Eider ducks live in the most inhospitable of landscapes. The naked chicks have to survive the bitterly cold polar storms that rage around them. But of all young chicks, eider duck chicks are raised in the cosiest of surroundings. They snuggle down in the nest, lined with down from the mother's breast. This breast down intermeshes and binds together so that it isn't carried away by the wind, it weighs next to nothing and is composed of the tiniest fibres....the fibres surround the cold air, heat it and in so doing, create an entirely unique sleeping climate.
Anyone who has held eiderdown in the palm of their hand will know about its mysterious aura, about the wonderful sensation it produces on the skin. The eiderdown harvest is very small and depends largely on the breeding behaviour of the eider ducks. The down is harvested by hand and is only ever collected from abandoned nests.
«Collecting eiderdown is one of Iceland’s oldest agricultural activities and perhaps one of the gentlest. It is more cultivation than farming. We look after the eider ducks, make sure they are comfortable and won’t be disturbed and we protect them from predators.»
Arni Snaebjörnsson, Farmers’ Association of Iceland
Eiderdown, even more valuable than gold
Eiderdown is an extremely rare and luxurious natural commodity. It is a gift from the eider ducks to the people who live in the Arctic Circle and is all thanks to perhaps the most unusual symbiosis between a wildlife species and human kind. It is truly unique.
Eider ducks live far out in the bitterly cold region around the Arctic Ocean. They are extremely timid around people, but amazingly, they lose this shyness briefly at the time they lay their eggs. This doesn’t apply to just anyone, but only to members of a particular family, the family that looked after their mother. What does “look after” in this sense mean? The “human host family” has already carefully prepared the nest for the eider ducks that visit them every year. Hollows or old car tyres are lined with hay. Each eider duck has one such nest.
The hormonal process that induces moulting has left the stomach feathers only loosely attached. This down has matured completely in the cold hollows between the icebergs and the volcanoes. When the eider duck plucks these feathers, she transforms the hay nest into a cosy down paradise ready to welcome the eggs. But death is lurking on the cliffs and in the trees surrounding this peaceful haven – hungry sea eagles wait in the trees and the silhouettes of foxes can be seen in the dark. Eggs and young ducklings are a gift from God for these predators.
So the farmer spends the cold nights with a gun across his knees. But gunfire isn’t the only way in which he protects the ducklings.When the mother leaves the nest to drink, he carefully replaces any damp down with additional hay because dampness could rot the eggs.
This working relationship produces something quite unique. The biography of particular duck families is closely linked to the biography of particular farmers; a story that is as unique at the down itself.
Unlike all other types of down, the individual “feathers” aren’t loose and separate; they stick together in clusters so that they can’t be blown away by the wind as easily. And their entire make up shows that they are nature’s solution to the bitterest cold. If you have ever held one of these eiderdown clusters in the palm of your hand, you will know of themagic they can produce. In an instant, you feel comforting warmth that gently stimulates the skin as though a mother’s love had just materialised.
The ducklings are born into this mystery. The day arrives upon which the duck family waddles to the water and the “pets” transform once more into shy wildlife. They leave behind a valuable present for their human hosts and protectors. Tiny piles of the finest down of all. The farmer then collects them gram by gram and brings them to the collecting point. The down is dirty and needs to be cleaned to remove the sand, hay and droppings, a process that demands an experienced human hand and takes a long time. The size of the total harvest varies from year to year as does the price obtained on the world market. Down is comparable to another rare natural product, truffles.
And it is no exaggeration to say that
this exquisite natural product is more valuable than gold.