ICELAND AND ITS LIVESTOCK BREEDS
Professor Ólafur R. Dýrmundsson
Iceland, a country of 103.300 km2 just south of the Arctic Circle, known for its volcanoes and glaciers, has a human population of 320,000. Agriculture is of great importance as its 4000 farmers produce sufficient food of animal origin for the domestic market as well as substantial amounts of vegetables, partly in geothermally heated glasshouses. The island is rich in diverse animal genetic resources. The native livestock breeds of Iceland, all of Nordic origin, have played an important role, both in the self- sufficiency and the national food security of the country, ever since the Settlement over 1100 years ago. This applies especially to sheep, cattle and horses and to a lesser extent to goats and poultry. Within the Iceland breed of sheep, constituting the largest population of purebred Northern short-tails in the world, there is the unique strain of Leadersheep, mainly horned and coloured (see photo). The populations of native goats and poultry are small (see photos). The present populations of dairy cattle, horses and sheep are sustainable as production breeds, in fact the only ones found in the country, all showing steady genetic progress in modern breed evaluation programmes. Special efforts are made in all these heritage breeds to maintain high levels of genetic diversity, such as in coat colours. Iceland is a good example of a country where conservation of native heritage breeds is strongly supported by utilization. The island is free from many well-known animal diseases, mainly due to isolation and strict import policies, but what matters most of all is the loyality of the farmers who fully support the breeding and maintenance of their locally well adapted and productive livestock breeds. Moreover, strong consumer support is evident where emphasis is placed on cultural values, genetic diversity and quality products. International obligations, including those under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity from 1992, to conserve and maintain genetic resources, demand decisive efforts to combat genetic erosion. Any threats facing these valuable genetic resources are viewed with utmost concern in Iceland.
(Photos by Jon Erikkson)