Eider down harvesting at
At Flatey Island in the Breiðafjörður located in the North-western part of Iceland, eider down collection has long been an important source of income. The down is collected from the nests of the Common Eider Somateria mollissima. Throughout times down harvest has been a significant supplement to the farming in the area and the trade of down has been a product that meant added cash to the household. Today eider down from Iceland is still a highly-praised merchandise traded at high prices primary to the Asian and European markets and used for example for duvets, pillows, and coats
CHURCH AT FLATEY
Flatey is now inhabited all-year around by only two families working with farming. In earlier years as many as 220 people lived on this small island. During summer the human population increases significantly as old residents, their descendants and others return for their summer vacations, while tourism has greatly increased during the most recent decades.
The church ceiling shows the main traditional occupations of the Flatey inhabitants: Sheep farming, bird hunting, seal hunting and eider down collection. The woman in the central part of the image is cleaning the down by a method still in use to some extent, although machines have mostly taken over the strenuous job of cleaning the down.
Particularly high densities of waders such as Redshank, Common Snipe and Red-necked Phalarope breed on Flatey. The island is also home of the noisy Oystercatcher and a few breeding pairs of the rare Grey Phalarope. Arctic Terns breed in large numbers but they have declined seriously over the last decade. The same goes for the Puffin, and the Black Guillemot since 1987. Kittiwakes now breed no longer on Flatey itself but on nearby islands, where they have also seriously declined. Around 20 bird species nest on Flatey but over 40 on the entire Breiðafjörður islands.
The down is harvested from the nests of wild Common Eiders. They are resident in the area the whole year round. The birds pick the soft and highly insulating down from their body and use it as nest lining. Eiders prefer to nest on islands to avoid terrestrial predators. The Breiðafjörður region holds over 3000 islands and some quarter of all down in Iceland comes from these islands.
Flatey is approximately 0.5 square kilometre in size and about 40 smaller or larger islands belong to the Flatey farm, none of which are inhabited by humans but by numerous seabirds such as eiders and other bird species. Each island group in the Breiðafjörður region traditionally belongs to individual farms all of which are now deserted except Flatey. Some are occupied in summer not the least for harvesting eider down. The photo reportage shows gathering and handling of down in the islands of the deserted Hergilsey farm, but this is carried out from the inhabited Flatey.
At the onset of the eider breeding season in the latter part of May the female typically lays 4-6 eggs. During incubation, she only leaves the eggs unattended a short while per day to drink. She loses about a third of her weight during the month of incubation. When the female leaves the nest, she covers the eggs with the down, both to keep the eggs warm and hide them from predators.
Protected By Law
The Common Eider holds a unique position amongst Icelandic birds. Because it is regarded an asset due to the down collecting the species is totally protected from hunting by law. The first protection regulation dates to the end of the 18th century when hunting of eiders was forbidden in Iceland.
Eider down comes from the nests of wild, free-ranging Common Eiders. The female eider is well-camouflaged and will attend the nest throughout the incubation period, which lasts about a month. The chicks leave the nest for the sea with their mother as soon as they are dry.
The drake is more conspicuous in his bright colours. The drakes leave the incubation of the eggs and upbringing of the chicks entirely to the female. Soon after the eggs are laid, most males depart from the colony to replace their feathers during which time they become flightless.
Eider Down Harvest
A party of people is needed for the down harvest to search the entire colony. Looking for eider nests is organised in a manner so that people walk in a line 5 to 15 meters apart through the colony. The female eider is usually reluctant to leave the eggs and will stay on the nest until the visitors are a few meters away. Some eiders are so tame they must be lifted off the nest. They may even attack the intruder. When a nest is discovered by the down collectors, the eggs are carefully laid aside and the down removed. A new nest lining is then constructed using dry grass from the surroundings or hay brought along for the purpose, and the eggs placed back in the nest. This is done to prevent predators such as gulls in discovering the nest before the female returns to the nest.
As eider females leave the nest they often defecate on the eggs. This is presumed to be an anti-predator response, as the faeces has a strong, repellent smell. The Flatey farm holds about 40 islands, all of which are visited for harvesting down. The neighbouring farm of Hergilsey is harvested from Flatey. About 70 islands belong to the Hergilsey farm but some Breiðafjörður farms hold over 300 islands. Down harvest is therefore both time-consuming and people-demanding, as every little island is visited.
Harvest by hand
Down from 60 to 70 nests is needed for one kg of cleaned eider down, which is valued at no less than 2000 Euros although the market price varies between years.
A social activity!
Apart from the economic aspect the eider down harvest is a social activity where the generations work together. Each year many family members or friends come from far away to assist in the harvest.
INSPECTING AN EGG
The incubation stage of an egg can be estimated if it is held against the light. If the inside looks orange the egg is probably unfertilised and eatable. If it looks brownish a chick is developing and the egg is returned to the nest. Fresh eggs show a line across the egg and a small air-sack is visible at the broader end.
RECORDING THE HARVEST
In Iceland there is a long tradition for keeping record of the annual down harvest. Each participant keeps track of the number of nests encountered and the information for each island is passed on to the harvest party leader. For many Icelandic eider colonies nest records are available from as far back as the 19th century. Some eider farmers only record the amount of cleaned down harvested but this can be converted to numbers of nests.
Eider down is rare!
The total worldwide annual harvest of eiderdown is around four tons and could be carried on one small truck. About 70% of the world down production comes from Iceland, the rest mainly from Canada, and Norway.
Private Eider Colonies
The right to harvest down from eider colonies is linked to individual farms. Only the farm owners or occupiers are allowed to harvest the down. They have the right to harvest the colony but do not own the birds themselves. Along with the dependence on the eiders as an income the holders of eider colonies will do their best to create optimal conditions for the eiders. This includes keeping down numbers of potential predators on eiders or eider eggs – such as Raven, gulls, Mink and Arctic Fox. Eider farmers can also have the colony declared access-free from people.
LOST IN VEGETATION
The gathering of down on the islands in the vicinity of Flatey is a hard work and takes many days. A 10-year girl in the harvest party takes a break amongst the high Lyme grass vegetation in which the eider nests are located. This is a most challenging habitat to search for eider nests.
STILL GOING STRONG
Hafsteinn Guðmundsson has been living on Flatey most of his life and collecting eider down is an important activity for subsistence. Although his knees are getting weak he still leads the annual down gathering.
Post Collection Work
After the down has been hand-picked in the colony substantial amount of work remains before the down is ready for export. Much of this takes place during the winter months but the first step is to dry the down. This is done by blowing heated air through the down for 24 hours. Thereafter the down is spread out and the first round of removing grass, seaweed and other larger objects is undertaken. This process is done locally on Flatey with low-tech means. Later the down is transported to the mainland where the cleaning is completed in custom-build machines and the feathers picked from the down.
DRYING THE DOWN
After returning to Flatey from the down-gathering on the nearby islands the first step is to dry the down. At this stage the nest material consists of grass, seaweed, feathers and other unwanted objects.
SMALL, BUT ANNOYING!
The nest of the eider is usually infected with fleas that will bite humans too. It varies considerably how much people are susceptible by the fleas – some are completely unaffected whereas others get heavily bitten.
The photo reportage “Eider down harvesting at Flatey” is part of the project Seabird Harvest in the North Atlantic. Images included in the reportage are the result of a visit by Carsten Egevang to Flatey Island in May/June 2015. A warm “Thank You” goes to the hospitable people of Flatey, both the Hafsteinn family and the Hergilsey clan, for allowing us to follow the traditional eider down harvest.