Nothing is as soft and light as the down from the female of the Common Eider Duck. While sitting on the nest, she pulls out fine down from her body to warm the eggs. The eider down has tiny barbs which hook into one another and create a light, airy substance that retains heat. This is why duvets made of eider down are the lightest and warmest, better than those made from other duck or goose down. Today, a duvet from Vega costs around 40,000 Norwegian kroner.
Happy family life
There are many dangers in the life of an eider duck. The female is vulnerable to predators like otter and mink when she is on the nest; while the eider duck male, with its glossy black and white plumage, may be caught by a sea eagle when diving for food in the sea. Gulls and crows take eggs and ducklings. However, all these predators shun humans, so the eider live a safer, more secure life when an “eider wife”, the housewife on one of the island eider “farms”, is there to keep watch.
As many eider as possible
To harvest as much down as possible, it is important to have as many eider as possible on the “farm”. And it is essential to ensure that the eider thrive. An upturned old wooden boat, an empty fishing smack, a cellar wall with lots of openings, or a box nailed together from bits of wood with little doors to come in and out: all can make a suitable nesting site. The eider can in other words choose between an apartment, a duplex or a villa. As early as Easter time, the eider start collecting bladderwrack seaweed which they will use to make their nests, so that everything is ready.
In April the eider duck breeding pairs go ashore. The male and female strut about the “farm” inspecting the various properties on show, the female often with a critical look in her eye. «This one feels a bit cramped» she quacks to her mate. Sometimes the male has to hasten proceedings by bundling her into one of the houses. She then lays about five eggs, which she incubates for 28 days. During this period, she does not feed. The eider male goes far out to sea while the eggs are being incubated, where he moults and grows new plumage. When the eggs hatch the female can get help with the little ones from another female, one of the “old maids” of the colony.
Peace and security
Life on an eider “farm” during the nesting season revolves around the females, which on no account must be disturbed. Cats are locked in the cowshed, boisterous children are packed off for the duration, and the “eider wife” makes her regular rounds to check that the female eider are safe. After midsummer in June the ducklings follow their mother down to the shore and swim off to sea. About one in five eider ducklings survive to adulthood.
Cleaning the down
Once the female eider has left, the work of collecting and cleaning the down begins. Sand, excrement, eggshell; everything is picked out. The job is done using a wooden, sieve-like implement, called a “down harp”. It takes about a week to hand-clean enough down for just one duvet. Formerly the down was sold to down traders at markets such at Tilrem in Brønnøy or Bjørn at Dønna. The trader would take a tuft of down from the sack and rub it between his fingers over a mirror. If any particles came from the down, the “eider wife” was paid less. Today, most of the down is cleaned mechanically, but some down harps are still in use in the Vega Islands.
A way of life under threat
There are no longer so many people living way out on remote islets in Northern Norway. After World War II people were given grants to help them move to larger places, so that society would save the cost of providing electricity, water and schools to the far-flung, tiny island communities. Fewer people are also willing these days to sit for an entire week with a down harp to make a single duvet. On the little islands in the Vega Archipelago, bird wardens are paid to look after the eider during the nesting period, and many are descendants of the original eider “farmers” living on the islands.
The myriad of islands off the Helgeland coast have always been an important centre of down production. The sea around the 6,500 islands, islets and skerries that make up the Vega Archipelago provides a rich food supply for the eider ducks, and there have for centuries been many eider ”farms” here. This is where the old eider down harvesting traditions are best preserved, and it was one of the main reasons why Vega is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Visit an eider duck “farm”
E-huset (the Eider House Museum) at Nes on Vega, housed in an old wharfside building, tells the story of the history of eider down harvesting in a way that is both fascinating and easily accessible. After a guided tour of the museum you will never again be able to forgive the sea eagles or the wild mink all the eider ducklings they have taken! Once the context is in place, you should take a trip out to see the Vega Archipelago for yourself. A sightseeing boat goes out to the islands three times a week during the summer season. Overnight accommodation is also available, although in the midst of the nesting season these facilities stay closed. It’s a bad idea to let tourists loose while the female eider is on the nest and when the locals have even had to lock their cats up! In other words, a bit of planning is necessary.
E-huset is part of Helgeland Museum; see www.helgelandmuseum.no. Vega’s website is chock full of tourist information. while Helgeland Reiseliv’s website tells you about all the activities and tourist facilities throughout the whole of the region, www.visithelgeland.com. And our website isn’t bad, either!