Iceland is a nation of horse lovers. There is around one horse for every five people on the island just south of the Arctic Circle. The colourful Icelandic horse is famous for its small but sturdy stature and unique gaits. The horses are highly-prized and protected and the government has helped to promote them internationally – riding them is a popular activity for tourists visiting the country. But some people have found another way to make money from them.
Across Iceland there are more than 100 blood farms operating. The nation is one of the only countries in the world that has such farms, along with Argentina and Uruguay. Every week, for up to eight weeks during the summer, pregnant semi-wild horses are brought into enclosures, where their heads are tied up with a rope and five litres of blood drained from their necks using a cannula. It’s the equivalent of all the blood in an average human body.
The blood is bought by an Icelandic pharmaceutical company called Ísteka, which processes it to obtain a special hormone known as Pregnant Mare Serum Gonadotrophin (PMSG). It is shipped around the world where it is injected into factory farm animals to increase their fertility ― producing more offspring for more meat. PMSG produced in Iceland is licensed and sold in the UK, Ireland, the US, and throughout Europe, though most consumers remain unaware of its use in our food supply chains.
Sabrina Gurtner was the first person to set out in search of Icelandic blood farms. Working for a German charity called the Animal Welfare Foundation, she stumbled across the blood mares while researching the horse meat industry, initially in South America, where PMSG is also produced. “At the beginning, I could almost not believe it,” she says. “It’s just really incomprehensible how you could exploit one animal species to then exploit another… I was so shocked when I discovered all this that I thought, we have to continue investigating.”
The industry has been operating in Iceland for decades but has rapidly grown in recent years. The number of blood mares in Iceland has grown by 25% in the last five years, now numbering more than 5,000. The government allows them to operate and even carries out random inspections of the farms ― but activists say Gurtner’s findings show that the inspections are not enough.
During two trips to Iceland in 2019 and 2021, Gurtner says she identified 40 blood farms and observed what she felt were “major animal welfare problems”. On one farm, farmers were “using aggressive dogs that attacked the horses and bit into their tails and legs,” Gurtner says. “We could see that they were also using sticks on the horses… and that they hit them on their heads.”
Gurtner and her team were followed twice while attempting to film the farms, by workers trying to prevent them. In spite of this they did manage to obtain footage from three farms. It shows chaotic scenes of horses being hit with sticks and whips, struggling while tied up, and biting at wooden enclosures from stress.
When Gurtner’s video was published online, in November 2021, many Icelanders were furious at how their beloved horses were shown to be treated. Most had either not known about the farms or thought little about them until Gurtner’s video thrust the issue into the spotlight, dividing opinion. Intense debates emerged over the details of the practice ― the treatment of the horses, the amount of blood taken. The government launched a working group to investigate. An opposition MP introduced a bill attempting to ban the farms.
Frustrated that little progress was being made, some members of the public took it upon themselves to do something: In early 2022 an angry group of horse owners formed Animal Welfare Iceland (AWI) with the purpose of shutting down the farms.
Meike Witt was the woman who came up with the idea. Witt works in the tourism industry by day and keeps eight horses, including two rescued blood mare foals, along with other animals at her home in southern Iceland.
“When this video emerged, most Icelanders were completely shocked… I couldn't sleep for two weeks,” Witt tells us.
She started contacting other people she saw passionately arguing against blood farms on equine Facebook groups and together they founded AWI. “We would stay up all night talking until one or two o'clock on the phone, just exchanging information,” Witt says.
Now the team of five board members ― backed by hundreds of supporters ― spend their free time writing articles for newspapers, spreading word on social media and lobbying politicians. Witt even organised a personal meeting with the boss of Ísteka. “They thought we were just two little pony girls… [But] I think we really gave them a hard time,” she says.
The group is made up of unpaid volunteers, including a doctor, a lawyer and a cybersecurity specialist. Some live in flats in the capital Reykjavik, others in sprawling farmland near the foot of volcanoes, but they have become unlikely friends, meeting online from their disparate locations every fortnight. “I [work] long evenings. Very long evenings until two o'clock at night,” Witt says. “Ask my family… It’s really difficult. It’s not healthy… But it's much easier if you are a group.” She was always troubled by the treatment of animals, she says. “The good thing now is I’m not on my own anymore.”
Iceland already had a well-established animal charity ― the Animal Welfare Association of Iceland (DÍS) ― but AWI has driven the campaign against the blood farms and the two groups have different approaches. Whereas DÍS is more cautious and traditional, Witt’s group is more loosely organised, fast-moving and “quite aggressive,” as she puts it.
A year ago Linda Karen Gunnarsdóttir took over as chair of DÍS with a desire to inject renewed energy into the organisation of 600 members. The English teacher, who studied equine science at university and also has a horse, says her phone is constantly ringing with reports of animal abuse. Like Witt, she ends up working late into the night, after school closes.
Gunnarsdóttir welcomes us to their small office and pulls out antique newspapers published by the organisation as far back as 1917. “Ours is a well established and respected organisation … with history spanning 110 years,” she tells us. Even so, it also relies on volunteers ― there are no animal welfare charities in Iceland with any paid employees.
Since Gunnarsdóttir took over, DÍS has also been active on the blood farms issue, but their approach is more formalised, with long board meetings and careful processes to sign off statements and strategies. “I think in this kind of work you have to accept that you're moving really slowly,” Gunnarsdóttir says. “But in the end, you're going to move something forward.”
