The typical Icelander can be described in a number of ways; warm, rugged, tough, friendly, stubborn, woolly… No I‘m not talking about the two-legged creatures milling about the cities and towns, I mean the real majority citizens of the country: the Icelandic sheep.
In Iceland the sheep outnumber the people by almost half. If you‘ve ever visited you won‘t be surprised, as they can be seen along every road in the country. The Icelandic sheep is a unique breed. Originally imported to the country by Nordic settlers, the breed has adapted exceptionally well to the harsh conditions on the island and is now known for its resilience and the freedom they enjoy.
The sheep graze freely in the summer, feasting on the wild plants and heather up in the mountains. In September they are rounded up and kept inside for the winter months. There was a time when they would be allowed to graze outside year-round but due to their large numbers, grazing had to be restricted in order to protect the vegetation.
Another special characteristic of the Icelandic sheep is their wool. The wool is dual-coated and comes in a variety of colours, although white is the dominant one. The long external coat is called “Tog” and the fine internal coat is called “Þel”. When weaved together they form “Lopi”, a special kind of yarn only made in Iceland that is used for the ever-popular Lopapeysa Icelandic humans wear to blend in with the sheep majority. Lopi has become increasingly popular with knitters all over the world for its durability, warmth and self-cleaning properties.
In May the lambing season starts. Ewes as young as one year old can have lambs, and each ewe can have from one and up to four lambs, so the lambing season can almost double the amount of sheep on a farm. This also signals the start of the sleepless season for the farm‘s humans, as the sheep sometimes need help getting their young ones into the world and the whole family will usually be involved in the lambing, often returning from all over the country or the world to assist for the season. Imagine a family member having not one baby, but dozens or hundreds. You‘d need all the help you could get!
Luckily lambs are way more capable of taking care of themselves than human babies, although they stay close to their mother for the first four months as they teach them the ways of mountain living and highway-in-the-way-getting (seriously, if you‘re driving in Iceland in the summer always keep an eye out for the sheep). Sometimes an ewe is unable to care for her lamb and that means that the farmer‘s family will have to take care of the little one in a larger capacity than usual. They‘ll be fed milk from a bottle and will sometimes be allowed to sleep in the house for a short while. These lambs are called “heimalningar” (literally “home-bred” or “homies” for the more colloquially inclined) or “bummer lambs”. These lambs will often become a part of the household and will sometimes get confused about their identity, thinking they are one of the dogs.
Once lambing season is over, the sheep head back up to the mountains to enjoy the sun and fresh mountain air until it’s time to come home again in autumn. They can be seen running around all over the country, but for those with less time to chase sheep, the Reykjavik Family Park and Zoo in Laugardalur Valley has a small flock that visitors can get close to. It’s especially fun to visit in May to see the new-born lambs figure out this new world.