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A new life in Iceland farming nature's warmest material

  • Written by  Felicity Aston
  • Published in Explorers
The buildings that stand on Vigur are some of the oldest in Iceland, dating back to the mid-19th century The buildings that stand on Vigur are some of the oldest in Iceland, dating back to the mid-19th century
26 Mar
2021
Polar explorer Felicity Aston and her Icelandic husband took on the challenge of a lifetime when they became custodians of an island in the remote Arctic Westfjords to learn the art of eider down farming 

Feeling the pain of the polar cold in near-frozen digits isn’t a problem; it’s when they go numb that you need to start worrying. Skiing across turbulent rafts of pack ice in relentless cold, I found myself suddenly unable to shake the warmth back into my gloved fingertips after an unavoidably long stop out in the open. Alarmed, I reached into the sledge I was towing and pulled out my ‘happy gloves’, two enormous, puffed-out mitts stuffed with one of the warmest natural materials known to humanity: eider down. Plunging my numbed hands into the oversized gauntlets, I was quickly restored. Grateful as I was for this seemingly miraculous equipment, I had little idea of the story behind the lifesaving material that was essential to my team’s ability to travel safely in a polar environment. Neither did I suspect that in just a few years, I would be responsible for producing part of the world’s annual supply.

Eider down isn’t just incredibly warm, it’s also astonishingly rare. Down is the fluffy layer of fibres grown beneath the protective outer feathers of many species of goose and duck, but true eider down comes from just one species: the common eider.

Easily recognisable thanks to the striking black-and-white plumage of the males and the subtle tortoiseshell colouring of the females, common eider are wild sea-ducks of the north, found along the northern coasts of North America, Europe and Siberia, as well as in Greenland and Iceland.

Image 7Eider ducklings leave the nest almost as soon as they've hatched, following their mother to the sea

For centuries, eider down has been a prized commodity, keeping the nobility and others who could afford it warm at night. Today, it’s used not just in bedding but in specialist clothing worn by explorers, mountaineers and even astronauts to protect them from the most extreme environments. Commanding up to €1,500 per kilogram, its value is maintained not just by its extraordinary properties but also by its exclusivity. A kilogram of eider down is required to fill a standard-size double duvet and each year, just 3,500kg of eider down is produced worldwide. Of this, 3,000kg comes from Iceland, where the care of wild eider ducks and the export of eider down, an occupation known as eider farming, has become both an industry and a cultural tradition that’s passed from generation to generation.

AN IDEA TAKES HOLD

The island of Vigur emerges into view from the fjord like a scene from an Arthurian legend. From some vantage points it appears as a squat mound of rock, stout in the water, while from others it rises from the waves as long and sleek as the back of a whale, farm buildings clinging to its southern end like a cluster of barnacles. Vigur is closer to Greenland than to Europe, lying just south of the Arctic Circle in a deep fjord surrounded by the steep hillsides and flat-topped peaks of the Westfjords region of northwest Iceland.

Image 1The earliest written record of Vigur dates back to the 11th century, but it's thought to have been farmed since the original settlement of Iceland in the ninth century. This photo was taken some time after 1956

First inhabited by the Vikings, who settled Iceland during the ninth century, Vigur was once a thriving and influential community, but, like the surrounding fjordlands, it has since emptied and declined. The human population is vastly outnumbered by wildlife, particularly the 10,000 wild eider ducks that arrive every May to breed, making Vigur a significant centre for the collection of eider down and providing the island’s main source of income.

I first visited Vigur on an expedition ship. Like most visitors, I found a serenity in the messy, noisy chaos that stayed with me long after I had left. The eider, with their fat, luxuriously feathered bodies and human-like cooing, were an unforgettable and oddly comforting presence. When I heard that Vigur was for sale, I followed the news anxiously, concerned for its future as the local community failed to convince the Icelandic authorities to claim the island for the nation. Private enterprises then proposed schemes to develop the island into various forms of exclusive holiday accommodation. ‘They can’t let this happen,’ I railed at my husband. Minutes later, as our kitchen-table discussion ended with the thought that perhaps we could be the next caretakers of Vigur, we sat looking at each other in terrified excitement. We were comfortable with remote living but we knew nothing of eider farming.

After a year of tense plans, raised hopes, devastating setbacks and frightening negotiations with banks, investors, lawyers and authorities, we found ourselves on Vigur in the dim twilight of a northern morning, waving goodbye to a small rubber boat as it left for the mainland. I stood with my husband, Gísli, and our two-year-old son, now the sole residents and guardians of a slice of Arctic paradise. As explorers, expedition leaders and guides, Gísli and I have spent most of our adult lives taking on challenges in the world’s remotest places, but rarely have I felt so intimidated as when I stood on Vigur that first morning contemplating the task ahead and the enormity of what was at risk should we fail.

Image 13Collecting eider down is labour intensive but it’s also an enjoyable way to get to know Vigur and its wildlife

A NEW PROFESSION

Vigur’s eider ducks are wild seabirds, yet many choose to nest as close as possible to the old farmstead, including right by the front step of the farmhouse, beneath machinery and tucked under rhubarb plants in the vegetable garden. In spring, I was woken each morning by the harsh knocking of duck bills against the wooden panels of the farmhouse door. Eventually, I worked out that they were complaining about the absence of the buckets of fresh water that the previous farmer had customarily left out for them. The eider flock to Vigur every year because the island’s resident farming family has, for generations, made it an eider idyll – preparing choice nesting spots with dry seaweed, hay and, in some cases, purpose-built shelters, and providing protection from predators by continually patrolling the island, warding off seagulls, ravens and falcons.

