12 March 2012

The animals of the Viking Age….


birds birds

Date of issue : 20 February 2012

The Post of  Faroe Island issued a set of two stamps on 20 February 2012 featuring the animals of viking age.

The Great Auk

The Great Auk was a bird of the genus Alca, which also includes the Little Auk, Common Murre, Razor Bill and Atlantic Puffin. All of these species live or lived in the North Atlantic. The Great Auk was the largest of these birds and could grow up to 70 cm in height. Some of the other Alca birds had bright or whitish abdomens and dark-black backs, with a characteristic white spot on each side of the head, between the eyes and eye socket. They were flightless birds, with wings that were as small as the South Atlantic penguin. It was fast in the water when hunting fish but very clumsy on land.

The Great Auk lived in large colonies along the coast on both sides of the North Atlantic, so far south that remains of the bird are found in Stone Age and Viking Age kitchen middens.

The Great Auk was a summer visitor to the Faroe Islands but there was never any evidence that it bred there. The last bird was taken at Stóra Dímun on 1 July 1808.

There exist a few stuffed examples of the Great Auk, for example Iceland purchased a pair that can be seen today in the Natural History Museum of Iceland. The Zoological Museum in Copenhagen has used the Great Auk as a logo for many years. Ole Worm's Museum Wormianum in Copenhagen was sent a living Great Auk. It was drawn showing a ring around its neck, which meant that it had been tethered.

The Great Auk is an example of a bird that was hunted to extinction purely because of a lack of knowledge about its population distribution. The fishermen of the day cannot be reproached for this, since they did not have the benefit of modern communication technology. But the museums could have perhaps tried to save the Great Auk rather than have helped to deliver the final blow.

Dímun Sheep

The sheep are small and black and look a little like the more primitive feral Soay sheep that live on the island of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. They are called the goat-horned sheep, because both sexes have horns, though the ewe’s horns are smaller and more delicate than the ram’s horns. The Dímun sheep are more developed compared to the Soay sheep, which have the wild sheep’s light belly. Woolen garments recovered from Bronze Age burial sites have the same kind of wool and structure that is found on the Dímun sheep, so even at this early stage, wool from these sheep was being used.

The three sheep from Stóra Dímun were among the last of the original sheep in the Faroe Islands, and were perhaps brought by the Vikings. In an excavation in Eiði in the north end of Eysturoy, half a skull of the same kind of sheep was found. The Vikings brought their own sheep to Iceland and Greenland and almost certainly when they came to the Faroe Islands. Around 1600, almost all of the sheep on the Faroe Islands were wiped out by disease. New sheep were introduced from Shetland and Iceland. But the small black sheep on Lítlu Dímun managed to survive, although by 1860 they were finally wiped out by hunting.

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