Icelandic Sheep — An Old Breed with New Possibilities

by Susan Briggs (1996)

We were a year on the road after selling our Nevada farm, looking for a new farm. We traveled through most of the western states, avoiding high population areas, areas of high elevation and high priced land.

While we traveled, we talked about what we wanted in a farm, climate, community and what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. We ruled out activities that would be too taxing physically, as had been our market gardening business, and ruled out large animals. Management intensive grazing fit our age level as it's a thinking person's farming. It utilizes lots of thought and planning, walking, little machinery, mostly light hand tools and easily managed light temporary electric fencing. Just the thing, we thought, for the "over 50" part of our lives.

We were reminded constantly of a conversation we had with an Angora goat breeder we had talked to in Texas, while we were exploring the Angora goat business. Hi asked our ages and when I said "49", he said "Good. You have 20 good years left and it will take you that long to design and follow through with a good breeding program." What stuck with us after that conversation was the realization that indeed, in 20 years, we would be 70 and the most productive parts of our lives would be over. The thought "20 good years left..." really focused our quest.

We immediately decided that we didn't want to spend those "20 good years" starting a homestead from scratch with wild land. We knew from previous experience how long it takes to develop a homestead: clear land, fence, develop a garden, put in a well/septic, build a house, barn, corrals, etc. No, we had a lot of projects that we wanted to get done other than building, in our "20 good years." So that narrowed down our quest to an established farmstead.

After much searching we found a wonderful farm just outside of Miles City, Montana. It was perfectly set up to use management intensive grazing. This is a system using temporary electric fencing to maximize the use of pasture by rationing the grass to a large group of animals for a short period of time. In other words, we move animals to a new piece of grass one to three times per day during the growing season. By so doing you can provide the highest quality, highest yield of animal grazing days per acre.

But, what kind of animal would we use to harvest the grass that would provide not only products for home use, but the maximum amount of income and the least physical abuse to our bodies? It would have to be a grazing animal and small. Although my husband Rex is an excellent mechanic, carpenter and jack-of-all-trades, he is not a livestock person. It would have to be an animal I could handle mostly by myself.

Sheep filled the bill, but what breed? I started doing research into the various breeds. One of my inquiries went to Stefania Sveinbjarnardottir-Dignum, an Icelandic sheep breeder in Canada. She sent me a packet of information along with pictures and fleece samples and answered all of my questions in detail. The more I read, the more I got excited about this breed.

Iceland, I found, is the land of tough Viking settlers, sagas, folklore, hot springs and unusual farm animals like lyre horned cattle, black-headed white bodied cashmere goats, curly tailed herding dogs that look like tall Welsh Corgies, beautiful sturdy large ponies, circus colored chickens and best of all, the colorful and hardy Icelandic sheep... the prefect homestead animal.

Icelanders from the very beginning survived on this cold, windy, rainy hostile island that is nestled up near the Arctic Circle, by fishing and living on the products from its multi-purpose animals. No animal was more important to the survival of these early settlers that the hardy sheep they brought with them 1,100 years ago from Europe. If this sheep breed was valuable to early homesteaders, would it not be valuable to modern homesteaders also? What did this animal offer for those wishing to be more self- sufficient?

I dug deeper and found out that the Icelandic sheep are not a straggling remnant of a once thriving breed but a commercially viable animal that numbers 450,000 in Iceland and provides 1/4 of the agricultural output on the island. The breed was brought to Iceland in the 9th and 10th centuries by Viking settlers and are virtually unchanged from that time. There were a few attempts to bring in outside bloodlines which ended up in disaster when the imported stock brought with it diseases. Shortly thereafter, all the imported stock and its offspring were killed to get rid of the diseases they brought with them. What remained was the world's oldest pure breed of sheep descended from the European short-tailed race.

The Icelandic sheep is related to the Shetland, Finn and Romanoff and is the largest of these breeds with ewes averaging 155 pounds and rams 210 pounds. Short-tail breeds have naturally short tails and need no tail docking.

This was all very interesting but what caught my interest most was that this breed was developed to grow and thrive on grass alone. Because of Iceland's cold and rainy climate, grain was rarely grown and sheep were wintered on hay alone. In more recent times, the animals are fed some fish meal a few weeks before and after lambing, but otherwise they thrive on grass or hay. In this world of dwindling resources, an animal that can be raised on grass alone without the input of grain will be the one that will be in demand, I thought, as I noted wheat prices inching up over five dollars a bushel. I read on.

In Iceland, I found, the sheep are managed by keeping them in a barn or shelter where they are lambed out and hay is fed during the winter months. As soon as the grass starts growing, the sheep are herded to huge common wild mountain pasture ranges where the sheep run free and are untended during the whole five month growing season. This practice weeds out the weak animals and allows only the strongest to survive. In the fall, the sheep are gathered in a two week horseback roundup and sorted into farm flocks using ear marks or notches that each farm utilizes to identify its stock, and are herded back to the farms to be bred and wintered again.

Because the animals have been managed this way for hundreds of years, the sheep have retained much of their wild instincts and savvy. They are not dumb, dull animals but bright, smart, quick and alert. The ewes are not aggressive toward humans but are very protective of their lambs and won't let them out of their sight. The rams are protective of their flock and dispositions range from very aggressive to very quiet and docile. The temperament of the ewes ranges from very sweet and friendly to timid.

Because their gestation is five days shorter that most sheep breeds, the lambs are born small, averaging five pounds, a throwback to their more primitive ancestors. Having small lambs avoids many of the lambing problems associated with difficult births. The lambs, though small, are not sluggish and weak, but jump right up in minutes, run to the udder and nurse. I was amazed. I have raised horses, dairy goats, cows and pigs and never have I seen such vigor and spunkiness in a newborn.

