Saved from the Brink of Extinction

Iceland is a relatively young landmass that sits on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a place where the North American and Eurasian continental plates nearly meet (but actually move apart). The island was formed about 70 million years ago when molten lava rose to the ocean’s surface from a magma pocket that today sits under the island and is still part of the extensive volcanic activity in the area.

Whether it is because of its relatively new status or because of its remote location, there is no evidence that Iceland ever had an indigenous population. Norwegian Vikings and their female prisoners settled the island in late 800 CE. Because the largest native mammal is the arctic fox, the Vikings also had to bring their own livestock. The Viking goats lived in genetic isolation that resulted in the development of a biologically distinct breed: the Icelandic goat. These goats are either brown and hornless or white and horned.

Until a medieval ice age affected Iceland, the goat was a popular choice of livestock. They fell out of favor in the harsh, inhospitable conditions because sheep produce more wool and higher-fat meat and milk compared to those of goats. The culture embraced the sheep, and that sentiment has continued to this day. Goats were neglected and ignored by the culture, and their numbers declined over hundreds of years.

The goats became so at-risk of extinction that thirty years ago, there were only four brown hornless Icelandic goats left on earth. A woman named Johanna Thorvaldsdottir decided that she had a mission to save these goats and adopted them in spite of her lack of experience with them. She supported the farm and her mission by making products out of the Icelandic goats’ hair and milk. She also served as a consultant to other breeders to help increase the numbers and genetic diversity in the population.

Despite her best efforts, Johanna found herself in deep financial trouble as the 2008 banking crisis spread to individual Icelanders. Haafell, her farm, was facing foreclosure and Johanna’s mission appeared to be in jeopardy until HBO’s Game of Thrones used her goats during the filming of Season 4. This event created the publicity she needed to boost the campaign to save the goats. Using crowdfunding and a variety of platforms, she received donations from all over the world to keep her farm.

Nationwide because of her efforts over three decades, the Icelandic goats number about 1,200. Johanna herself now has 250 goats on her farm, far more than anyone else in the country. Icelandic goat meat and milk products are appearing on the menus of fine restaurants. Some people might be horrified that Johanna would think the use of Icelandic goat meat was a good sign, but she puts it best when she says, “When saving a breed, you have to use it. If they aren’t giving you income, no one will work with them.”

Copyright-free images of the Icelandic goat were not available. Please enjoy the Facebook Group Icelandic Goats (which for the observant person features a profile image of a brown horned goat — considered an anomaly!)

Originally published at baileylaurajean.com on March 19, 2019.

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Writer, educator, nonprofit unicorn.

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