The Faroe Islands are an archipelago consisting of 18 major islands, with a total area smaller than London and a population of around 48,000 inhabitants. Located in the Gulf stream about 655 kilometres (407 miles) off the coast of Northern Europe, they sit about halfway between Iceland and Norway and close to the northern Scottish Isles. The main islands are connected by underwater tunnels, and the only bridge over the Atlantic Ocean! They are divided into 30 municipalities (kommunur) within which there are around 120 settlements and six regions or districts: Norðoyggjar, Eysturoy, Streymoy, Vágar, Sandoy and Suðuroy. The grass-roofed houses have become a traditional symbol for the islands and have been built this way for over a thousand years.
The islands have been under Danish rule since 1388 and became a self-governing country within the Danish realm in 1948. The Faroese have control of most domestic matters but Denmark still retains responsibility for certain areas such as military defence, police, justice, currency and foreign affairs. The Faroe Islands have representation in the Nordic Council as members of the Danish delegation but are not part of the European Union, having declined to join the European Community with Denmark in 1973.
The natural vegetation of the Faroe Islands mainly comprises alpine plants, wildflowers, grasses, moss and lichen. Most of the lowland area is grassland, with some heathland dominated by shrubby heathers. The rugged and rocky Faroe landscape is distinctive for its lack of trees and has 1,117 kilometres (694 miles) of coastline, but no major rivers or lakes. The islands enjoy long hours of daylight, though rarely any direct sunshine, and have around 300 days of rain each year.
The Faroe Islands are a natural haven for seabirds and other species. The famous Vestmanna bird cliffs, located on the island of Streymoy, attract many visitors during the breeding season, when many of the birds come ashore to nest on the rocky ledges. The fulmar is the most prevalent bird species on Faroe. Only a few species of wild land mammals are found in the Faroe Islands today, all introduced by humans: the mountain hare, the Brown rat and the House mouse. The population of 70,000 sheep on Faroe significantly outnumbers the human population, and many of the islands' domestic animals cannot be found anywhere else in the world. These include the Faroe pony, Faroe cow, Faroe Wren, Faroese sheep, Faroese goose, and the Faroese duck. The Oyster Catcher is the Faroese national bird.
Grey seals are common around the shorelines, together with several species of cetacean which live in the waters around the Faroe Islands. The best known of these is the long-finned pilot whale and orca (killer whale) which sometimes visit the Faroese fjords.
Traditional Faroese cuisine is based predominantly on meat, seafood and potatoes, with very few fresh vegetables. One of the most popular treats is skerpikjøt, a well aged, wind-dried mutton. The drying shed, known as a hjallur, is a standard feature in many Faroese homes, particularly in the small towns and villages. Other traditional foods are ræst kjøt (semi-dried mutton) and ræstur fiskur (matured fish). Another Faroese specialty is Grind og spik, pilot whale meat and blubber which once provided essential food but is now considered a delicacy. Fresh and dried fish also features strongly in the traditional local diet, as do seabirds such as Faroese puffins and their eggs.