Summers with foxes

EMMA FENNELL HODSON shares some vulpine vignettes

490 kms from Reykjavík lies the coastal harbour town of Ísafjörður. Quaint, colourful wooden houses line its cobbled streets and the fjords loom above the town in every direction. Ísafjörður is the largest town for miles and this is where we would be getting a small boat to take us further north still to the peninsula of Hornstrandir: home of the Arctic foxes.

There’s something about Iceland that keeps drawing me back. I’ve been three times now and plan to return again. I’m awed by the wonder of this almost mystical place with its extensive lava fields sprawling for hundreds of kilometres, the jagged fjords that seem to appear out of nowhere, shrouded in low-lying cloud, the geothermal highlands where the mountains billow steam and gases and the seemingly never-setting summer sun. Up in the Westfjords where we monitor the Arctic foxes, it’s around five miles from the Arctic Circle. This means that in the summer, the sun barely dips below the horizon. On the six hour drive up from Reykjavík to Ísafjörður, the fjords were illuminated in a deep orange glow at 1am. By 2am, the sky had begun to get lighter again and morning sunlight began to replace the deep oranges of the nearly-setting sun.

On the Hornstrandir peninsula, there is very little. There’s a single house and a couple of camp sites; apart from that, it’s all rugged, barren terrain stretching for miles. There’s no phone signal or WiFi on the peninsula, which is remarkably refreshing. I find that the manic pace of modern life can get overwhelming with everyone caught up in what’s happening on social media. Taking a step back from technology and being cut off from the world feels like a massive weight off my shoulders and I find myself more in tune with nature and everything that is going on around me. It would be necessary to take all the supplies with us that we would need whilst being based on what feels like the edge of the world. Loaded with boxes filled with vegetables, pasta, muesli, nuts, Skyr (the most amazing yoghurt in the whole world) and Kropp (these amazing chocolate covered crunchy balls) and an insane number of boiled eggs, we were all set. Don’t get me wrong; we prioritized all the essential things first and all the vital equipment and gear we would need for monitoring the foxes in remote, extreme conditions. But having enough high energy food like nuts, dry fruit and chocolate really does help get you through a cold six-hour monitoring shift!

The boat trip to get to the peninsula is not for the faint-hearted, or perhaps faint-stomached would be a better way of putting it. When the wind picks up as you move away from the shelter of the bay, the water becomes choppy and the boat lurches continuously, both up and down and side to side. If you get sea sick, I recommend you either turn back now, take some kind of sickness pills or arm yourself with a load of sick bags… It’s all worth it when you come round the final corner and see the giant bird cliffs at the tip of the Horn looming in the distance. The air becomes heavy with the odour of slightly rotting fish as you approach the cliffs. Sea birds are wonderful, but they certainly know how to make a racket as well as producing a remarkable array of foul-smelling odours.

I’ve been part of the monitoring team in Hornstrandir for two summer seasons and each time has astounded me. Even the campsite toilet is the most amazing place. That probably sounds weird, so let me explain. A one kilometre walk from the camping area is a Toblerone-shaped wooden structure facing the bay. You leave the door open to let people know you are inside and at the same time you get the most incredible view! I remember one remarkable evening where I was on the loo…the fjords across the bay were illuminated in a deep orange light. A group of Harlequin Ducks were bobbing peacefully on the water’s surface and the calm sea in the bay reflected the golden, cloudless sky. Sitting on the loo at home now feels remarkably dull, I might add.

And then there are the foxes themselves, which are just such wonderful creatures, exceptionally well adapted to life in this unforgiving landscape. They endure harsh temperature extremes but amazingly, they don’t start to shiver until the temperature drops to −70 °C. They have a very dense, multi-layered coat of fur, which provides the best insulation of any mammal and they have fur covering their foot pads as well. Their compact body shape provides a low surface area to volume ratio, meaning that less of its surface is exposed to the cold and therefore less heat escapes from its body. Arctic foxes (Alopex lagopus) are distributed across the Arctic and are Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammal. They come in two different colour morphs, white and ‘blue’. The white foxes are almost completely white in the winter but bi-coloured in the summer, so have seasonal camouflage. The blue morph is dark brown and keeps its colour throughout the year but the sun bleaches the colour in late winter so it’s harder to distinguish between the two forms at this time of year. In the winter, the thick layer of fur makes the foxes look chubby and short legged whilst in the summer they look slender and long- legged.

