Gústi and I drove south to Foss with the intention of speaking to farmer about collecting Eider down. The collection of down feathers, as we have come to learn, is a side business in which sereval farmers in the area participate and which brings in supplemental income. In and of itself, the harvest of feathers constitutes a sort of wild farming (as opposed to domestic). The ducks are wild and return to the same spots each spring to lay their eggs. Those who work the colonies participate in the process by preparing nests in anticipation of the return of the ducks; in effect, they make it desireable for the ducks to come back to the same place year after year.
Ester Gísladóttir, who owns the farm at Foss, has been working with the ducks for many years. On the shore across the roaf from her sheep farm, on the shore of Fossfjörður, she keeps a field where she cares for about 250 Eider ducks (Æðarkolla). The second most difficult part of working with the ducks is preparing the nests in the spring. At this time, she digs shallow holes which serve as nests and lines them with hay; prepares tires (which some ducks prefer) in a similar way; and constructs the duck farming version of scare crows to keep eagles away. The most difficult part of caring for the nest, she explains, is keeping the tourists away, as the birds are extremely skiddish and won´t return if disturbed.
When the ducks come to Foss, they line their nests with piles of down feathers which they pick from their chests. Contrary to what some might believe,they aren´t killed for the feathers. In fact, it is very important for the farmers to ensure that the ducks continue to reproduce and the colonies thrive. After the ducklings hatch and before they fledge, the farmers collect the down (before it gets too dirty) and replace it with wool or additional straw. "They don´t like it much when we take the down," Ester explains, "But they get used to it." After the collecting the down, Ester sells it to a processing facility in Bíldudalur, which cleans and prepares it, and then ships it to Germany.
While Ester indeed cares for the ducks, her primary livelihood is her sheep farm, with which she gets assistance from her daughter Þora María, who lives in Bíldudalur. When we arrived, we found Ester and Þora María busy working with their sheep which were busy giving giving birth to lambs. Ester has about 370 sheep and her daughter 140, and caring for them during lambing season is an enormous amount of work. They also have two rams, which they keep penned in a building by themselves during this season. Although they are too busy to talk with us initially, they allow us to spend time in the barn taking photographs.
The barn is quite large, at least 150 long and 60 feet wide, with a smaller section that extends from the center off to the right. It is quite dark inside the barn, the only light entering is from some doors at the ends and through a couple of small windows. Sheep pens line either wall of the barn, and are elevated three or or four feet. Most of these are occupied by adult sheep and some larger lambs. In the front of the elevated pens at ground level is another row of pens, which are occupied with adults and their newborns. Often a mother and her two lambs (the typical birth) occupy a single pen. Mostly the pens are made from timber boards nailed to posts that define the perimeter of each. Often the boards are unnailed and repositioned when diffrerent arrangements need to be made. At this time of year, it is obvious that pen space is limited and make-shift walls that define temporary pens are made from things like wheelbarrows, boxs, and signs.
The barn is a hustle bustle of happenings that seem to have little order to them. Here, Þóra María delivers a lamb, a small thing covered in fluid whom she coaxes to begin breathing. "This one probably would not have made it," she explains. And within five minutes it is on its feet. There, Ester climbs up to one of the elevated pens, chases three sheep into a corner and then nails a board between them and another part of the pen. Then she grabs hay and water for feed. Over there a lamb crawls out of a pen from under a plank. Þóra María grabs it and places it back in the pen. In a couple of minutes it is out again.
Now, a lamb is encouraged to suckle on its mothers teets. Now another one is having its ears tagged, something which is done after it is apparent that the lamb will survive. "All of the sheep have names," explains Ester, "But we don´t name them until we are sure that they will survive." She takes extra care of the small ones who struggle to make it, cuddling them, kissing them, and talking to them. After several hours in the barn, things quiet down suddenly, as if a sort of agreement has been made among the sheep that it is time to rest. Ester and Þora María now have some time to talk to us, and poke fun at us. Gústi has been dubbed as being green when it comes to sheep, and he is presented with two lambs to hold and have his photograph taken with. A good laugh all around. Þora María leaves, and Ester invites us in for coffee.
Ester was born on the farm and has lived there for most of her 72 years with the exception of a period in the 50s when she lived in Seyðisfjörður. When she was young, she lived in the two-gabled house on the farm, now used for storage, and in 1982 moved into the new single floor house where we drink coffee. Ester, like her daughter, has large, strong hands, which show the strain of the work that she has done over the years. When handling the sheep they can be equally forceful and gentle
She tells us that it is hard to get help on the farm these days. Three of her four children live nearby in Bíldudalur and one lives in Hafnarfjörður. Þora María helps out with the sheep because she has her own, and her son Mattías handles the outside work on the farm, haying and repairing fences and the like. But she also likes to have someone else help out, and during the birthing season she has a man who sleeps in the barn at night because things can happen. But in the fall, it can be very difficult to find enough help to bring the sheep in from the hills and valleys around the farm, a project that takes a couple of weeks. She even invites us to come and work for her.
The farm at Foss is the only working farm in this part of the Westfjords. The sheep that are raised here are sent off to slaughter in Sauðárkrókur, which is a problem as it adds additional expense to the raising of sheep. Slaughterhouses are liscensed operations for health reasons, and so a farmer can´t also run a slaughterhouse. At one time there were several in the Westfjords, but now there are none and only a few left in the country.
When we talk to her about living on the farm, Ester explains that she is uncertain what will happen to the farm when she is no longer able to take care of it. Her children may take it over, but she doesn´t know. She also tells us that she doesn´t want to live anywhere else, and when pressed why that is, she explains, "Well, I am here."