The Icelandic sheep


The Icelandic sheep.

Travelling around Iceland you will be aware of the vast number of sheep roaming the hills and mountains. Iceland was for the most settled by people from Norway and the British Isles in the 9th century. The newcomers brought with them livestock from their native lands. During the centuries, the animals had to cope with harsh winters, famine, volcanic eruptions with falling ash and lava flows and a cooling climate.This made the sheep very hardy and today are one of the oldest and purest breeds of sheep. For the same reason, the population of Iceland became very dependant on sheep and they became "The animal which kept the nation alive"

To survive the harsh winters the Icelanders ate all parts of the sheep and it was even said that if a pregnant woman ate the tongue the baby would be born bleating. The sheep were milked and the milk was made into whey, butter and cheese, a lot of the meat was smoked or kept in sour whey to make it last all winter. Here the sheep graze the hills and mountains all summer and run free until the autumn when they are rounded up by the farmers, mostly done on horseback.

Now the pelt of the Icelandic sheep is quite amazing, it is beautiful, soft and luxurious. It felts incredibly well and is used for all sorts of handicrafts, again the sheep came to the rescue after the collapse of the banks in 2008, the people of Iceland began to knit as they never had before, Icelandic design is very popular and it has been said that we knitted our way out of the crisis...well we still have a long way to go but maybe once again they helped to keep the nation alive. Almost everyone here has an Icelandic sweater, they are beautiful and extremely warm. The wool is made of two types, the outer coat is called Tog and is perfect for weaving, the inner coat is called Þel and is finer and softer and is used for clothing made to be close to the skin. Together they are mixed and called Lopi which is what is used to make the sweaters and socks etc. Every tourist shop around the country sells products made from the wool.

The Icelandic sheep are of course very special. They are known for having certain individuals that are known as leader sheep, they are said to be different from the rest of the flock are very alert, have a slender body, long legs and tend to be lighter than the rest of the flock. They often go out of the barn first and lead the way and it has been said that they have an ability to sense bad weather coming.
A special gene in the breed called the Thoka gene causes multiple births, twins, triplets, quads and quins. It is named after the first ewe known to carry the gene. On visiting Iceland you will see an array of sheep grazing in the hills and an array of Icelanders young and old all sporting their homemade Icelandic sweaters.

Best regards, Jane