The Study Centre on Leader-sheep in North-East Iceland - the Unique Breed of Icelandic Sheep

The Study Centre on Leader-sheep in North-East Iceland - the Unique Breed of Icelandic Sheep

The Study Centre on Leader-sheep in North-East Iceland - the Unique Breed of Icelandic Sheep

I have been showing you NE-Iceland in my last trave-blogs. After a 7-km hike on Rauðanes cape in North-East Iceland, I visited a lovely little study centre in the vicinity, in Þistilfjörður bay.

It is a new study centre on a unique breed of Icelandic sheep, which serve as the leaders of the horde.

The Study Centre on Leader-sheep in North-East Iceland - the Unique Breed of Icelandic Sheep

At the Study Centre on Leader-wethers

These sheep can only be found in Iceland, some have been exported to other countries though, but they seem to be unique to Iceland. There are approximately 1,400 leader sheep in the world today.

All of the leader sheep today in Iceland originate from North-Þingeyjarsýsla county.

The Study Centre, Fræðasetur um forystufé in Icelandic, opened in 2014. I know the name is a mouthful, but it means the Study Centre on Leader-wethers/leader sheep.  The Study Centre on Leader-sheep in North-East Iceland - the Unique Breed of Icelandic Sheep

At the Study Centre on Leader-wethers

Being Icelandic, then I had of course heard and read about this type of sheep and have held it in the highest regard, and was thus eager to visit the Study Centre to learn more about this intelligent sheep.

Some of the Icelandic sheep are descendants of the sheep, which the Viking settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries brought with them. 

The Icelandic sheep seem to lack the horde mentality and are stubborn and independent.

At the Study centre on Leader sheep

The leader-sheep and my husband - are stubborn and lack the horde mentality ;)

This special breed of sheep here in Iceland, the leader-wethers, serve as the leaders of the horde and are very intelligent and courageous. They control the pace of the horde and care for it and have great leadership and initiative. 

And another extraordinary thing about the leader-wethers is that they can predict the weather. They have been known to lead their horde to safety through blizzards, fog and all kinds of bad weather.

The Study Centre on Leader-sheep in North-East Iceland - the Unique Breed of Icelandic Sheep

The heads of these leader wethers were kept after they died to remember these magnificent creatures and pay homage to them

Why this type of sheep is only to be found in Iceland and nowhere else in the world might be due to the extreme weather changes in Iceland.

This type of ability to lead the horde through difficulties must have developed in some sheep out of necessity. 

It is an amazing ability - to be able to predict the weather. I can tell you that I have always had the greatest respect for the leader wethers and am happy that a Study Centre on this amazing sheep has been opened.

The Study Centre on Leader-sheep in North-East Iceland - the Unique Breed of Icelandic Sheep

Daníel, the proprietor of the Study Centre

The leader wethers have been much cherished here in Iceland through the centuries and have been deemed more valuable than the ordinary sheep. 

There are many stories about the leader-wethers and an excellent book has been written on their extraordinary leadership, Forystufé. I have a copy on my bookshelf and read it often, one story at a time.

The Study Centre on Leader-sheep in North-East Iceland - the Unique Breed of Icelandic Sheep

What amazing horns this leader-wether sported!

Many of the stories deal with the leader wethers not wanting to leave the sheep-cote, even if the door is open and the other sheep are out and running.

Then these extraordinary sheep sense that the weather is going to change and a storm is approaching. So the farmers learnt to trust the abilities of the leader-wethers.

The Study Centre on Leader-sheep in North-East Iceland - the Unique Breed of Icelandic Sheep

The book about leader wethers - Forystufé

The leader-wethers have saved many a horde and people from dying in blizzards. One story tells us about the black leader-wether, Svínavatns Svartur, which back in 1884 saved its horde and a big group of searchers from a blizzard.

 It walked in front of the horde for hours facing the blizzard and only returned to the horde when the ice on its face was so thick that it couldn't see anymore.

The searchers helped the leader-wether by breaking the ice off its face and it then continued leading them to safety.

The Study Centre on Leader-sheep in North-East Iceland - the Unique Breed of Icelandic Sheep

What absolute heroes these leader-wethers are!

The best-known leader-wether in Iceland is Eitill, the leader-wether of Fjalla-Bensi, but you can read about it in the popular book Aðventa or the Good Shepherd, which was written by the noted Icelandic author Gunnar Gunnarsson. This book was first published in Leipzig and has since been translated into 10 languages.

