The Icelandic sheep is as much a part of the Icelandic heritage as our Sagas, although slightly less glorified. The sheep literary kept us alive for a thousand years in an almost uninhabitable land, offering short summers and harsh winter weathers, eruptions and earthquakes, all in all not optimal for producing grain. The sheep are therefore very sturdy and efficient and survived solely on pasture and hay. Unfortunately, their appetite also left the country barren in many places. In 1980 there were about 10 times as many sheep as people in Iceland but this number had to be reduced due to the bad effects of overgrazing on the fragile nature and the rate is now about 3 times as many.
In 1783, Iceland suffered a horrible eruption where poisonous gasses burned the grass and a cloud of ash blocked the sun from the sky. 20% of the nation and 75% of all Icelandic sheep died in the aftermath. Understandably, for the few remaining sheep, nothing was thrown away after the sheep was slaughtered. Horns and bones were used as play toys, skin for clothes and shoes and people and animals were fed on the rest. Not less importantly, the ewes were milked and their wool was sheared every spring and used to spin thread which was used to weave warm clothes. Fé, an old Icelandic word for sheep also means money, displaying the importance of sheep for the Icelandic nation, almost equivalent to currency.
The Icelandic sheep is a direct descendant of a breed formerly common in North-Western Europe. Due to the land’s isolation and the protection mechanisms implemented, this breed can now only to be found in very few areas of the world. The Icelandic sheep is a strong, hardy race which has adapted well to the harsh Icelandic conditions. The wool is a product of a sustainable agriculture, still done in almost the same way as a thousand years ago. A few weeks after the lambing in May, the sheep are sent to run free and graze in mountain pastures until autumn, feeding on the rich and nourishing vegetation. Farmers gather their flocks in the autumn. Usually, the round-up is carried out on horseback with assistance of sheepdogs. Each sheep farmer has his own earmark in order to identify his livestock. After the gathering, the sheep are all sorted into designated pens, according to earmarks.
The most eye-catching aspect of the breed is the variation of colours and patterns. Genetically, Icelandic sheep have one of two base colours, either black or moorit (brown). These base colours exhibit five pattern combinations: white, grey, badgerface, mouflon and solid. Individual sheep may also display various shades of these patterns, ranging from white, cream, light green, tan, caramel, milk chocolate, silver, dark chocolate, dark grey and jet black. A spotting gene adds even more combinations with many recognised and named patterns of white markings.
The fleece is dual-coated with a lustrous, long outer coat, called Tog, which provides wind and rain protection. The undercoat, called Þel, is insulating, superlight and very airy. This is one of the most versatile of all fleeces as the undercoat can be used like cashmere for soft baby garments or next-to-your-skin clothing and fine mittens.
The outer coat is strong and lustrous, not coarse and hairy, and is used for blankets, embroidery and tapestry. Carded together, these two layers make lopi, versatile wool used to knit lopapeysa, the traditional Icelandic sweater. The Icelandic lopi has self-cleaning properties so it doesn’t need to be washed often.
We Icelandic people have a love-hate relationship to our sheep. We love the fact that we are still here because of the sheep. We hate that the sheep tend to stand in the middle of the road and stare at us with those intelligent yellow vertically-slit eyes. We love their meat, which we tend to eat every Sunday. We pretend to love the awful Þorramatur which is basically about eating every last piece of a sheep that has been preserved in sour milk; including the eyes and the testicles! (OK most of us hate it). We love the sight of sheep grazing in the mountain, and that they look like clouds in the sky. We do not love the fact that the land is barren and windy because of the sheep.
Last but not least, we love the warm and beautiful wool; lopapeysur, lopavettlinga and lopasokka, which have kept us warm throughout the centuries <3
Dr. Þorhildur Hansdottir Jetzek