The Icelandic chicken (landnámshænan) of today is believed to be a descendant of chickens brought to the country by the first settlers about eleven hundred years ago, yet there are relatively few references to their origin in Iceland. However, there is a story of Poultry-Thorir who bred and sold poultry, and in The Poetic Edda: Völuspá, (http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe03.htm) the cocks Fjalar and Gullinkambi are mentioned. There is also a reference of poultry in one of the old Sagas "Flóamanna Saga" and Thorvaldur Thoroddsen writes about chickens in the districts of Nes, Lón and Hérað in 1894.
The Ferðabók written by Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson who travelled around Iceland in the years 1752 to 1757, says: "Chickens are on every farm in the district of Öræfi. They are all black and clearly smaller than the average chickens. They are excellent layers, even though they are never fed corn, but live on worms and insects during the summer. In the winter they are fed chopped hay with milk and whipped skimmed milk. It would be beneficial if people in other parts of Iceland would pursue poultry breeding." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eggert_%C3%93lafsson)
The great Laki eruption in the years 1783 to 1785, had a destructive effect on all livestock in Iceland. In the publication Skaftáreldar 1783 to 1785 (Laki eruption, (http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/laki-iceland-1783)) it is mentioned that thousands of land and sea birds perished due to poisoning from acid rain and from cold. This eruption and the years that followed, called móðuharðindin, almost destroyed the Icelandic chicken population, with only a few birds at a few farms remaining at the end of the 18th century. It is estimated that the Icelandic poultry population had been about 20 to 30 thousand birds in the first centuries after the settlement in the year 874. The only written reference to the number of poultry in the country are reports from the year 1919, stating that there were 2.232 chickens in Reykjavík.
After importation of foreign breeds to Iceland was started for egg production, the Icelandic chicken became nearly extinct by the mid-seventies. The Icelandic chicken today, comes from a relatively few birds which were collected around the country in the years 1974 to 1975 by Dr. Stefán Aðalsteinsson. Stefán chose birds that he believed to be descendants of the original Old Icelandic landrace. These birds were kept at the Agricultural Research Institute at Keldnaholt for the first few years and then moved to the Agricultural College at Hvanneyri. Later these birds were all placed at two farms in Borgarfjörður, at Syðstu Fossar and Steinar II.
No records exist of the number of Icelandic chickens in Iceland today, but it is estimated to be about 3000-4000 birds. Active population is small, or 36.2 individuals (BS. Ó. Guðmundsdóttir 2011) compared to the range of 70- 3000 individuals for various other stocks in Europe. Owners and breeders are encouraged to promote the Icelandic chicken and to minimize inbreeding in order to prevent a further decline, therefore, monitoring the population is of great importance. (BS: Á. Stefánsdóttir 2012)
The Owners and Breeders Association of Landnámshænan, ERL, was founded in 2003 for the protection of the Icelandic chicken. The goal of the association is to keep the Icelandic chicken pure, healthy and colourful. ERL also provides education and information about Landnámshænan, sponsors exhibits and maintains this website besides publishing a yearly journal.
The Icelandic chicken is a landrace; landrace is defined as a breed that has been able to adapt and evolve naturally because they have not been cultivated for specific characteristics like standard breeds. Cultivated species tend to be genetically homogenous but landraces are genetically diverse. Systematically selecting animals for breeding for a number of generations, leads to a reduction in biodiversity and less resistances to disease.
Landraces are "a reservoir of genetic resources" and it is very important not to mix them with other breeds.
Dr. Stefán Aðalsteinsson conducted a study of Icelandic chickens in 1994. Blood samples were taken from 50 birds and analysed for HLA. A total of 28% of the Icelandic chickens HLA were known in the main poultry stocks in the neighbouring countries, but 72% had HLA which were mostly unknown. There were two tissue classes found that were similar to the tissue classes that are common in the Old Norwegian chicken, the Jærhöns. This could indicate that there is a relationship between the Icelandic chicken and the Jærhöns.
During 1998 and 2000, the project AvianDiv was conducted on behalf of FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). FAO collected samples from 52 poultry breeds and assessed their biodiversity by microsatellite typing of DNA pools, the Icelandic chicken took part in that study. The Icelandic chicken was also a part of another study from 2001 where the population structure of 30 chicken breeds was assessed. In this study it was found that the Icelandic chicken was most related to uncultivated breed from the Middle-East, indicating that both were uncultivated landraces and that the Icelandic chicken could originally have come from the Middle East. In a study that was done in 2011 about the Icelandic Landrace and conducted by Ólöf Ósk Guðmundsdóttir, samples were collected from 170 chickens and its biodiversity assessed by microsatellite typing of DNA pools, it was found that the Icelandic chicken stands relatively well in biodiversity. Average inbreeding is 12.5%, which is much lower than what is seen in many production breeds. (BS. Ólöf Ósk Guðmundsdóttir 2011) In a reserch of global diversity and genetic contributions of chicken populations from African, Asian and European regions, it says "Icelandic Landrace "Landnámshaena" is the native breed of Iceland, situated more than 2000 km. away from Europeean mainland. Although isolated from others, this population clustered together with north-west European chicken populations. Several reports indicated that the Icelandic Landrace might have originated from the Old Norwegian Jadar and North German chicken breeds (Kirby & Hainkkanen 2000; Ball-Gisch 2009; Heinrichs 2010). Icelandic Landrace clusters closely with the old German breeds Bergische Schlotterkaemme, Ostfriesische Mowen and Italian Black sampled from German fancybreeders, although to the best of knowledge no historic records are awailable explaining this immediate relationship" (C.M.Lyimo 2014)
It is difficult to claim, without further research, where the Icelandic chicken came from, but whether the Icelandic chicken was brought here by the settlers or not, it is still a special Icelandic landrace that needs to be preserved.
The Icelandic poultry population is a genetic resource that must be preserved.