I’ve been away the past few weeks on vacation in Iceland. Let me tell you, Iceland is absolutely beautiful. I highly recommend people go and visit!
While I was in Iceland, I saw a LOT of sheep. I didn’t realize before going just how many sheep are in Iceland. There are in fact more sheep than there are people in the country – the sheep population is around 416,000, while the human population comes in at just 366,000.
And these sheep aren’t hiding away in small pastures. They’re just wandering all over the countryside. I saw sheep high up on the mountains, chilling in fields, and even in the road. They showed absolutely no fear when it came to cars and would cross the road in front of us if they felt like it!
Given that I’ve seen so many sheep in the past few weeks, I wanted to spend a little time discussing why Icelandic sheep are so special. Because as it turns out, Icelandic sheep are a very particular and unique breed!
Very pure breed
Icelandic sheep have been living in Iceland for a long time – they came to the island with the Vikings over 1000 years ago. Since then, they have remained isolated from other sheep breeds. There have been a few attempts to crossbreed Icelandic sheep with other breeds to ‘improve’ them, but this resulted in the spread of diseases. Farmers then drastically culled any sheep that were the result of crossbreeding. Today, the Icelandic sheep remains isolated from all other breeds and are the only breed of sheep on the island.
Most Icelandic sheep are white, but they do come in variety of colors (including brown, gray, and black). Their faces and legs are not covered in wool, and both rams and ewes may be horned or polled (unhorned). Some individuals even have multiple horns.
Having lived in Iceland for hundreds of years, Icelandic sheep are very well adapted to the harsh environment and cold climate. Their wool fleece has two layers that keep the animal waterproof and warm. They are also capable of surviving only on the grasses they find at pasture during the summer and hay during the winter (Iceland doesn’t have a good climate to produce the grain feed sheep in other countries may eat).
In fact, the sheep basically have free range of the island during the summer. A farmer will let their sheep out to pasture in the spring right after the lambs are born. The sheep then go up the mountain to graze, where they’ll remain throughout the summer. The sheep remain on a farmer’s land with the help of fences and natural barriers like glaciers and rivers. They are rounded up for the winter in September during a process called Réttir.
Now, rounding up their sheep isn’t always easy for farmers. Remember, the sheep have been roaming free all summer and have, as a result, spread out a lot. Icelandic sheep also have very little flocking instinct and tend to be very individualistic. This may be because there are no natural predators on the island – flocking is a behavior done in response to predators, but there’s really nothing in Iceland that will bother the sheep.
Although Icelandic sheep tend to be very independent, some have taken on a leadership role in their flocks. These Leader sheep are genetically predisposed to lead other sheep over dangerous ground. Leader sheep seem to be highly intelligent (for sheep) and are especially alert. They tend to be the first out of the sheep-house and will like to walk in the front of the flock when driven to or from pasture.
Lots of lambs
Icelandic sheep are very prolific breeders. Sheep in general produce only one or two lambs; Icelandic sheep, however, regularly give birth to twins or triplets.
The Icelandic sheep breed also has a gene that increases the number of lambs a ewe will have. Called the Thoka gene after the ewe who was first known to carry it, a ewe carrying a single copy of the gene has a higher chance of giving birth to triplets. If a ewe has two copies of the Thoka gene, she may give birth to quads, quints, and even sextuplets.
This high birth rate benefits the Icelandic economy quite well. Although the Icelandic sheep may be best known for their iconic wool, they are primarily grown for their meat in Iceland. After spending the summer on the mountains grazing, the lambs will be slaughtered at the beginning of the fall.
Icelandic lamb is known to be good (and I can confirm this based on my eating experiences in Iceland!). They’re a mountain breed of sheep, which tend to be milder and leaner than breeds that live in the lowlands. In fact, Icelandic lamb is generally described as gourmet meat and is very tender.
While their meat is good, Icelandic sheep are perhaps most famous around the world for their wool. They have a dual coated fleece. The soft undercoat is called thel, and the longer, coarser outer coat is called tog.
Thel grows about 2 – 4 inches long and is what keeps the sheep warm during the winter. Thel is usually used for delicate garments (like lace or wedding shawls) or ones that need to be soft (like underwear or baby clothes).
Tog is longer than thel and can grow to be 6 – 8 inches long. This outer coat is water-resistant and provides rain and weather protection for the sheep. Just as it protects the sheep, tog is used to produce water-resistant winter garments. It can also be used for things like rope or saddle blankets.
These two types of fibers can be spun together into a type of wool called lopi. Lopi can only be made from Icelandic sheep and is used to make the classic Icelandic sweaters that Icelanders wear. These sweaters are called lopapeysa and are very warm and weather-resistant thanks to the Icelandic sheep wool.
I got myself a nice pair of mittens made from lopi that I am excited to wear as it gets colder here in Boston! They’ll be nice reminders of my wonderful time in Iceland and all the adorable sheep I was able to see.