On one of my travels in the highlands of Iceland, I came across this turf and stone hut,  but Fjalla-Bensi - Bensi of the Mountains - and the leader-wether Eitill had to seek shelter during a major storm at advent time back in 1925 in a shelter similar to this one.

Regína by the shed Tumbi in the highland of Iceland

By Tumbi in the highland

The leader wethers can often be spotted in a group as they tend to be taller and leaner than other sheep. They have a long neck and tall feet and the majority of them is horned.

There is a much bigger percentage of variegated leader-wethers than white leader-wethers. And the leader-wethers are most often a wether - a castrated ram, but there are also leadership ewes. 

A leader-ewe by Drangajökull

A leader-ewe by Drangajökull glacier

On my travels in Iceland, I have only once come across a leader-ewe - I was hiking towards Drangajökull glacier on the northern part of the Westfjords, and on my way back from the glacier I noticed an odd-looking sheep, it was black with white wool, which looked like a blanket on the sheep's back.

I zoomed in on it to get a better look and immediately realised that it must be a leader-wether. 

A leader-ewe by Drangajökull glacier

A leader-ewe by Drangajökull glacier - the eyes tell how concerned it is about us being there

I turned out to be right as this odd sheep started driving the other white sheep away into safety (from me and my husband) and then turned towards us and glared at us. It looked so proud and I took many photos of it - until it started bleating at us - almost like telling us to be on our way or else we had it to answer to!

This leader-wether, which the owner of the Study Centre of Leader-wethers told me, later on, was a leader-ewe, bleated until my husband disappeared.

I stayed behind to take photos. The leader-ewe seemed to be more concerned about my husband than me, but it stood still until I had left.

A leader-ewe by Drangajökull glacier

The leader-ewe by Drangajökull glacier

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.

The leader-wethers are easily spooked and will run away from a human being until they are cornered. Then they become calm, unlike other sheep which will try to run away even if they are cornered or held by their horns.

This leader-ewe was not backing away from the opposition. One has to admire such beautiful animals.

See my travel-blog: a Beautiful Hike to Drangajökull glacier - Iceland's northernmost Glacier.

Wool at the Study Centre on Leader-wethers

At the Study Centre on Leader-wethers

At the Study Centre on Leader-wethers, one can buy all kinds of sheep-related stuff, f.ex. hides, silver earrings in the shape of ram testicles and bones, T-shirts with leader wethers (I want one) and woollen goods.

The wool of the leader-wether is different from the wool of an ordinary sheep as it is softer.

I regret not buying something at the Study Centre. When I visited I was thinking that I don't need anything, but next time I will buy some woollen socks for sure. And some jewellery.

Ærblanda coffee at the Study centre on Leader-wethers

Ærblanda coffee

There is a lovely little coffee house, Sillukaffi, at the Study Centre on Leader-wethers and a special blended leader-wether coffee Ærblanda for sale. I tried it and it is strong and flavoursome coffee.

The Study Centre on Leader-wethers is open for 2 months a year, from the 29th of June until the 31st of August from 11:00-18:00. The proprietor, principal Daníel Hansen, is very informative and friendly.

Do pay him a visit if you are travelling in the North-East part of Iceland.

Regína and Daníel at the Study Centre on Leader-wethers

Photo credit: Fræðasetur um forystufé

Now, incidentally, I met Daníel again in 2017 in Reykjavík, where both of us took part in the annual Handverk og hönnun - the Icelandic Crafts and Design fair at City Hall, where Icelanders from all over the country come together and sell their unique products.  

Daníel had been invited all the way from North-East-Iceland to introduce the products of leader sheep to us. With us in the photo is the very talented woodcarver and former fisherman Sigurður Petersen, who also had a booth at the fair.  

Regína with Sigurður and Daníel at City Hall in Reykjavík

With Sigurður and Daníel at City Hall in Reykjavík

The Study Centre is located at Svalbarði by road 85 midway between the villages Þórshöfn and Raufarhöfn, only a couple of km away from the beautiful Rauðanes cape.

Turn from road 85 unto road 897 and drive for a short distance and a farm will be on your right-hand side. The Study Centre is located in a yellow building.  

Here is the location on Google maps.

By now we had completed our journey to the North-East part of Iceland and headed towards the spectacular Jökulsárgljúfur canyon and Mývatn where we stayed for 4 days. 

Have a lovely time in East Iceland :)

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