When viking settlers first arrived in Iceland in AD 874 they brought with them domestic sheep which to this day remain unique in the amnimal kingdom. These were what later was known as the Icelandic Sheep. They have in their own way had almost as much of an impact on the history and develpment of the country as man himself. Without the sheep, the Icelanders would never have survived here. The closest relatives to the Icelandic sheep are the short-tailed Northern European breeds - the Russian Romanov, the Finnish Landrace, Swedish Gotland, the Spaelsau in Norway and the Shetland in the United Kingdom. From the very beginning, Icelanders have found themselves engaged in a relentless struggle to come to terms with the harshness of the rugged environment in which they live. If the horse was a source of transport of labour, sheep were the key to the nation's survival, their flesh providing generations of Icelanders with food and their wool protection from the biting cold of the harsh northern climate.
The unusual wool
A further striking characteristic of the Icelandic Sheep is it's natural colors, black, grey, pied/spotted, and moorit as well as the usual white, which today still set their distinctive mark on Iceland knitwear, one of the best known examples of which is the Lopi-sweater. While the technology of knitwear manufacture may have changed dramatically since the days of those early Viking settlers, the commitment of Icelanders to quality and tradition has not. In an age when conservation is an issue of increasing concern, Icelandic woollens are an environmentally friendly product, evolved over centuries of co-operation between man and nature. Thus, it should come as no surprise to learn that only natural energy sources such as geothermal and hydroelectric power are used in their manufacture, while today, as throughout their history, Iceland sheep still graze freely on vast tracts of virgin land untouched by pollution, a feature reflected in the quality of their wool. From selection to spinning, only the best wool is used. Following it's purchase direct from farmers, it is graded by experts before being taken for washing at scouring plants around the country. The fleece varies from 3" to 18" in length and 50's to 70's in count. The fleece has a fine soft undercoat called the "žel", and a coarser outer coat, which is called the "tog". This feature is rather unique to this breed. The outer coat sheds rain well and the žel protects the sheep from the constant winds of Iceland. The sheep naturally sheds its fleece but the sheep that do not have turnout in the wintertime feel uncomfortable in all the wool, and many farmers also sell the wool. The wool is thus sheared on almost all farms, many of them shear twice a year. The average fleece weights 4-5 lbs.
It is hard to think about the characteristics of the Icelandic sheep, without thinking about the history and the nature of Iceland. The hay was usually scarce. As the winter blizzards can be hard, the whole flock of sheep was put in a barn every night in the wintertime, and also on days with bad weather, but the shepherd drove his sheep out on pasture every day when it was possible, even through many feet deep snow.
In the summertime the sheep were driven to the mountains, where they took care of themselves and their lambs untill they were rounded up in the fall. The sheep are thus very individualistic when compared to other breed of sheep, and even though they are certainly very definitely group animals, they also have a strong tendency of forming small flocks of 5-10 sheep that stick together, or even just an ewe and her lambs.
These small bands seek out the best pasture, and the best way to survive in a harsh nature. This feature also makes them often more difficult to round up, because when the herd is under "attack" the sheep have more of a tendency to spread to all directions and run to the mountains, than group together in a flock of hundreds of animals. Through the history, a special strain of sheep evolved, within the Icelandic breed, the leadersheep.
These sheep are very individualistic, and are willing to go up front and show the whole herd the best way to go. These sheep are also often very clever animals, that have a good sense of weather, are very hardy, and their conformation is more long-legged and athletic than the others. When the shepherds were driving their sheep to and from pasture in the old days, it was very much appreciated to have a leadersheep in the herd, a sheep that would warn the shepherd by taking the sheep home if bad weather was coming, a sheep that would fight to make a path through drifts of snow so the whole herd could get to the much appreciated grazings, or back home to the barn when a dark sky was threatening. There is not much need for the leadersheep today, but many farmers still want to have 1-2 of them in their herds, and in respect for the history, and for the importance of keeping diversity in the stock, there is always a leadersheep-ram available for insemination today.
The breed is primarily horned (both ewes and rams), but about a third of the sheep are polled. Mature ewes weigh around 80 kg (160 lbs.) and mature rams 100-110 kg (200 - 220 lbs). The ewes take good care of their lambs, and milk well for them. The lambs grow fast, faster than in many other breeds. The average carcass weight of a 4 months old lam is 16 kg (32 lbs), but the lam is usually culled straight after it's taken off the highland, and only the smaller lambs are put for a while on cultivated pasture. Most of the sheep are white today, but about a fifth of the population are in a variety of colors. The sheep are usually bred in late December, but some farmers breed a bit earlier so the ewes will lamb early. The average length of gestation is 143 days, and the percentage of the adult ewes that conceive is very high. The skin is used as pelt skin, both for decorations and for warm clothes (jackets, mittens, caps etc), and it is very smooth. In Iceland the sheep are bred virtually exclusively for meat. The meat has a wonderful "game"flavour, which should not be a surprice as most of the lamb's feed are wild plants with their spicy tastes. The "wool" taste which is a frequent complaint when people eat mutton all over the world is unknown in the Icelandic lamb meat.