Only three wetlands in the south of Iceland are officially protected, and the Flói Sanctuary, is one of them. (Flói means marshland or level mire.)
For nearly 20 years, the Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds has focused on reclaiming drained wetlands.
In the latter part of the 20th century, farmers began to drain many wetlands and grow hay on the fields they created.
More than 300 kilometres of irrigation ditches were dug; 540 kilometres of floodwalls were erected and about 200 bridges and dams were built.
Agriculture in Iceland had never seen such large-scale operation, but at the time, it was the most extensive irrigation scheme in Europe.
Drainage eventually became common practice in Icelandic farming.
This, of course, eliminated the wetlands in many parts of the country, and with them went the plants, the birdlife, small animals and fish.
In 1997, the society signed an agreement with Eyrarbakki village in the south of Iceland, and slowly began reclaiming wetland in Flói, which lies by the Ölfusá River, one of the largest rivers in Iceland.
Flói is now a bird reserve, and much time and effort has gone into reclaiming the wetland by filling in ditches in the area, but evidence of the drainage can be found all over the wetland, as well as the remains of an old farmstead, old roads and peat digs.
At first, the society started by filling up one kilometre of drainage ditches.
Pools that formerly had been filled with rust-brown water, and therefore were not tempting to most wading birds, filled with clear, clean water, and quickly attracted birds.
The water found its old tracks, and soon more birds arrived.
In the next few years, more ditches were blocked, and ever more birds arrived each year.
The Flói area sits on the 8,000-year-old Thjórsá River lava plain. The lava originated far inland and is reportedly the largest post ice-age lava flow on Earth.
“Depressions in the lava are filled with water and form thousands of small pools,” said Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson of the society, adding that these ponds range from four metres to several dozen metres in diameter and most of them are rather shallow.
The average height of the land is only about two metres above sea level, so seawater sometimes flows into the reserve.
When the visibility is good, the view of the surrounding mountains is both dazzling and dramatic.
The area forms part of the estuary of the Ölfusá River which is categorised by BirdLife International as an Internationally Important Bird Area
Wetland birds thrive in the reserve, and birds such as red-throated diver, whooper swan, greylag goose, mallard, widgeon, teal, scaup, tufted duck and red-breasted merganser abound.
Also arctic skua, black-headed gull, arctic tern and eider, and meadow pipit are commonly found there.
A pintail’s nest has been found and gadwall and shoveller are seen in the breeding season. These three species are all rare in Iceland.
Species breeding in the marshes include dunlin, whimbrel, black-tailed godwit, common snipe, red-necked phalarope and meadow pipit. Golden plovers breed in the drier area.
During spring and autumn migration greylag and white-fronted geese can be found as well as widgeon and tufted duck and various waders such as common snipe and passerines like wheatear.
Common seal often swim up the Ölfusá River, and the mink are common throughout the year.
Sticklebacks are abundant in the reserve, the ditches and ponds contain trout and eel, while the Ölfusá River is home to salmon and trout.
Furthermore, a wide variety of wetland plants can be seen in the marshes, some of them rare.
The flood meadows are covered in lyngbye’s sedge and several types of willow along with common sedge and cottongrass.
Most of the ponds are fringed with bottle sedge, pondweed, bogbean, water milfoil and other pond plants.
In dryer areas, wild angelica is common, along with Iceland rush, sea pea, lady smock, arctic fescue and many more.
Certain parts of the sanctuary are open to sheep and horses, mainly in the fall, and interestingly, the animals ensure that more types of plants thrive there, as their grazing leaves room for the less vivacious plants.
The society works with the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on Flói.
“Our goal from the beginning was to introduce a beautiful wetland, that exists in harmony with humans and birds, to Icelandic as well as foreign birdwatchers,” said Hilmarsson.
The sanctuary is about five square kilometres, but the society intends to enlarge it in the future.
One of the largest problems the wetland faces is anglers who, rather than walk to the river, drive on their four-wheel-drive vehicles over the sensitive nature.
To inform people of the vulnerable environment of the area, the society has made leaflets, signs, and footpaths in the area.
In addition, the society plans to build blinds for birdwatchers, more footpaths, bridges and larger ditches.