Every year, nearly five thousand people flock to the mountains of Iceland to hunt rock ptarmigan, a medium-sized grouse commonly known as simply ptarmigan (snow chicken or partridge in North America). While ptarmigan meat is often served on Christmas or New Years Eve, the hunting and sale of it has become a rather contentious issue over the past decade.
Þórarinn Ólafsson is a recreational hunter and a member of Skotvís, the Icelandic Hunter’s Association. He has been going on the annual ptarmigan hunt since he was a child with his father and grandfather, and hunting the bird on his own since 2005. As such, he is very involved in the debate between hunters and conservationists.
The Icelandic Institute of Natural History (IINH) recommended to the Minister of Environment that a ban be placed on hunting ptarmigan in 2003 and 2004 after low populations of the bird were recorded. “There were some concerns about the ptarmigan population at the time,” Þórarinn says. “We have been negotiating about how this hunt will continue in the future. We’re not happy because they’re always cutting down the number of days that we can go on the hunt.”
This season hunters were allotted nine days to get their kill, which Þórarinn says is far too short. “This season was particularly bad due to the weather, so we lost a lot of days,” he says. Prior to the ban in 2003, the hunting season lasted from October 15 until December 22, with 10% of hunters doing big volume hunting for wholesaling ptarmigan meat to shops. This led to discussions about the sustainability of the species and eventually to the ban.
Since hunters have been allowed once again to hunt the bird, IINH has progressively reduced the season from 69 days to 47 days in 2005, 26 days in 2006, 18 days in 2007, and 9 days since 2011. Furthermore, it is illegal to sell ptarmigan meat so people can only hunt for personal consumption. Þórarinn says that hunters are respectful of the regulations and do not sell their kill on the black market. Occasionally they gift it to relatives. “Of course, there are always one or two bad apples!” he chuckles. “But no. There is no selling.”
For those that have made the trek and caught their dinner, it’s well-worth the reward according to Þórarinn. “Ptarmigan meat is very special,” he says. “It’s a very fine, dark meat. It’s like you are eating the moors. The bird lives solely on the grass from the highland moors, so it has a very strong, special flavour.”
To prepare the meat, the birds are first hung outside, feet down, to break down their muscle and let the nutrients flow down through the body. To cook it, the bird is traditionally skinned, quickly seared, and then boiled for one to two hours. The broth is used to make gravy. A more modern preparation style that is growing in popularity is to fry them in a pan, similar to a steak.
On the plate, it shares common side dishes with other traditional Christmas foods—browned potatoes, green peas and red cabbage. “People are always experimenting with the meal, so it is also nice to try something different like mushrooms on the side,” Þórarinn says. “I recommend pairing the meal with a strong, dark red wine.” He has no preference of cooking method–“I like it all,” he says. “There’s nothing like it.”