Well, we’ve just spent the most enthralling couple of weeks filming Eider duck, their chicks and the age old tradition of collecting their down for your duvets, pillows and the very best of down jackets. These minute feathers are worth a small fortune, but their story and the people involved are where the riches are for us.
This down is without doubt the finest natural insulator you can find. Its the soft under layer of feathers from the breast of the female which she removes herself to line the nest. Microscopic barbs lock the feathers together, trapping millions of pockets of air, making it incredibly good for us humans. It was even used as insulation on early space missions, so you can see how it benefits the Eider during their long stays out on the Arctic ocean.
Thor and his brother Bubbi, have been our hosts for the trip, They are co owners of a small island near Flatey, just south of the Westfjords.
It’s the most beautiful place, a sparkling archipelago of dozens of little rocky outcrops and islets set in the cold clear Icelandic waters.
Legend has it that it is impossible to count the islands here, the tides reveal more and more rocks that could pass as islands at differing states, but one way used to define an island is whether birds nest on it, and here there are birds nesting galore.
A quick list includes Red Phalarope, Black Guillemot, Redshank (sound recordists note – the noise from these guys is not popular when trying to record an interview!!), Arctic Tern, Ring necked Plover, Shelduck and of course the Eider, it was these guys we came to film as they built their nests and hatched their young.
Eider and the traditional method of down collecting were one of the reasons we proposed making this film (it took nearly four years to get it off the ground!) it’s a very animal friendly way of using a natural resource and typical of Icelanders to find a way of working with nature not destroying it.
The method is very simple really, you walk around your island, find a nesting eider (there are about 3000 on this island), gently lift out the eggs, remove the eider down lining the nest, replace with fresh hay and replace eggs, job done…
(ed note, it also gave Andy the chance to try out a new hairdo, its been a long time since he had a full head of hair)
But that’s where the hard work begins, theres a lot of ground to cover for a start, hopping on and off an inflatable dinghy to get to the smaller islets, carrying a sacks of hay and down around with you as you scramble over the rocks, is tiring work. Fortunately theres plentiful supplies of cocoa milk (a favourite with the families here) and a fantastic meal to look forward to at the end of the day (pepared by a very talented cook, how she manages to look after so many people is a mystery but she’s a star!)
Once you’ve done your days collecting, the nests need to be cleaned, dried, cleaned again, dried more, cleaned and cleaned, mostly by hand. Then when they’ve removed as much of the dried grass, seaweed and bits as possible (you can only get 50% out at this stage) it goes off to the mainland to be cleaned of the rest, then sent to the specialist duvet manufacturer around the world (lots in Japan apparently)
Worldwide production of Eider is only about 5 tonnes, 4 of those come from Iceland. When you think that it takes roughly 65 nests to get 1kg of finished material, you begin to see the numbers of birds involved.
Its worth pointing out that this is totally harmless to the birds, they are not plucked of their down, they’ve done that themselves whilst building the nest., and research has shown no ill effects on the down being replaced with fresh hay. Its one of the few products where the animal it comes from will still be leading a life in the wild whilst you are using its product.
The islands are incredibly well managed for all nesting birds, not just Eider, there are snipe, redshank, plover, puffin and black guillemot all over the place. Much is done to improve the numbers of Eider and all the other nesting birds for obvious reasons. Some of the nesting sites here have been used for hundreds of years, with birds returning to the same spot year after year.
Escaped Mink (a non native predator introduced for the fur) play havoc on bird colonies if they can reach them, killing hundreds on their killing sprees.
Not anymore though, they’ve now been eradicated here and all the bird species have recovered thanks to the round the clock vigil that Thor and the farmers take in protecting against foxes, black backed gulls and other predators.
Each year whilst collecting the down, its clear that some of the chicks wont make it on their own, either they are late in hatching and mum leaves the nest with the more fully grown ones, or mum has just laid too many eggs (they normally incubate 4, but can lay 6). So Thor and the family step in to give a helping hand. They hand raise dozens of chicks, incubating eggs to hatching, or rearing already hatched chicks, of course that’s where the fun comes in!
Its been really good fun watching the chicks grow and learn how to survive on their own.
they’ve proved to be willing helpers with the filming too…
The children here (the Eider harvest is very much a family affair) adore them and are always a bit sad when one doesn’t make it, the inevitable circle of life.
Its become a tradition over the years that all the ducklings are given a proper burial by the children, who pay their respects in time honoured fashion.
But after a proper send off they are back busy with giving the chicks swimming lessons, helping to feed them and generally enjoy the experience of working with wild animals.
In just a few short weeks, these ducklings will all leave the islands to their lives in the wild, the females hopefully returning to nest on the island.
Not before they’ve had some tuition in how to find their food of course, The ducklings need to be shown how to grub around under stones to find shrimps and worms, Thor and the children are perfect surrogate mothers, spending precious time in these lessons. It’s a lovely sight seeing kids and a big hulk of a man on his hands and knees in the mud cooing to the chicks and hand feeding them shrimps.
Once again on our trip through this brilliant country, we’ve been bowled over by the hospitality of the Icelandic people, and by the love and knowledge they have of their wildlife and wild places.
Seeing how involved the kids have been in the whole process, collecting and cleaning the down, helping with the chicks, and not a moment of telly watching or playstation to distract them, has been a stark reminder of how we should be raising children too. Their respect and knowledge of the wildlife is amazing, its lovely to see the next generation being raised with that love of the wild, and they’ve made brilliant camera assistants too..
So its with a huge thank you to Thor, Bubbi and everyone on the island, we take many fond memories with us, if not one of the ducklings!
Theres more details of the whole process of Eider collecting here http://icelandeider.is.w7.x.is/?page_id=2347
Ian has now gone off to film the Arctic fox family we’ve been following up in the far northwest of Iceland, and we are heading east to catch up with those wonderful bars of silver that return to the rivers of Iceland each year to spawn….the king of fish in many peoples eyes, the Salmon.