Reforesting Iceland

Bringing Icelandic birchwoods back to the land of fire and ice

Project information

Iceland is known for its vast open landscapes shaped by massive volcanos and expansive glaciers. Native birchwoods, the only woodland type to form in Iceland, are also an important part of the landscape. They offer food and shelter for biodiversity, help stabilise soil, provide wind breaks, and sequester carbon. At one point, it is thought that 25-40% of Iceland was covered in birchwoods. Now, it is a mere 1.5%. This project, in partnership with the Iceland Forest Service, aims to restore birchwoods to an area about 120km east of Reykjavik where natural succession could take centuries or even millennia.

Project Timeline

The Ecosystem

Tree Species

We plant downy birch (Betula pubescens), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), aspen (Populus tremula) and tea-leaved willow (Salix phylicifolia).

Priority Species

Redpoll (Acanthis flammea), redwing (Turdus iliacus), snipe (Gallinago gallinago) and ptarmigan (Lagopus muta).

Downy birch, the tree species being used in reforestation efforts in Iceland by Mossy Earth and the IFS.
The native birch this reforestation project is restoring to Icelandic lands.

Learn More About the Context Behind this Project

A History of Decline

Reversing centuries of degradation

At the time of human settlement almost 1,150 years ago, Iceland had a forest cover of between 25% to 40%. By the mid 20th century, it is thought to have been reduced to less than 1% of the total land area, perhaps even less than 0.5%.

Huge swathes of forest were cleared by the first settlers of the island, who used the wood for fuel, ships and houses, and then also cleared forest to make room for sheep grazing.

For the last few decades, tree planting projects and afforestation grants have got underway, and today, native woodland cover stands at around 1.5%. The Iceland government aims to increase that number to 5% in the next 50 years.

An illustration of a Viking ship at sea, the settlers responsible for deforesting parts of Iceland.
Historians and archaeologists believe 95% of deforestation happened at the hands of the first settlers.

A Lone Woodland

What makes the ecosystem special?

Iceland birchwoods are unusual in that they are the only type of native woodland to form in Iceland. All other woodland types are comprised of non-native species, such as spruce and larch. Birchwoods are comprised predominantly of a single species - downy birch. Rowan and tea-leaved willow add some diversity to the woodland, as well as aspen, an extremely rare tree in Iceland that exists in only 8 locations. Birchwoods are also not particularly tall, with trees reaching roughly 15m in height in sheltered valleys. Towards the coast and on exposed sites, birchwoods transition to birch and willow scrub, and at high elevations to willow tundra.

Birchwoods provide important habitat for wildlife, particularly birdlife, such as wrens, redwings, and redpolls. They are also important for capturing carbon and as a windbreak. Iceland is well known for its wind, which, combined with its volcanic activity, is a recipe for disastrous sand and ash storms that blow unimpeded across much of the landscape. Birchwoods can help stabilise soils and act as a much-needed barrier against the storms.

An Icelandic ptarmigan.
One of the species to benefit from returning forests in Iceland is the ptarmigan.

The Threats

Deforestation

When settlers arrived in Iceland, they began harvesting birchwoods for fuel, building material and livestock fodder. The most important forest produce at the time was charcoal, needed to smelt iron and make iron tools. Birchwoods were also cut down to create fields and grazing land for sheep, which were farmed for wool and later for food. 

Overgrazing

Once the trees were cut down, woodland cover continued to decline due to overgrazing by sheep. Sheep roam freely across the landscape and can browse naturally generating birch trees. If you want to keep sheep off your land in Iceland, it is your responsibility to keep them out by building a fence. Today, natural regeneration failure due to livestock grazing is the principle cause of deforestation.

Three sheep sitting in a bare landscape in Iceland.
Livestock grazing is considered the driving force behind Iceland's lack of forests today.

More Threats

Soil erosion

Iceland has been described as the most eroded land in Europe, possibly the world. As the woodlands and vegetation disappeared, soil was left exposed to the hash Icelandic climate. Over time, this has left poor quality substrate and little in the way of nutrients for trees to grow across many areas in Iceland. Considerable efforts have been put into halting and reversing this trend in the last century, led by the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland.

A changing climate

A cooling climate, volcanic eruptions and other types of disturbance are sometimes cited as causes for the decline in woodland in Iceland, but do not explain the entire picture. Cooling temperatures might have lowered the tree line, as the higher altitude areas became more inhospitable to trees, but do not explain the disappearance of birchwoods in the lowlands. Natural disturbances, such as volcanic eruptions, are sporadic and restricted to particular sites, so not do explain the widespread deforestation across the country.

A rocky Icelandic landscape devoid of soil.
This image, taken by our Conservation Biologist Hannah Kirkland, shows the extent of soil loss to some landscapes.

The Planting Area: Skridhufell

The initial planting site allocated for this project was in the west of the country in an area called Bakkakotsháls, translated to Bankcroft Hill. However, planting at this location was suspended due to a complaint received about an access road to the site being repaired.

The Icelandic Forestry Service has reassigned this project to an area located in Skeiða- og Gnúpverjahreppur in the south of Iceland. The planting area is situated just south of Selklettar mountain besides a hill of 240m in elevation named Skridhufell. The area is picturesque with a winding river running through it and a waterfall close by. Wildlife that inhibits the area include the native arctic fox and a variety of birdlife. The area also contains patches of eroded soil and lupin - a rapid spreading invasive plant. As this plant has soil improving qualities and is the topic of debate around Iceland, we've made a special video on this divisive issue (see below).

the view from above at Mossy Earth's Iceland Reforestation project
The view from above at our reforestation site.

Future Ambitions

To scale this reforestation project, we are using funds received from our members between June 2022 - September 2023 to invest in trees at this site. In addition, we offer our members the chance to purchase extra trees via their account for the 2023 planting season. The cost per tree is €2, however, we believe the final cost will be lower, in that case, 80% of the extra funds will be injected into a rewilding project in Iceland.

Our long-term plans are to work towards wider restoration objectives in Iceland. This could include implementing rewilding projects, such as an ambitious wetland restoration project in the Highlands, which we are currently investigating.

Where do you sit on the lupin issue?

Here is our take on the divisive invasive plant in Iceland. Check it out and let us know your opinion!

Sources & further reading

Peer Reviewed Research Section
  1. Restoration of birch woodlands in Iceland - Aradóttir, Á. and Throstur, E. (2005)External linkIcon Peer Review
  2. Soil carbon status after vegetation restoration in South West Iceland - Nyirenda, H. (2020)External linkIcon Peer Review