Everything you need to know about Icelandic sheep

Blog

Everything you need to know about Icelandic sheep

With the isolation that comes with living on an island, the Icelandic sheep is one of the purest breeds of sheep in the world. It is not only the cutest little animal, but its wool keeps us warm and its meat keeps us strong. There are about 800.000 sheep in Iceland and only about 323.000 Icelanders. This means there are more than two sheep per human on our small island.

The female sheep is referred to as ewe and the male as ram. Most of the sheep here are white but you will always find some range of black, gray and brown.

They are what we could call seasonal breeders but the rams are considered sexually active all year. Yay for them. The ewes usually birth two lambs and that is why you will mostly see them running around in groups of three. But triplets are also not that uncommon here.

“The better place”

The sheep here in Iceland are strong and have a strong immune system since the difficult farming conditions in Iceland have made them that way. They are almost exclusively bred for their meat, the lambs “go to a better place” when they are around four to five months old. Their meat has a fine grain and a very distinct and delicious flavor. The meat of the older sheep is usually used for stews or sold very sheep (cheap). It also needs a longer cooking time and is not as popular.

Their fleece is dual-coated, internal and external threads. In Icelandic, the long external coat is called tog (tow) and the fine internal coat þel (thel). When separated, they are used for different woolen products. External fibers (tow) are long, shiny, hardy and waterproof and the internal threads (thel) delicate, soft and insulating and provide great protection against the cold here in Iceland.

 

Icelandic sheep wool and its usage

In the early days, thel was used for knitting delicate laces, underwear and baby clothing while the tog was used for warm and water resistant winter garments. But when they are worked together they produce Lopi, a distinctive knitting wool that is only made from the fleece of Icelandic sheep. It is used in traditionally patterned hand knitted sweaters, the most popular souvenirs from Iceland. We could also mention that the sheep pelt skin is sometimes used in fashion and rugs so there seems there is nothing that the Sheep here in Iceland can’t do.

The lambs are almost always all born in May, when the Sauðburður (lambing) starts. This is a very exciting time for all the farmers and they get help from friends and family to stay the long hours watching over and helping. The sheep then stay inside the stables until they are freed to graze the hills and mountains pastures all over the country. They run free until the middle of September, feeding and nourishing on the rich wild vegetation.

Sheep gathering in September

In the summertime, the farmers work their fields gathering up hay for the coming winter to be able to feed the sheep during the winter. Then in September, all the farmers start to gather the sheep in one place, this process is called Réttir (corral) and can take a few days up to a week since the sheep are scattered all over. The Sheep are fast on their feet and have little flocking instinct, so they tend to spread out and can be found anywhere except on the glaciers. They are rounded up by people riding horses and with the help of sheepdogs, then by foot where the terrain does not allow riding.

Now you have them all in one place, fat happy lambs, ewes and rams. In the corral, they are identified by their earmarks and sorted to their owners’ pens. The owner then decides, which sheep are going to the “happy place” and which are going back to the stables for the winter. Réttir is a very popular “festival” throughout the country and many Icelanders go help and take part in the festivities. Newly some tour operators have started offering tours to Réttir in September.

Be careful on the road!

To all our summer self-drive guests, please be careful when you see sheep close to the road. They have a mind of their own and sometimes it is like they are partaking in the sport called “Extreme crossing”.  Specially be aware if you see one sheep and then two on the other side. They will most definitely try to cross seconds after .

Auður Elísabet Jóhannsdóttir
Posted in January, 2017