I visited réttir, the annual round-up of sheep in Iceland, to show you what they are like. They take place in September all around Iceland, before the onset of winter. The round-up I visited is called Hraungerðisrétt - located in the longest fjord in Iceland, the historical Eyjafjörður fjord.
I had rented an apartment in Akureyri, the capital of the north, for the weekend and was driving to the mouth of the fjord, when I noticed a round-up by the road and stopped to check it out.
The Icelandic sheep today are descendants of the settlement sheep, brought to Iceland by the Viking settlers in the 9th and 10th century. These sheep lack the horde mentality and are independent and stubborn.
The Icelandic sheep graze freely in Iceland and you will see them all over the country on your travels. High up in the mountains, in the grassy valleys, in geothermal areas, in the highland and sometimes in the protected areas - and on the road!
It is estimated that some 500,000 sheep roam around in Iceland in the summertime in a country inhabited by some 330,000 people. The free-roaming sheep seem to be everywhere - and they are easily spooked and will run away if you get close to them.
I have heard the question of why there are always 3 of them together, but it is most often a ewe with her 2 lambs :) By the end of the summer, the lambs are significantly bigger and, at first glance, there is not much of a difference between the mother and her lambs.
While driving in Iceland you will see a road sign in very many places warning us of sheep. Be aware that they might jump up on the road at any given moment. They might also be standing on the road not moving an inch even when you come really close to them. If you honk your horn they will get startled and run in all directions.
One rule is that if there is a lamb on one side of the road and its mother on the other side of the road the lamb will run in the direction of the mother.
Be extra careful to not hit them with the car. If you ever hit a sheep in Iceland with your car look for the earmark on the sheep - which shows which farmer owns the sheep - and call the emergency number 112.
The farmer will then be notified and can come to pick up his sheep. We don't want to leave an injured sheep suffering on the road.
If it weren't for the Icelandic sheep I don't think that Iceland would be inhabitable. The meat, the tallow and especially the wool kept Icelanders alive through the centuries. Every part of the sheep was used and the head is singed and eaten, even the eyes are eaten. We call this delicacy svið - I have never been able to eat it though, but my sister loved the eyes when we were little.
In wintertime, the sheep are kept inside and in the spring they get to roam around freely in Iceland. In September each year, the sheep are fetched and brought home, as it were. The farmers go look for them on horseback and with the help of their sheepdogs bring them back. You will see long rows of sheep in some locations when this is happening. This will take them several days.
Of course, there are always left-over sheep, which are more difficult to get, so a special trip is called to fetch them. The Icelandic name for a sheep is kind and the ones which were left behind are eftirlegukindur. In several places in Iceland, you will see round-up huts, a shelter for the men rounding up the sheep.
The round-up - réttir, then takes place in sheepcotes, which you can see all over Iceland. The sheepcotes have a circular shaped common area, which is called almenningur in Icelandic. From the common area are triangularly shaped stalls - dilkar.
The sheep farmers search for their own sheep in the sheepcote and categorise them into the stalls. It is hard work, but there is also mirth and jollity, and the round-up is, in fact, a festivity of a sort. Here the farmers get their sheep back from 3-4 month's absence and see how the lambs have grown.
People can help out or just watch. I watched and took photos and tried not to be in the way.
The whole family helps out and I saw that the kids had a lot of fun. I don't know how much fun the sheep had though, but such is life. Many of the lambs will end up in the slaughterhouse, but the rest will get shelter and hay for the winter in sheep barns, so it is quid pro quo.
Often the Icelandic Brennivín (aqua vitae) is offered at round-ups and there is great comradeship. This is a big happening and means that winter is approaching.
It is imperative to get the sheep into safety before the winter begins. In 2012 winter came early in September in North-Iceland with heavy snowfall and many a sheep got lost in the snow. The round-ups weren't finished in many places, so it was a chaotic scene.
Search parties had to be sent to their rescue to look for the sheep, which were hidden under heaps of snow. It was especially bad in Mývatn and at Þeistareykir, where some 5,000 sheep graze, and in many more places up north.
In one of the news articles on this ordeal, some members of the search parties heard a sheep bleating under their feet - buried under a metre's layer of snow! And one woman in the search party fell into a hole in the snow right on top of a sheep! It turned out to be a sheep with 2 lambs, which had been stuck under heaps of snow unable to bet out for almost 3 weeks!
Some of the sheep were found several months later. The following year round-up started late in August up north, as to not risk another tragedy of this sort. So you see that it is imperative to round up the sheep and get them into safety before winter starts.