DÍS’s long record comes with prestige, but also challenges. Reykjavik is small and due to a historic lease, DÍS is currently sharing an office block with Ísteka, the Icelandic pharmaceutical that runs the blood mare industry. Gunnarsdóttir won’t comment on this, however, careful not to flare up tensions.
This is not so unusual in a country of less than 400,000, where many people are careful about what they say in public. Icelandic friends and local journalists say there is often a reluctance to talk to the media and a fear of burning bridges, since you’re likely to keep bumping into people ― making DIS’s formal and cautious approach more typical than AWI’s unusually confrontational tactics.
We take two trips to the south of the island where there are rumoured to be a cluster of blood farms. We travel down dirt tracks close to the Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, popular destinations for Iceland’s annual 1.7 million tourists, offering up the Instagram-worthy photo opportunities the country is famous for. One evening, we stay overnight in a large horse barn not far from Mount Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. Sheltered from the rain, we spend the evening by the fire with our activist host, discussing his childhood summers spent on Icelandic farms and the country’s incredible environment.
The weather out here is extreme ― on a particularly windy day we are warned not to open both doors of the car at the same time, in case the wind rips them off. We drive down dirt tracks and walk around desolate farms. Of the blood farms we find, one is opposite a small guesthouse that advertises the surrounding horses on its website. We speak to an elderly couple living near another one. They tell us that people around there don’t talk about the blood business ― the topic is too sensitive. They themselves are strongly opposed to it, though they note that many of the farmers are under financial pressure and that the conditions on the farms vary.
We spot groups of horses banded together near suspected blood farms ― some run away as they see us coming. Local journalists have advised us to look for white horses, as you can more easily see marks on their necks from repeated blood drawing. We walk up to one of the wooden structures used for blood taking. The creepy enclosure has a noosed rope hanging from it, where horses have been tied up by their heads. Next to the structure – which is covered with large bite marks, evidence of stressed horses – we see a whip and broken horseshoe. From the car, our guides watch nervously ― they know that activists aren’t welcome.
Even if you find yourself in the right place at the right time, it’s hard to see the kind of scenes Gurtner was able to witness two years ago. Since then, according to activists, those involved in the blood mare business have taken more measures to hide it from view, with much of the bloodletting now hidden away in warehouses or moved further from the road.
Ísteka, says that the scenes captured by Gurtner and her colleagues are not standard practice and that it terminated contracts with the two farms involved after reviewing the footage. It also says that improvements have been made since then, including increased education of farmers and better monitoring. However, they declined our request to visit a farm, telling us that “All manufacturing and collection facilities are closed to outsiders as [a] protective measure for horses and farmers.”
Asked about what we saw, Ísteka said that bite marks do not necessarily indicate stress, as “Horses are known to gnaw untreated wood irrespective of stress.” They said that “whips or other kinds of tools for beating are a rare occurrence in blood collection and we do not tolerate beatings of horses used in the process.” If farmers are moving collection facilities away from the road, they added, it might be due to the intrusion of “unauthorised persons” around facilities, which has caused distress to horses and workers.
Blood farmers are reluctant to speak to the media but we did manage to speak to one who told us she was “shocked” by some of the things she saw in Gurtner’s video, which didn’t reflect correct procedure. At the same time, she felt that some parts of the footage were framed misleadingly and that it wasn’t a “fair representation” of the industry, which she said was subject to frequent welfare checks. In a submission to the Icelandic parliament, representatives of the blood farmers described themselves as “good farmers and animal lovers”.
Despite the activists’ efforts, animal welfare issues have proven difficult to tackle for Iceland’s fragile coalition government, especially since the horse blood industry brings in around £11 million annually in export revenue for Ísteka, as well as additional income for the country’s struggling farmers.
But change may ultimately come from outside forces. Last year, 17 NGOs including Gurtner’s and Witt’s organisations ― but not DÍS, which Gunnarsdóttir was not yet running ― lodged a complaint with the EFTA Surveillance Authority, the body responsible for ensuring that countries in the European Economic Area, including Iceland, comply with EU rules.
The NGOs argued that Iceland was in breach of animal welfare regulations. The Surveillance Authority agreed, issuing Iceland with a warning that gave them two months to explain themselves.
For a while, there was silence from the Icelandic government. But in September, two months past the deadline, they finally agreed to apply the animal welfare regulations to the blood farms. That means they will now have to undertake a series of assessments to justify the farms, demonstrating, for example, that the suffering of the animals is proportionate to the need for the drugs and that there is no viable alternative. Activists think they’ll struggle to show that, especially since there are several drugs that can be produced synthetically that have a similar, though not identical, effect to PMSG.
“It will be very difficult to justify that PMSG is needed,” says Gurtner, who is preparing to release another video in the hopes that it will influence the decision. “According to the… legislation, [they] have to prove that there are no alternatives not involving the use of animals. And that is very difficult.”
Ísteka has a different take. They claim that PMSG is resource- and energy-saving for farmers, and that it therefore “positively affects the farmer and ultimately the environment for us all." They concluded, "We are extremely proud of our contribution to the planet.”
For other Icelanders, Ísteka's practices are a source of shame, not pride. There are many who celebrated the announcement of the application of animal welfare regulations to the blood farms. “This might be the beginning of the end!” Witt wrote to us excitedly when the news broke. “They will try to find a way out... so we are watching very closely,” she added with a note of caution. But “I hope that this is it... [that] they are allowed to finish [the blood taking] this year, in early October, and then it is over. HOPEFULLY!”
This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe.