This little creature is to Iceland what the Bengal Tiger is to India and the Kangaroo to Australia: synonymous with the local country and fully resonant with its topography.
It is the Arctic Fox: Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammal.
Also known as the snow, polar or white fox, this creature is the smallest member of the canidae family and related to other foxes, wolves and dogs.
Mainly a carnivore, it has a lifespan of 3-6 years in the wild.
Descendants of the last Ice Age, the first arctic foxes came to Iceland walking over frozen sea bridges and remained after the ice cap retracted north.
An incredible creature indeed, having clearly aced the trick of thriving in tough terrain and harsh weather for over ten thousand years now.
There are at least 5 different genetic groups in Iceland believed to have migrated at different times. Hunting for fur and legislations for mandatory poisoning brought the population down to about 1000-1300 foxes in the 1960s. Today they are protected by the Ministry of Environment and the Wild Species Act with hunting licenses required to shoot them, and their population is around 8,000.
Adaptability is one of its key strengths
Despite its relatively tiny body, the fox is the Arctic Circle’s hardiest little predator, beating even the mighty polar bear in the survival sweepstakes
Unlike other animals of the region, the fox does not hibernate through the winter but adapts to the changing weather with its unique coat and body fat.
The coat, which is usually brown in the summer, becomes 3 times thicker in the winter and its colour changes match its environment. Inland foxes can be snow white to blend in with the snow but foxes that inhabit the coast and cliffs have a blue-grey coast to match the black sands and cliffs. This effective camouflage ensures the fox may hunt easily without being easily hunted in turn. A countercurrent heat exchange in the paws helps maintains body temperature.
Adaptability is key to survive life in Iceland and adapt to its harsh climate and the available resources.
The Arctic Fox usually eats birds, eggs, carrion and mice but can also eat berries and seaweed. It can attack helpless seal pups and when food is scarce, it will even eat its own body waste.
This will to survive also means the fox can travel beyond the territory that it inhabits in search of food. When food is abundant in the summer, the fox caches food or stores it in their dens for the winter.
Habitat and Breeding
Subterranean dens in rugged terrain with a complex labyrinth of tunnels offer safety and protection to cubs. These dens are used by generations of foxes for decades, and are spaced to avoid competition between the fox families.
The foxes form monogamous pairs with one mating partner for life. Mating season is in the spring with cubs born early summer. The average litter has 4-5 pups, which remain with the parents for the summer before they set out to find their own way in the autumn.
The Arctic Fox Centre
The Arctic Fox Center in Sudavik was founded in 2007 and is only organisation dedicated to the preservation and protection of the fox. Apart from the fascinating exhibition on the Arctic fox, it also houses two rescued pups, Ingi and Mori.
Spotting the Arctic Fox in the wild
For many there is nothing better than the thrill of meeting the Arctic Fox in the wild.
Although they are found all over Iceland, their density is the most in the Westfjords. A shy animal, the lower population and lesser-frequented mountains of this remote region give the fox a feeling of security; and the huge bird cliffs and long coastline provide abundant food.
The Hornstrandir nature reserve is the only place in Iceland where the Arctic fox is completely protected from hunting so apart from being easier to sight, they are also friendly and not afraid of humans.
We organise private guided tours on request from Sudavik in the Isafjordur Bay area where our local guides keep track of the dens and foxes’ movements.
We also offer group tours almost daily by boat to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve.
The advantages of an organised tour are many: you benefit from local knowledge on the location of the foxes dens and the paths they frequent, get an insight into the life, habitat and behaviour of the fox; and also learn more about the beautiful Westfjords.
We strongly advise not to feed the foxes. Although they are used to encountering human beings every now and then, this encourages dependence for others on food, which is never a good thing for wild creatures.
Keep a respectful distance even as you revel in whatever magical encounters you might have with the fox.