of hunters began developing a mass-market mindset.
Many young farmers hunted ptarmigan in large quantities, salted the meat and sold it to other countries.
The hunt was work, and the attitude was the same.
And, though there is no longer an export of ptarmigan, hunters can still sell their game to local stores or privately — something that can line the pockets nicely for a mass-hunter with more thought for the number of birds hunted than the number of those left living to further the breed.
This method took its toll.
Around the turn of the century, though, Icelanders realized that the ptarmigan was suffering badly and was close to extinction.
A full ban was placed for two years on ptarmigan hunt, during which much media coverage and talk among hunters appears to have woken up more people and changed the attitude to hunting.
However, this change is sometimes slow in coming.
With the change of environment ministers, the ban was lifted last year.
And interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, bird counts have shown that while the ptarmigan did extremely well during the two years when the ban was in effect, last year the stock plummeted again.
Therefore, it’s likely that a ban will be placed again this fall, simply because, otherwise, the Icelandic ptarmigan will go extinct in very few years.
And with the hunting ban on ptarmigan, more hunters turn to geese.
In recent years, bird specialists have pointed out that while the graylag goose is not endangered at present time, it is at a sensitive stage.
On average, geese hunters hunt about 12.3 geese each hunting season, according to the hunting department of The Environment and Food Agency of Iceland, which oversees hunting in Iceland.
But with the ban on ptarmigan, this number is likely to go up.
According to the hunters’ association, about 4,600 hunters own guns that they have only used for ptarmigan hunting.
Most of these hunters are not likely to stop their yearly fall activity, despite the ban on ptarmigans, but rather to find another bird to shoot for the Christmas feast.
And what better bird to turn to than geese?
But, as Sigmar B. Hauksson points out, people are learning.
There is more awareness of the limited game resources on this small island among hunters, laymen and politicians.
Most hunters now only hunt for themselves and their families, and the tradition developing around the hunt is more reminiscent of what many Yukoners are familiar with.
The hunt is planned long ahead, and the hunters select their partners with as much care as they select the piece of ground on which they hunt.
The careful attention is also paid to the choice of vehicle, the tents, and the food and drink.
These changes had begun long before the ptarmigan ban was placed, but the ban has certainly helped create a larger awareness of the delicate balance of nature and hunter.
Hunters are also increasingly careful of the image they portray now, and place more stress on the sportsmanship of hunting, rather than simply on the financial gains.
And as every Yukon hunter who has attended the Yukon hunting ethics development course can attest, that is how hunting should be treated.