Article | Iceland

Visit the Skálanes Nature Reserve

Established in 2005, Skálanes is an independent nature reserve near Seyðisfjörður, Iceland that boasts beautiful bird colonies, abundant plant life, and fascinating archaeology. Founder and director Óli Pétursson tells us more about what guests to Skálanes can look forward to witnessing on a visit there.
Arctic tern lupin flowers Skalanes Iceland

© Skálanes Nature Reserve

A Complex Ecosystem

Historically, Iceland was once more widely forested, but since humans arrived, we’ve lost about half of our plant cover and over 90% of our forests. When you visit the country, you can learn about the effects of human occupation and how the natural processes you see are either accelerating or decelerating because of our land use. This is very evident at Skálanes.

Although we are a nature reserve with an emphasis on field science and conservation, you shouldn’t have the misconception that this is a pristine environment free of historical human effects. When you come visit us, you’re not coming to a place where we can say “It’s been like this forever.” We built the institute in 2005 and since that time we’ve seen massive changes in the plant composition and the bird life. What you’re seeing is a landscape in evolution.

Reindeer Skalanes landscape Iceland

© Skálanes Nature Reserve

Reindeer are one of the wildlife species commonly spotted at Skálanes.

For example, during a national campaign to help reduce soil erosion in the 1980s, lupins from Alaska were introduced on a massive scale. Lupin is a nitrogen fixer, related to the bean family of plants. In other places around the world, such as in Canada, lupins are classic pioneer species, colonize nutrition-poor habitats, help improve their quality, and promote classic species succession. But in Iceland, lupin has surprised most people with its invasive tendencies. Even in soil that was once eroded and has been recolonized by native plants, you’ll see lupins. For me, it brings up philosophical questions like, what is nature? What is beautiful? Is anything a correct ecology?

Visitors exploring Skalanes nature reserve Iceland

© Skálanes Nature Reserve

Guests enjoy exploring the geography and botany of the Skálanes Nature Reserve.

Options for Every Interest

What else you’ll see on your visit to Skálanes depends on the season. We lie at a latitude around 65º North, so many of the birds we see here are seasonal. In early or midsummer, you’ll see there are big colonies of Arctic terns and eider ducks. These are typical Icelandic species of ground-nesting birds that you can see close to the shoreline. You may have the option to do a Zodiac cruise around the cliffs to see the bird colonies of kittiwakes, fulmars, and guillemots, or you might enjoy a walk ashore. The distances between the different points of interest here are very short, so it’s not a massive undertaking to enjoy many parts of the site.

The Arctic tern colony here is big and they’re very aggressive. When you come ashore, you can pick a flower or use a walking stick and hold it above your head, so the birds will dive-bomb it instead of you. There is a path you can take out to the cliffs, where there is a viewing platform and a seating area.

Skalanes Iceland viewing platform seating area mountains

© Skálanes Nature Reserve

A hike up to the viewing platform and seating area offers stunning views of the surrounding mountainscape.

If you are up for a walk that’s more off the beaten path, you can visit the archaeological site, where Rannveig Þórhallsdóttir is working on a very interesting archaeological project, extracting DNA from the soil rather than physical artefacts. This gives a completely different set of data to understand what people’s lifestyles were like over time, their land use, and their influence on the landscape.

Skalanes archaeological dig and pet dog

© Skálanes Nature Reserve

On a visit to Skálanes you can take the opportunity to learn more about the archaeological research happening at the site.

What were people eating? What resources were they using? What illnesses were they sick with? We can hopefully answer all these questions without needing to extract artefacts. By understanding how people lived their lives previously, you can also better understand how the landscape has changed.

We have a number of students who are here with their professors doing research, and you may or may not have the chance to meet these young people carrying out their research on your visit.

Skalanes nature reserve research students

© Skálanes Nature Reserve

Laboratory space and other facilities are available for visiting researchers and students who come to Skálanes.

Finally, you can wander down to the vicinity of the house, where the majority of the eider ducks nest in late May until early July. Eider farming is a traditional way of working symbiotically with these wilds birds, who line their nest with down. This is an important part of our operation, since it demonstrates a unique way of living with and in nature. It's also something that is a part of my own family history.

Skalanes nature reserve house Icelandic flag plants

© Skálanes Nature Reserve

Skálanes Field Science and Conservation Centre, Seyðisfjörður, Iceland

A Small-Scale Sustainable Resource

Establishing a colony of eider ducks happens somewhat naturally if you keep a relatively calm space available for them. In fact, because humans are using this space, the ducks quite like it here and they’ve figured out that this is a safe area.

In Iceland, mink is an introduced species that is very harmful to ground-nesting birds. There is an Iceland government policy that we exterminate them, so we trap and kill minks on our property, which thereby protects the ducks. Another of their natural predators, the Arctic fox, is very shy of our area because we have a large, friendly Labrador dog. Other ground-nesting bird species, some of which are endangered, also benefit from these simple management tools and use the area to nest in healthy numbers.

Eider duck with down in beak Skalanes Iceland

© Skálanes Nature Reserve

Eider ducks shed their down naturally.

Eider ducks are heavily insulated by their feathers, but to warm their eggs, they shed down from their breasts so that the heat can transfer directly from their skin. The down acts then as both an insulator and a camouflage for the eggs in their nests. In the breeding season, we collect this down from the nests and replace it with hay or seaweed, which serves the same purpose.

We only collect about eight or nine kilograms per year from our colony, so this is an extremely small-scale resource. Foraging or gathering eider down is a tradition in Iceland. It’s one of the better downs you can have for the ratio of weight to insulation, and there’s no harm to the ducks in the process. These ducks aren’t unnaturally fattened or medicated, and they stay and leave by their own choice.

Eider nest down eggs Iceland

© Skálanes Nature Reserve

An eider duck uses their down to insulate and camouflage their nests.

Your Visit Helps Our Research

Skálanes was created with the intention to be a field research station and we’re happy to have guests and show you around. Not many people read academic papers for fun, so by hosting groups, we can disseminate our research. We’re independently funded and not-for-profit, and the contribution of your visit helps us run and maintain the place.

We’ve had so many people come through—guests, students, professors, conservationists. They’ve suggested ideas and gradually transformed the place to what it is. There’s a lot of people who have helped make this place, too many people to accredit them properly. It’s been marvelous to experience all the support we’ve been given—intellectual, emotional, and financial. We hope you’ll come and learn even more about it yourself!

About the Author

Ólafur (Óli) Örn Pétursson

Ólafur (Óli) Örn Pétursson

Director, Skálanes Nature Reserve

Ólafur is a local raised in the town of Seyðisfjörður, Iceland. He is married to Rannveig Þórhallsdóttir, a Ph.D student in archaeology, and is a father of three. He lives with his family, their dog, and a cat (who really runs the show) in a house built in 1895, which is in perpetual need of maintenance.

Ólafur started working on establishing Skálanes in 2005, and continues today with massive help from family, friends, and many others. Currently, he is working on a post-grad thesis in physical geography, which has been somewhat delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a massive landslide that hit the town of Seyðisfjörður in December 2020.