If you’ve visited Iceland in the summer, you’ll have seen plenty of sheep hanging out in the hills. They roam wild and free, often in small groups. These fascinating creatures, brought to Iceland by early settlers, are a hardy breed well-suited to Iceland’s harsh conditions.
Get out of the road!
Lambing generally occurs around May, and in June the sheep are released to roam in the countryside. This breed is tough, independent and doesn’t have a strong flocking instinct, so you’re likely to see mother-and-children trios both high up in the fells and hanging out by the road. These are the ones to watch out for! Particularly in early summer, the lambs are prone to panicking and dashing across the road with no warning at all. Wise drivers know to slow right down if they see two sheep standing on opposite sides of the road, as one of them will almost certainly make a run for it!
Why are they here?
Sheep in Iceland are primarily bred for meat. Lamb features commonly on menus throughout the country, with meat from older sheep often used in slow-cooked dishes. One example would be the traditional kjötsúpa, or meat soup.
Icelandic sheep also grow a distinctive double coat, with a thick, weatherproof outer layer and warm, insulating inner fleece. These two distinct coats are spun together to produce lopi yarn, which is then knitted into traditional lopapeysas (sweatshirts). Knitting with lopi produces garments which are cosy, sturdy, and offer a degree of weather resistance – perfect for the local climate! Lopi yarn is also widely sold in a range of colours in stores around the country, so you can even make your own traditional jumper!
So… what happens in September?
September is when the annual sheep roundup, known as the réttir, takes place. This is a huge event, as farming communities band together to bring their flocks down from the high mountains.
This traditionally involves riding out on horseback, or hiking up into the hills when the terrain becomes too steep for horses. Farmers often head out with dogs to assist in bringing the stubborn sheep back down to the lowlands. The sheep are then gathered in pens, where they’re later separated according to who they belong to. This is determined by the codes printed on their ear tags.
Réttir is a huge event in Iceland and is a time for working hard and celebrating hard afterwards! At Sóti Lodge, we’re right in the midst of the farming community in Fljót, and it’s not uncommon to see farmers on horseback helping corral livestock back into their pens. By the time winter’s worst storms are striking, these sheep will be tucked safely away in warm barns, happily chewing through bales of summer hay, and no doubt dreaming of the warmer days to come.