Each nest we find, the female eider comes zooming off at the last minute, glides down to the sea below to meet up with others, maybe her mate included, does a lot of dipping in the cool water – presumably to wash – then waddles back to the nest just a few minutes after we have left it. She even looks rather pleased to have the short break from the many hours of egg incubating. The eggs are left without incubation for only a few minutes and, set in a very shallow depression on the ground and often sheltered by some small boulders, they are unlikely to get cooled by the wind at all rapidly. Even in the chilly Icelandic air, the eggs barely have time to cool a little before she is incubating them again.
Eiders start nesting in late April or early May on Iceland and their four, five or even six eggs hatch after 28 days in June. Some of the eggs we moved on Tresey had tiny holes being chipped from the inside of their shells as a ready-to-emerge chick started its journey into the world. Within 24 hours of hatching, the tiny grey down-covered chicks follow mother down to the sea where she (again, not the drake) teaches them to feed in the shallows and to find mussels, crabs and other crustaceans. The nest is deserted. With more females bringing chicks on to the water, creches develop with flotillas of chicks and adults, probably a precaution to protect their charges against attacks from hungry gulls on the lookout for a nutritious chick. They are safer out on the water than they would be on land.
In two hours of searching Tresey we take a bunch of down from each of 97 eider nests. In total that’s just over a kilo of the precious duvet filler. Back on Hvallatur with our harvest, Thorvaldur takes me to a small, stone-built hut. Inside, a diesel generator circulates warm air through wire mesh shelves piled with masses of earthy brown eiderdown. After drying slowly in the warm air flow, a small shaking machine separates out any strands of grass from the down, which is then sterilised. The down is then sold for about 670 to dealers on the Icelandic mainland. After further cleaning and sterilising it is sold on to the duvet-makers. On the islets owned by Thorvaldur and his group, there are about 3,800 pairs of these attractive ducks yielding 50-60 kg of down worth up to 40,000 each season.
With an estimated quarter of a million pairs of eiders breeding in the whole of Iceland – one of the largest populations in the world – and maybe thousands of people collecting the valuable down, including many farmers on their own land, Iceland produces up to 4,000 kg a year. That’s around 2.7 million at wholesale’ prices; by the time the dealers sell it to the duvet makers, it is worth far more.
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I interviewed Fuglavernd, the Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds, to see if they had any concerns about down collecting. Harvesting eider duck down is not harmful for the ducks at all,’ Bjork Thorleifsdottir of the Society told me. It is very beneficial for them as the people take care of the colonies and try to create new ones and thus give the ducks all kinds of protection, especially against predators’.
And it is predators that are a huge concern to the down collectors, though I get the impression that it is more because their down collection might reduce rather than out of real concern for the ducks. On the islets we collected down from, Thorvaldur and Fannar were constantly on the lookout for signs that ravens or gulls had taken eggs from an eider nest. We found several nests they said had been destroyed by one or the other of their bete noires.