The hatching of eggs and the survival of ducklings increases and, in return, the farmer collects the eider down shed by the ducks to insulate their nests. More nests means more down and the closer the ducks choose to settle, the easier the collection for the farmer. It’s a unique, mutually beneficial relationship between human and duck that’s a remarkable exception to the usual trend of exploitation. Outside of Iceland, down is often a by-product of the meat industry or, even worse, the result of ‘live-plucking’, but for Icelandic eider farmers, the well-being of the eider is paramount, not just aesthetically and morally, but for the very success and sustainability of the industry. Since 1847, the common eider and its eggs have been fully protected in Iceland due to the importance of the eider down trade. As a result, the country’s eider population is healthy and stable today, at a time when eider numbers have been showing signs of decline elsewhere.

We had been left careful instructions on the care of both land and ducks by the departing farmer and were in close contact with the ‘Vigrungar’ (those are raised on the island or who have spent much of their lives there), but even so, we were attempting to learn in a matter of months knowledge usually amassed over a generation and were left constantly anxious that we would somehow be found lacking and mess it up catastrophically. By mid-May, the first eggs started to appear and we began our first collections of down. Setting out with large cotton sacks, wearing washing-up gloves and knee-high rubber boots, we methodically combed the island section by section; from the tideline of the beaches, across hummocked fields of long grass to the top of Vigur’s craggy central ridge. The brooding female eiders are so well camouflaged that finding them takes concentration. It isn’t uncommon to almost stumble over a duck before you see her. The nests are luxuriously lined with thick layers of perfectly soft and springy down that’s naturally shed by the female, triggered by the release of hormones.

Image 4Once an influential seat of governance for the region, Vigur, like much of the Westfjords, has depopulated over the past century

On each visit to a nest, just a little of the eider down is collected, leaving plenty to keep any eggs warm. There are an estimated 3,500 nests on Vigur, each of which is visited up to three times over a season. On the last visit, when all the eggs have hatched and the ducklings will soon be ready to leave, every scrap of the remaining down is taken. It’s a laborious job but an enjoyable one – day after day spent out in summer sunshine with glorious views of the fjord, scrambling into hidden coves and searching grassy clifftops. It’s a satisfying way to get to know a place and become acquainted with not just the eiders but the puffins and other Arctic creatures that live alongside them.

I can understand why the annual eider down collection has become such a beloved Icelandic tradition. Vigrungar and experienced locals arrived on the island throughout June and July to help with the collection, the population of Vigur swelling to 20 at times. We were grateful not just for the extra hands but for the exuberant welcome to the community it represented, soaking up the stories and knowledge about the eiders, the island and the history that were so willingly shared with us.

By August, the majority of the eiders had left the island and the down had all been collected, but there was still much work to be done and plenty of opportunity for disaster. Some 80 per cent of the weight of the collected down was unwanted debris such as grass, eggshell and seaweed, as well as feathers, which all had to be removed.

Image 5A female eider, known as a kolla in Icelandic, incubating her eggs

First, it was laid out on the grass around the farm to sun dry. Down is so lightweight that when a handful is thrown into the air it seems to float, defying gravity for a moment. The possibility of our entire harvest disappearing on a rogue breeze weighed heavily on our minds on even the calmest day. Next, the down is pressed onto a heated table before being passed through custom-built machinery that shakes out most of the debris. Finally, the down is processed by hand, using traditional stringed wooden frames called harps to remove every tiny fragment of debris and feather, leaving behind pure, clean eider down. It can take even the most experienced worker five hours or more to clean a single kilogram.

While the majority of the world’s eider down is sourced from Iceland, the major markets for eider down products are Germany and Japan, with the precise value of a kilogram of down rising and falling with demand as erratically as the price of oil. Since 1970, Icelandic law has required all eider down to be officially certified before it’s exported. A national inspector checks the quality of all down collected and formally weighs it, fastening each inspected bag with a wax seal to assure the product’s authenticity.

Image 18Laying the collected eider down out to dry in the sun, as it has been done for centuries

Nervously, we handed over our sacks of eider down from Vigur and awaited the inspector’s assessment. If the down wasn’t clean enough, if a single feather had escaped our notice and, most crucially, if the global price of eider down wasn’t what we were expecting, the financial consequences for Vigur could be significant. The news, when it came, was passable. We were complimented on the quality of our down and although there wasn’t as much as we had hoped, it was enough to see us through to another year.

I will never again celebrate the warmth of my down mitts on an expedition without reflection. I’ve been given a new appreciation for the marvel of natural materials so often taken for granted, but also for the old ways of doing things. Becoming an eider farmer has given me an optimism that the methods of the past might be part of the roadmap our world needs to develop a more sustainable, and more satisfying, future.

Felicity Aston 3

Felicity Aston has led international expeditions to remote places around the world, including both the North and South Poles. She has been appointed an MBE and awarded the Polar Medal for services to exploration and the polar regions. She currently manages the island of Vigur in northwest Iceland with her husband and young son. www.vigurisland.com / www.felicityaston.com 

 

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