Icelandic Chicken of the Settlers (Islenske Landnamshaenan))
A rooster crowed. It was early morning. Huge dragon ships were sailing out to sea from the coast of Norway. The year was 874. Their destination was not war, pillage or plunder. These Northern Germanic Vikings were seeking a new life in a faraway land. This land, called Iceland, had previously only been described by Viking sailors who had been blown off course. It was reported to have vast grasslands ideal for grazing. Men, women and children made up the crew. The cargo holds were filled with household goods and farm animals including coops of chickens. They were fleeing the tyrannical rule of King Harald Fairhair of Norway.
Upon sighting land, their leader, Ingolfur Arnason, followed the ancient Viking custom and threw overboard two high seat pillars -- carved wooden posts from his household chair. The pillars drifted to shore marking the place of settlement. Ingolfur named this place "The Bay of Smoke" because of the steam and hot springs -- or in Old Norse, Reykjavik.
Horses, cattle, sheep, goats, dogs and chickens arrived with the settlers. All of these animals played a major role in the settlement of Iceland's treacherous climate and landscape.
For centuries, chickens were found on most farms and were known as the "hen of the settlers." Sometimes they were referred to as "pile" or "dung hill" chickens due to their habit of foraging on manure piles and other places rich with insects and seeds. They were very winter-hardy, long-lived, good broodies and quite docile. There was also great variety in their plumage colors and comb types. Crests occurred frequently.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, many of the Iceland's native chickens were replaced by imported commercial strains that were more productive. Others were crossed with the imports, losing the pure genetics. By 1970 it was apparent that one of Iceland's national treasurers was on the brink of extinction. Recognizing this danger in 1971 Andres Filippusson began collecting old landrace birds from the few remaining farms that were unwilling to trade the genetics of their thousand year old landrace for a few more eggs.
In 1974 a preservation project was begun at RALA (Research Institute at the Agricultural University at Keldum) by Dr. Stefan Adalsteinsson with Andres as his assistant and most likely the driving force behind this project. The majority of the project birds came from Andres' flock though others were gathered from throughout the country.
In 1975 the RALA Preservation Flock was closed and the preservation efforts began to save the remaining native population.
In 1977 Kolsholt Farm acquired birds directly from the RALA Preservation Flock. (This is significant because my 2003 Importation came from Kolsholt Farm.)
In 1985 the RALA Preservation Flock was moved to the Agricultural University at Hvanneyri.
In 1988 the RALA Preservation Flock was moved to Sydstu Fossar Farm.
In 1991 most of the RALA Preservation Flock was moved to Steinar II Farm. Only a few were left at Sydstu Fossar Farm and by 2000 those remaining had died out. Today the RALA flock is still being housed at Steiner II Farm and the purity of the landrace is being very carefully maintained.
Icelandic Chickens are called íslenska landnamshaenan (Icelandic chicken of the settlers), haughaensni (pile or dung hill chicken) or landnámshaenan (Viking hens) in the Icelandic language. They are rare outside their native country. Only a handful of flocks have been exported abroad.
In 2003 an opportunity presented itself that would allow me to import hatching eggs of the Icelandic chicken. I was to be a member of a group of North Americans attending a sheep seminar in Iceland. When the seminar concluded, I left Iceland with three dozen hatching eggs complete with all of the necessary paperwork to get them out of Iceland and into the US.
My egg importation originated from Kolbrun J. Juliusdottir owner of Kolsholt Farm.
From those eggs 11 Icelandic chicks hatched on December 6, 2003. I notified the Sheep Research Center in Iceland about the hatch and very soon the news media spread the good news throughout Iceland. I feel very honored to have been able to bring Icelandics to the US. I am very thankful to everyone in Iceland who helped make this happen.
The 2003 Importation of Icelandics is still thriving at the Behl Farm.
In 2010 I acquired hatching eggs from Sigrid Thordarson in California. In 1997 and 1998 Sigrid imported eggs from Sydstu Fossar and Stenier II Farms. Behl Farm now maintains two lines of the RALA Preservation Project.