Icelandic sheep are so called short – tailed animals, an ancient Nordic Breed, a type which was formerly common in the north part of Western Europe, now only to be found around few areas of the world. It is a strong hardy breed which has adopted well to Icelandic conditions. The Icelandic sheep is special in many ways. For example, the leading sheep possessing the qualities of the Icelandic breed does not exist anywhere else in the world. Many stories have been told of their rescuing both men and other sheep from danger.
Around 1980 there were about 100 times more sheep in the country than people or around 2.000.000 (adult sheep and lambs) and 226.948 habitants. The number had to be reduced though because of the bad effect overgrazing was having on our fragile nature.
In former times sheep were allowed to graze freely all year round, even in winter. This shows clearly how hard the struggle for survival was in Iceland. It had disastrous effects when the climate got cooler. The interaction of natural forces; water, wind, fire and ice as well as encroachment of men and animals has in the course of time disturbed the layer of surface vegetation. When destroyed, a chain reaction of soil erosion begins which is quite difficult to stop.
Since early this century steps have been taken to fight erosion by afforestation, reseeding, fencing of land to keep out sheep and in general to protect sensitive areas from overuse by men and animals. One of these steps has been to reduce the number of sheep and now there are 475.000 adult sheep in the country or 1.100.000 including the lambs.
The lambs are conceived at the end of December beginning of January. The farmer writes down who is the father to be able to follow how his breed is doing. He also writes down the exact date of conception so that he can know the exact date of birth. So when the lambing season starts, he looks into his book to see exactly which date his lambs are due. It’s important to know the exact date of delivery so that he can keep the mother indoors when she gives birth to be able to mark the ear of the new born lamb right after birth. Each farmer has a special earmark which is cut into the lamb’s ear right after its birth.
This book-keeping method would make it easy for farmers to provide a genealogical tree of the meat you are purchasing!
Nowhere else in the world is sheep bred by this method because in most countries the sheep simply have their lambs outdoors and no one knows anything about their genealogy.
Lambs are born in May. They stay around their stables until the beginning of June when the remote mountain pastures become green again. Now they are sent out to graze the hills and mountain pastures all over the country, running free until the middle of September, feeding on the rich and nourishing vegetation. Only about 1% of Iceland is cultivated. This means that most of the grass and plants the sheep feed on is wild.
Meanwhile the farmer takes care of gathering the hay to be able to feed his sheep during the winter. Farmers gather their flocks in the autumn. Then, systematically all over the country farmers go on their Viking horses to round up the sheep all over the country. There is practically no place in the wilderness of the highlands of Iceland where sheep cannot be found except maybe on glaciers. The round-up is conducted on horseback with the assistance of sheepdogs. The entire process may take up to a week, and during this time participants stay overnight in mountain huts, where they pen in the sheep they have gathered so far, then hang up their damp clothes, uncork their hip flasks and swap stories and songs.
When the search is over and all the sheep are accounted for, the fat frisky lambs, ewes and rams, are herded down to the lowland and into a corral “réttir”, where they are identified by their earmarks and sorted into the correct pens. The “réttir” is a very popular festival all through the country and most Icelanders want to take part in the festivities. Bureaucrats and bankers, school-children and teachers, sailors and seamstresses. No matter the profession, everybody wants to be part of the fun. Nowadays, some of the travel companies are offering foreign travellers the opportunity to participate also.
After the sheep have been herded into the correct pens they are split up. Those destined for the slaughterhouse are removed from the flock which is meant to survive the winter. The ones destined to live return to the mountains to come back later on their own when the weather gets colder.
If any of them do not come back, the farmers return the mountains to look for them. That process has been called “eftirleitir” or second-search.
Sheep used to be sheared before they were released to roam the pastures. Nowadays, most farmers shear them in winter, as this wool fetches a higher price.
The Icelandic wool wich was one of the country’s most important exports during the middle ages (along with dried fish, known as stock fish) rose again to become the basis of the valuable export industry in the 20th century.
The fleece of the Icelandic sheep, which varies in colour from white through grey and browns to near black, is made up of two layers: the inner layer of short, fine fibres “thel”. “Thel” was used for knitting delicate laces, underwear and baby clothes while the coarser longer outer fibres “tog” were used for warm and water resistant winter garments. Today the soft spun “lopi wool” is used in traditionally patterned hand knitted sweaters, the most popular souvenirs from Iceland.