It may seem too simple to be true, but to combat the spread of so-called "erosion escarpments" or rofabards (see above) Icelandic farmers have turned to spreading cut-up hay to halt the slow creep of desertification on the island. And so far, it seems to be working.
This sustainable practice has developed from what seems to be a happy accident during the seventies, when originally farmers wanted to get rid of unusable hay bales, which were then wrapped in plastic. Birds, attracted to a chemical component in the plastic, pecked holes in the plastic, allowing the hay to dampen and become unusable.
The farmers took the useless hay up to the highland pastures, chopped it up and left it at the foot of the escarpments. The wind blew and soil anchored around the hay amidst the escarpments and encouraging vegetation to take root — and hay also gradually transforms into soil and becomes another rebuilding constituent. (Parallels to no-tillage champion Masanobu Fukuoka's documented usage of randomly-spread hay, done after harvesting to further enrich the soil, is something that certainly comes to mind.)
Erosion escarpments are a widespread problem in Iceland since its settlement in 847 AD. It is estimated that two-thirds of Iceland was once covered by vegetation, a quarter of which was trees and shrubs. Over time, with more and more trees being harvested for fuel and raw materials and with sheep grazing hindering re-growth, this meant that erosion and desertification increased. It is currently estimated that 30,000 sq. kilometres have been eroded thus far.
These erosion escarpments form when the loose, volcanic soil underneath areas of vegetation is destabilized, leaving behind barren swaths of land.
Since the technique is so promising, local conservation organizations have received sizable grants to purchase and use custom hay shredders to blow hay efficiently and directly — up to 30 metres (98 ft). About 15 kilometres (9 miles) of South Iceland's erosion escarpments have already received this treatment.
Margeir Ingolfsson, of the Biskupstunga Re-vegetation Association (BRA) notes: "The best results are obtained if small quantities of fertiliser and seeds are blown at the erosion escarpments, and also if hay is blown at ground level around the eroded area. If this is done, the damage is repaired more quickly than otherwise as it creates a framework for soil formation, hastens the re-vegetation process and stops further erosion from happening."
Other methods to anchor sandy, eroded areas include the use of native lyme grass (a pioneer species) and the selective use of leguminous, blue-flowered Nootka lupin plant from Alaska.
Other countries facing similar problems are also trying to learn from Iceland's experiences. "A seven-week course in the subject has just been completed, in which students from Uganda, Tunisia, Mongolia and Egypt have been learning about land management and land restoration, culminating in a small project that will be of use to them in their home country," says Professor Ingibjorg Svala Jonsdottir of the Agricultural University of Iceland.
The course will be hosted by both the Agricultural University in Hvanneyri, West Iceland, and the Soil Conservation Service at Gunnarsholt in the south. In the future, it will also be slated to expand its run to six months under the guidance of the United Nations University.