The massive bird cliffs and extensive coastline of the Westfjords allows for a high density of Arctic foxes to be supported in this area. The foxes of Hornstrandir feed mainly on sea birds, eggs, carrion washed up on the shore, invertebrates and berries. Foxes cache food in the summer so that they have enough to sustain themselves during the harsh winters. The foxes in Iceland have had a turbulent history with the Icelandic settlers and were hunted extensively in the past for their fur. They are also killed by farmers and land owners in order to protect livestock, including eider farms. ‘Den hunting’, in which all animals are killed at a fox den, is one of the oldest paid jobs in Iceland and this is still performed today. There is a difficult balance to be struck with history, tradition, maintaining people’s livelihoods and the future of the Arctic fox population. Hornstrandir is one of the few regions where the foxes are protected in Iceland and people have been incentivized not to kill the foxes by undertaking new jobs in the tourism industry. With more people coming to the peninsula to hike or see the foxes, it is vitally important that the foxes, their dens and their hunting grounds are treated with the respect they deserve.

This respect for the foxes and their habitats is something that is very important to we researchers, especially given that we spend long periods of time monitoring these fantastic animals. The way that we study the foxes is based on a 12 hour daily rotational shift system in which one person monitors the area and records all fox behaviours, barks and interactions for six hours from 10am- 4pm and a second ‘den partner’ takes over at 4pm and continues until 10pm. That’s the beauty of field work this close to the Arctic circle, it doesn’t really get dark at all so there’s not really a time limit of when you need to be back in the evenings.

Being on your own, just you, your thoughts, the foxes and the endless expanse of stunning landscape, is a phenomenal experience. You become tuned into the sounds of the landscape and your eyes become accustomed to scanning endlessly, picking up even the smallest movement. On days where the weather is clear, your mind is occupied and endless cups of tea and snacks see you through to the end of your shift. When the weather takes a turn for the worst, it’s harder to stay focused. I’ve had a couple of shifts where I’ve been in a fog white-out for the entire six hours. You can barely see five metres in front of you and the fog muffles all the sounds from the valley below, leaving your senses straining for any kind of movement or sound. Despite it being summer in Iceland, there are still patches of snow dotted across the peninsula and when the sea mist, fog and clouds roll in, the temperature plummets.

I remember wearing two scarves around my face, having a woolly hat on, a thermal long sleeved top, a hoodie, two thick jumpers, a ski jacket, a waterproof coat, two pairs of thermal trousers, a thick pair of tracksuit bottoms, a pair of waterproof trousers, about four pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, some thick wellies and being sat inside a plastic bag, yet still being bitterly cold. The air is icy even with not much of your face being exposed and every part of your body feels like it’s losing sensitivity. Maybe I’m just a wimp with the cold – the Icelandic research leaders always seemed to be fine – but let me tell you that I’ve never been as utterly freezing in my entire life. The first couple of hours are OK, but when it gets to around four hours, you can’t really feel your fingers, your toes, your ears, your nose or anything else really. All the while you are trying to scan the area and listen for any sign of movement. As unpleasant as it sounds, even on the bitterly cold days, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world. There’s this amazing sense of exhilaration of being that connected to the natural world and the elements. And when the weather does clear, it’s the most fantastic feeling being able to see for miles and even more exciting when you can hear foxes barking or see them in the distance, moving about in their territory with such ease and grace.

Whenever I want to escape from the realities of modern life, I close my eyes and I’m back in Hornstrandir, at the edge of the world. I can hear the distant barking of the foxes and feel the icy breeze piercing against my skin. My senses are so in tune to everything around me and I just feel this overwhelming sense of freedom. I feel incredibly humbled to have had the experience of being part of this monitoring team and I hope that this research can continue for many years to come. Increasing our knowledge about Arctic foxes and the way in which they interact with their environment is vital in order to safeguard the future of this remarkable species. There’s a little part of my soul left in that rugged, wild, phenomenal landscape with the Arctic foxes.