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Post-settlement history of Icelandic forests
By Hörður Kristinsson
Journal of Icelandic Agricultural Sciences, Vol.9 (1995)
Summary: A short review is given on the history of Icelandic woodlands based on historic data from different periods, and the experience with vegetation in different regions of the country today and its relation to climate. It is evaluated which areas were probably woodless at the settlement, and the theory about the word “heiði” in place names set forth by Steindór Steindórsson is discussed. The frequent presence of names ending with “-heiði” almost down to the sea level in some extremely oceanic regions, is explained by these same regions being woodless heathland at the time when the names were formed. The old sagas indicate that the first settlers spent a lot of time clearing woodlands, and it is described how the wood was used for buildings, as fuel and to make charcoal. After the wood had been used up in densely populated areas, it had to be transported from more remote regions. At last the inhabitants had to tear up brushwood and dwarfshrubs to obtain sufficient heating material essential for surviving in Iceland. Free grazing everywhere prevented the natural regeneration of the woodlands.
Introduction: It is my attention, to give you a short view of the history of the Icelandic woodlands from the settlement of the country in the ninth and tenth century, until now. Let us start with an attempt to illustrate the situation when the norse settlers arrived to the country.
In a book that Ari the Learned (1068-1148) wrote to describe the settlement of the country, he tells that Iceland was covered with wood between the seashore and the mountains. This statement has probably been more often cited than any other in the old sagas. It has been disputed by many earlier authors, but I think it is generally accepted in later times. We have now seen that wood of willows and birches soon grows by itself, if protected from intensive grazing, which otherwise prevents the natural succession.