Natural resources in Westman Islands
Though there has never been much farming on the island, both dairy farming and sheep raising used to be practiced on a small scale, in order to supplement the fishing as a source of food for the islanders. The hay from the island was considered as good, and it made sense to make use of it. Hay was also gathered on the outer islands and this hay was thought to be especially richin in minerals and vitamins.
After the eruption in 1973, dairy farming was discontinued but sheep raising is still practiced. No one depends on this anymore for their livelihood, so today it is considered more of a hobby. Raising sheep on the island is more difficult than on the mainland because the sheep have to be grazed on the outer islands.
The sheep must therefore be transported out to the islands in the spring, and then home again before winter arrives. This is often entails climbing up the cliffs with the sheep, or pulling them up, but in spite of all the difficulty this often involves, it is still considered an an enjoyable sport.
The meat from the island flocks is darker in colour and considered much more tasty. The Westman Island sheep are hardy, surefooted and more gentle than those found anywhere else in Iceland, and there is little danger of contagious diseases being transmitted from the mainland because the island are so far from the coast.
Puffin hunting has played an important role in the lives of Westmann Islander. Puffin catching is allowed during the summer for a period of about six weeks. During this period Puffins are caught on all the islands in the archipelago.
Men usually spend serveral days hunting at a time on the outer islands, and during this period are quite self-sufficient, because almost all of the islands are equipped with a “hunting cabin”.
Puffins are caught with “fledges”, nets attached to the ends of long poles. Other methods of catching Puffins today are not considered as good sportsmanship. Only the immature birds and non-breeders that circle above the cliffs are caught. The breeding birds that fly directily to and from their holes are left to feed their young. As food, puffins used to prepared fresh, smoked or salted, and were a very important source of food for the islanders. In addition, the feathers were used to make bedding. With changes in eating customs, puffins ceased to be as important for eating as they once were. However, they continue to be a very necessary part of the menu for the islanders at their annual festival.
In fact, many people today see Puffins as more of a festive symbol than as a source of food. In the past, annual trips used to be made to the island known asknown as Súlnasker to hunt gannets.
Súlnasker is where the second largest colony of gannets in Icelandic waters nests, the largest colony being found on Eldey, off the south west coast of Iceland. Fresh Gannet was considered a special treat, but gannet was also salted for winter consumption.
The Northern Fulmar was another important source of food. This was salted and smoked in order to preserve the meat for the winter.
Dulse was often used for food in Vestmannaeyjar in earlier days. Indeed, this was widely done in other places in Iceland. The best dulse is considered to be that which has also been fed with fresh water as it is less salty. There is one such source of kelp in Vestmannaeyjar, on the north side of Stórhöfði.
At this site, fresh water drips from condensation on the cliffs over the bay, and thus dilutes the salt water surrounding the kelp growing below. In earlier days when the islanders divided the harvesting of the natural resources that were to be found on the island, the “upper islanders” (those who lived above the lava fields) collected kelp in the August of each year. A boat was used to get to the bay and onto the beach there.
The dulse was then collected in burlap bags while the tide was low, everyone returning home when the tide came in. Dulse is still considered a very tasty and healthy snack, being very rich in iron. Today, however, harvesting dulse is no longer limited to a few farmers. Anyone in town can go out to the bay and enjoy a sunny summer afternoon collecting this rich “healthy food”.
It´s understandable that fresh eggs were considered a luxury after the salted winter food, and so eggs used to be gathered from the cliffs each spring. The eggs of the Northern Fulmar and Guillemot were the ones that were most sought after. These eggs are somewhat larger than a hens´eggs.
Fulmar eggs are white and the eggs of the Guillemot are an aquamarine color, dappled with black.
Eggs were gathered on all the outher islands. It was usually easier to get the Fulmar eggs for these birds usually nest in spots that can be approached on foot, so ropes were´t necessary. However, the other eggs most often found on ledges below the cliffs tops, and this is where the practice of an old and dangerous sport of gathering eggs by swinging from ropes came into its own.
It is still used today in gathering the eggs that it is impossible to collect on food. Men descend the cliffs on long ropes and swing back and forth across the face of the cliffs, gathering the eggs. This is considered the national sport
of the Westmann Islands, and the Westmann Islanders are well known for their agility in scaling the cliffs.
Today the eggs are no longer considered a necessary part of the people´s diet, but the daring still descend the cliffs on ropes to gather the eggs, which continue to be regarded as a special treat.