I had never been so close to the sheep as at the round-ups. I am a city child, born and bred in Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland, and tend to be afraid of larger animals in general - especially if they have big horns like some of the rams do ;)
In the Bændablaðið - the Farmers' Magazine I read some of the rules for round-ups; don't hold them by the outer edge of the horns as they might break, don't grab their wool too forcefully as this might cause bleedings under the wool - and don't ride them. The sheep farmers are very passionate about their sheep and care about their safety and usually know their sheep by name.
Sounds simple, but I think it might be difficult to follow this while trying to catch a sheep, which does not want to be caught. As there are always some very stubborn sheep who try to escape and evade being caught at all cost. I saw one of the black lambs repeatedly trying to jump the fence.
Woollen sweaters are traditionally made from sheep wool - just look at this beautiful sheep above, and imagine how much wool can be sheared from it. It will in the hands of a skilled knitting woman turn into a beautiful sweater.
My mother-in-law knits sweaters for a living and has knitted some beautiful sweater for my birthdays :)
By Hverarönd at Mt. Námafjall in North-Iceland
These Icelandic sweaters are warm and comfortable. They are expensive as it takes a whole week to knit them! I own a white one, a black one and a blue one :) Also, see what Jórunn has to say about the Icelandic sweater - the lopapeysa.
Leader-wethers at the Study-center on leader sheep
We have a special breed of Icelandic sheep, which is only found in Iceland - forystufé or the leader-wether, which act more like dogs than sheep. These sheep have higher feet than other sheep, and you can spot them in a horde as they look different. They lead the horde and care for it and are courageous and intelligent.
These leader-wethers are also able to predict the weather and there are many stories of this special type of sheep where they have led the horde and men through all kinds of bad weather. I think they are just amazing and am always on the lookout for leader-wethers on my travels in Iceland.
The leader-ewe close to Drangajökull
I have only seen one of them on my travels, a leader-ewe, which showed the signs of being of this breed. I was hiking off the beaten path to the Drangajökull glacier in the Westfjords of Iceland and saw a sheep that looked quite different from the others.
Having recently visited Fræðasetur um forysturfé - the Study-Centre on Leader-Sheep in East-Iceland where I learnt a lot about leader-sheep, I stopped to check it out.
The leader-ewe and its flock
The leader-ewe glared at us defyingly - then turned towards the other white sheep and drove them into safety from these insolent intruders ;) Then it bleated at us, telling us to go away immediately, or else - if you mess with my sheep you mess with me! It stood still and proud, bleating constantly until we left.
Then it turned towards the other sheep and informed them that the danger was over. When I looked back for the last time I saw this proud and majestic leader-ewe standing tall with Drangajökull glacier in the backdrop. It was such a beautiful sight. One has got to respect these leader-wethers :)
The leader-wether at Daladýrð Petting Zoo is to the left in this photo
I was so thrilled to have spotted a leader-sheep as I hold these sheep in high respect. And hope to see more of them. If you want to see a leader-sheep then Daladýrð Petting Zoo in Fnjóskadalur valley in North-Iceland has a leader-wether.
I stopped by at their farm recently and got acquainted with their animals. Kids love the Petting Zoo, so if you are travelling up north, pay Daladýrð a visit. See also my travel-blog :
So now you know what the round things are which you will spot in so many places in Iceland. You might even spot old sheepcotes made of lava rocks and turf, some with additional driftwood, which was the material used in the olden days. The more recent ones are made of wood.
To get the best photos of the shape of the sheepcotes it is best to get a photo from above. It is not always possible, but I got one photo like that of Hamarsrétt sheepcote which is right by the sea on the Vatnsnes peninsula in North-Iceland.
The oldest sheepcote or sheep pen (i.e. the location of the sheepcote) that I know of is in Þjórsárdalur valley by Árnes - made of turf and lava rocks. It is called Skaftholtsrétt and has been in the same location since the 13th century, mentioned in 1238 in Sturlunga - the Saga of the Sturlungs.
1238 was coincidentally the year of the largest Viking battle in Iceland, Örlygsstaðabardagi, where the most powerful Viking clans fought each other.
Skatfholtsrétt collapsed in an earthquake back in 2000 and has been rebuilt.
Here is a map of the sheepcotes and round-ups in Iceland, which I found on the website of Bændablaðið - the Farmers' Magazine. You will find an annual list of the individual round-ups with time and date in that magazine.
To visit the sheepcotes you can rent a car in Reykjavík and search them out. I found one guided tour which takes you to a round-up of sheep in East-Iceland:
The sheepcote I refer to in this travel-blog is located in Eyjafjörður, about which I have written a series of travel-blogs as there is so much to see and do here.
It is the fjord of Akureyri, the capital of North-Iceland, the Christmas House, Dalvík town and Hrísey island - not to forget the Beer Baths :) And here you will find many historical churches, including Iceland's largest turf-church, Saurbæjarkirkja.
Have a lovely time in Iceland :)