Scattered across the United States are farms that tout the lesser known, extremely hardy, Icelandic sheep. They boast small numbers in this country because they were only introduced into Canada in 1985, and the U.S. years later. But back in Iceland, the breed is absolutely central to the country’s history and economy. Paula Simmons writes in “Raising Sheep the Modern Way”, published in 1989, that Viking settlers were the first to import the breed to the island of Iceland, and few have entered the country since the settlement ended — 900 years ago. Without the sheep’s milk, meat and hides, it’s possible the country as we know it may not have survived. And since then, the breed has barely changed; it’s considered one of the purest in the world.
Not only are Icelandic sheep an “ancient” breed, they also have an enormous list of positive qualities. Their large rumens and historically selective breeding make them efficient grazers, with a cold hardy, rugged attitude and tough immune systems. Unlike many improved breeds, they can survive solely on grass and browse. Both sexes have horns, and though some may argue polled sheep are more difficult to own, others would counter with stating the ease of handling, especially when you consider their mid-sized stature. Their bodies are generally stocky with shorter legs, and since they are of the North European Short Tail type, there is no need to dock their tails for hygienic purposes. In fact, doing this in Iceland disqualifies a sheep from registration.
Ewes go into heat once per year, in late October, and if not bred then will continue to cycle until spring. Most shepherds will breed their ewes for six weeks in late fall so as not to perpetuate the cycle. Rams are sexually active throughout the year, but will remain mild-tempered when the ewes are not in heat. This means they can remain uncastrated, even if they are not intended to be bred, so long as they are kept away from the ewes come fall. The convenience of this is hard to deny; a shepherd can keep their rams for breeding year-round, uncastrated, while only needing to separate the sexes when the females are in heat. Otherwise, the entire flock can be kept on the same pasture. Ewes are great mothers and generally produce lively twins, and sometimes triplets.
Because the breed carries a long history of roaming the Icelandic countryside in search of food, Icelandic sheep have diminished herding instincts. This does, however, promote an intelligent and independent animal. Some recommend the breed for smaller farms due to this quirk.
The real question, however, is what Icelandics can be used for. Remarkably, they are equally valued for their meat as well as their unique wool. One of the hallmark qualities of the breed is their diverse coloring; exhibiting variations of white, black, gray, brown badgerface, and mouflon, which can turn a single flock into a palette of rich neutral hues. They can also carry a spotting gene, which adds even more diversity to the mix. Adults will generally produce four to seven pounds of fleece per year, and because they are low in lanolin, weight loss from washing is often much less than other wool breeds.
Icelandic sheep are one of a few dual-coated breeds, which not only help them to endure harsh weather conditions, but produces some of the world’s most treasured yarn. The outercoat is called the tog, which translates to “coarse wool” in Icelandic, while the fluffy undercoat is called the thel, meaning “fine wool”. The traditional Icelandic yarn, named lopi, is made by spinning the two coats together very loosely. It is best used for sweaters, other types of outerwear, and felting. The two coats can also be spun separately; the tog is suitable for rope, carpets and weaving, while the short thel fiber can be used for finer, softer or lace projects. However, because Icelandic wool can be somewhat unpredictable to work with, many wool mills refuse to process it. There are mills around the country which either specialize in or have experience with Icelandic wool, and it’s important to create a relationship with them if you plan to produce yarn.
Alternatively, Icelandic sheep are a fantastic meat breed. Because the lambs can be slaughtered directly off pasture after about five months, they are a great choice for the shepherd looking to transition to or continue a grass-based or organic farm management plan. The meat itself is tender with a mellow flavor, considered by many to meet gourmet standards. Further, if grown solely on pasture, the health benefits of grass-fed meat are also an attraction. Utilizing the gorgeous pelts of a lamb after slaughter can also provide a great source of income, and a beautiful tribute to the sheep’s heritage.
Though slowly gaining in popularity, the Icelandic sheep is an under appreciated breed of sheep which shows promise here in the U.S. They may not be suitable for every shepherd, especially one who specializes in one specific product. The breed’s independence and bright-eyed curiosity make them a joy to be around, and the hardy, adaptable qualities make them a fantastic, low-maintenance breed for a farmer seeking efficiency and practicality. To learn more, the Icelandic Sheep Breeders Association of North America is a great place to start.