The majority of Iceland’s land mammals were introduced by humans; all but one species, in fact. The Arctic Fox is the only native land mammal, but the species have certainly adapted to the landscape.
The domestic animals—such as cows, horses and sheep—had to become tough to survive Iceland's winters and lava fields. When it comes to Icelandic sheep, did you know that there are more than twice as many sheep as people in the Land of Fire and Ice? It's no wonder they're a significant part of Icelandic culture.
The Icelandic sheep breed
There are around 800,000 sheep in Iceland; that’s about 2.2 sheep for every human resident. As such, maybe we should learn more about these gregarious animals in addition to the Icelandic people!
The species has been critical for the nation since the beginning when Viking settlers arrived in the ninth century. If the Norwegians had not brought sheep to Iceland, they would never have survived due to the lack of meat and wool which sheep provide in abundance.
The breed they brought over back then is actually the only one that remains in Iceland today: the Northern European short-tailed sheep. In fact, the Icelandic sheep are considered to be a separate breed, having diverged from their ancestors in isolation. It is illegal to import sheep to Iceland, as their purity leaves them very vulnerable to disease.
Previous attempts to mix them with breeds of other origins ultimately failed for just that reason, leading to widespread culling. Therefore, the Icelandic sheep breed is one of the purest in the world.
Their predominant wool color is white, but black, brown, and grey sheep can also be seen around. These sheep have short legs and generally, both the males and females have horns. The ewes weigh around 68-72 kg (150-160 pounds) while the rams clock in at around 90-100 kg (200-220 pounds).
Icelandic ewes usually give birth to two lambs, but triplets are not uncommon. Since ewes can start giving birth at around one year old, it’s easy to understand why they are such an extremely prolific species.
With a double-coated fleece, for both insulations against the cold and protection from rain and snow, Icelandic sheep are well adapted to life in the Land of Fire and Ice.
They're also very good at navigating the jagged, uneven lava rock that characterizes most of the Icelandic landscape. The animals roam freely in the summer, but don’t be fooled- they are not exactly wild sheep. When summer ends, the round-up begins and the lambs are collected.
Do Icelandic Sheep Need to be Sheared?
Technically, no, because Icelandic sheep naturally shed their wool when winter ends. However, since wool is a top product derived from sheep, they are sheared twice a year. This takes place in the spring, between February and April, and in the autumn, between October and November. But what happens to the wool once it’s sheared off? And what about the sheep themselves?
The farmers’ round-up of their sheep—Réttir—happens in September, when the animals are brought down from the hills. They are sorted into separate stalls—identified by earmarks—so each farmer can survey their own flock.
The sheep that are not to be slaughtered at this point generally spend the winter in barns. In May, the ewes give birth and when they are ready, they return to the wild along with their lambs.
What are Icelandic Sheep Used For?
A hundred years ago, the sheep in Iceland were actually the main milk producers for the locals. Now they are mostly bred for their meat, which provides a whopping 80% of the income from sheep farming.
The sheep farms in Iceland can be described as organic farms, as the sheep are free roaming and pasture-fed. However, most of the sustainable meat is derived from lambs.
When they are around 4-5 months old, the lambs are taken from the field and slaughtered. At this point, they’ll weigh around 30-40 kg (65-90 pounds) each and their meat is then sold to supermarkets and restaurants. In Iceland, lamb is eaten often and in various forms.
Icelandic meat soup, or kjötsúpa, is a popular dish, containing lamb meat and root vegetables. Many families will have their own recipes for kjötsúpa, passed down through generations.
Even though you probably won’t cook this local delicacy while on vacation, it won’t be difficult for you to find some quality lamb soup, as it’s essentially the national dish. You can also purchase lamb cuts yourself in the supermarket. If you enjoy cooking, find a kjötsúpa recipe online and see what you come up with.
Adult sheep is also commonly eaten, either as a cheap alternative or as an Icelandic traditional dish. The meal “Svið” consists of half a boiled sheep’s head, cut lengthwise, with the brain removed. The eye is left in and is eaten along with the tongue and the rest of the head.
This tradition stems from a time when food was scarcer, and Icelanders could not afford to waste any meat. It’s still eaten today in this way, although not commonly among the younger generation.
Icelandic sheep wool
The other main use for Icelandic sheep is clothing and blankets, made from the animals’ high-quality wool.
Since the sheep are well adapted to Iceland’s climate, it makes sense that their wool provides us with similar protection. The traditional Icelandic sweater, or lopapeysa, is made using dyed sheep wool and has become extremely popular.
It’s likely that almost every Icelander owns at least one, and they’re also available for you to buy when you visit. If you want an authentically Icelandic sweater, check the label, as some stores outsource production and material elsewhere. You can find more information here in our Icelandic shopping guide.
Wool blankets, or ullarteppi, are also to be found in most households, and come in a variety of patterns. Like their jumper counterparts, they provide unparalleled warmth and comfort. Socks, hats and gloves can also protect you well from the famously unpredictable Icelandic weather.
These wool products make great souvenirs, as they are both practical, sustainable and authentic. Sheepskin rugs can also be found in many shops.
The sheep, meat and wool produced in Iceland is not just for local consumption. In the last five years, an effort has been made to create a demand for Icelandic lamb in foreign markets.
In 2020, one Icelandic company began exporting its lamb meat to China. The country is just one of many that seeks high-quality lamb, with around a third of production having left Iceland that year.
It’s not surprising that this meat is high in demand elsewhere, as it derives from Icelandic pasture-fed, free-range animals. Consequently, it’s likely we’ll see a huge rise in the exporting of Icelandic lamb in future years.
Beware of the Sheep
Since Icelandic sheep roam free for much of the year, they have a feral side to them. Be careful about approaching them too closely; the rams, for example, can be particularly dangerous.
The biggest danger, though, lies in the sheep that stray onto roads. Iceland’s main highway, Route 1, is only two lanes wide and borders many sheep farms. Therefore, it is inevitable that you’ll come across some sheep blocking your way when you drive here.
Keep an eye out, and if you do come across some fluffy friends, approach slowly and beep your horn. They’ll eventually move, but sometimes they’ll take their sweet time with it. If you find yourself stuck behind a flock crossing the road, well, you’ll just have to be a little patient.
A staple of the Icelandic countryside
The lives of the Icelandic sheep and humans have been intertwined ever since the country was first settled.
If the sheep were brought here and left to their own devices, they’d have likely been just fine. With almost no natural predators to speak of and an ability to adapt, their numbers would have grown either way.
Humans, on the other hand, would not have survived without these woolly animals to sustain them, as they continue to be an important part of Iceland’s system, both culturally and economically. If you ever have trouble sleeping during the zero-darkness Icelandic summer, try counting sheep. You’ll never run out.