I was also amazed that out of 11 ewes in my starter herd, none rejected their lambs and all were good and protective mothers right from the start. The lambs were so full of life, in fact, that the ewes would lamb in the pasture, nurse their newborns, and then take off grazing with the baby following right behind the rest of the day without a problem.

So intelligent is this sheep that there were many that were "leader sheep" in Iceland, and these were bred especially for this extra intelligence and sold at a premium for this ability. Leader sheep could tell when the weather was going to change for the worse, long before it happened, and would lead the flock home in a blizzard or refuse to leave the barn for winter grazing when bad weather was coming. There are many stories in Iceland of leader sheep saving many lives during the fall roundups when blizzards threatened shepherds and flocks alike. By slowly and steadily leading the herds through life threatening weather and difficult terrain to the safety of sheltered former campgrounds, many leader sheep became famous and prized.

But what else do these sheep have to offer?

First of all, Icelandic sheep are a meat breed, bred for fine textured, light flavored meat without muttony flavor. Their fine, sturdy round bone makes for a greater yield of meat to bone. Lambs dress out at 45%.

But best of all the Icelandic sheep gas been developed to yield a finished lamb in five months on grass alone. As soon as the sheep in Iceland come off the fall pastures, the lambs go right to slaughter. Male lambs are not castrated but are left intact for faster gains. The lambs are finished at 90 to 110 pounds. My first lambs this spring did better than that and were 95 to 112 pounds at 121 days on grass (and mother's milk) alone (no creep feed), and out of ewe lamb mothers.

We found it to be the best lamb I've ever eaten. Rex, my husband, ate and enjoyed it in spite of the fact that he hates lamb (at least up until now). Because lambs will finish on grass, a homesteader can wean himself from the feed store and raise his stock for the most part on the grass, herbs and brush that grows on his own farm.

How about the fleece?

The Icelandic sheep has a dual coated fleece that measures 27 microns or 45's on the spinning count. The long, soft, outer coat, called tog, can grow to 18 inches in length in one year. The inner coat, called thel, is soft, fine and downy and grows to about 3 inches.

This is the most versatile fleece in the sheep world. The two coats can be spun together to make a wool suitable for sweaters, socks, weaving and the like. The two fibers can be easily separated at home. The thel or inner fiber is fine and soft enough for baby clothes and against the skin garments. The tog or outer coat is long wearing and the Icelandic people used it for saddle blankets, sails for their boats, and knitted socks that were worn on the outside of their sheepskin boots to provide a long wearing cover. Tog was also used for thread and embroidery work. Both fibers are lustrous and soft to handle.

If this is not enough, the Icelandic sheep come in all colors including snow white, cream champagne, all shades of tans, browns ranging from cinnamons to milk chocolate, blacks from inky black, blue blacks, brown blacks, and all shades of gray.

Added to this variety of colors are the patterns. The badgerface which looks kind of like a black-face sheep only the black goes down the neck, under the belly and up and under the tail and has unusual light markings on the face similar to a badger. The mouflan is the opposite coloring of the badgerface with white on the neck, belly and under tail and a dark body color. Then there is the white spotting which turns the sheep into "pintos". The flocks are quite colorful!

The range of natural colors along with the versatile dual coat makes this fleece a handspinner's dream. If this weren't enough, the Icelandic fleece is on of the best fleeces for felting projects. The long tog fibers provide a network or structure for the finer fibers to felt around. The result is a soft, lustrous, supple felt in beautiful natural colors.

Is there more? Yes. The fleeces are open and airy and yield about five to eight pounds per animal. Because there are fewer hair follicles in the skin, the pelts are more flexible and when tanned look like lustrous fur. Icelandic pelts lead the market worldwide. Again, the combination of color, lustrous fiber and flexibility makes it a top seller.

Even more good news for the homesteader is the fact that up until 35 years ago Icelandic sheep were used for milk production in Iceland. I was impressed by the size of the udders on my ewe lamb mothers and thought their udders comparable to first freshened dairy goats I had owned. Their teat size on some were long enough to milk easily. The production must have been pretty good, too, as twins were gaining .72 to .91 pounds a day on mothers milk and grass. I noted that one ewe was still nursing her lamb at seven months of age, a long lactation for a sheep, as usually sheep start drying up after a few months. The nice thing about this kind of dairy animal is that milking chores would only be for a few months in the early spring and summer and not be a year round thing to tie you down.

Well, what about shearing you might ask? In many places shearers are non- existent. Good news again for the homesteader. The Icelandic sheep are naturally shedding sheep. In February the rams begin to shed starting on their heads necks and backs. The old fleece can be easily plucked or "rooed," leaving the new fleece underneath for protection. Ewes start shedding in March and first shed their belly wool and the wool around their tails which prepares them for lambing in late April and early May. This rooing is done in stages as the fleece sheds on different parts of the body at different times. The rooing is safe for the sheep too as it never leaves them exposed to the elements as shearing does because the new fleece and some of the tog fibers are left behind providing protection for the skin.

The modern Icelanders also use a technique for removing the fleece that is similar to skinning. The sheep is caught, legs are tied all together and put up on a table at a comfortable working height. Starting where the belly meets the sides, the fleece is pulled back and cut with a skinning type of knife in the same kind of motion you would use to skin an animal, cutting at the bases of the locks. This is done about the time the fleece comes off easily. Icelandic women can shear 40 a day using this method. This is especially interesting to me as it uses only a simple tool that would be standard equipment on any homestead instead of expensive shearing equipment and back breaking skill. It doesn't take brute strength or a strong back. Because the Icelandic sheep have clean faces, legs and udders, and naturally shed their belly wool, there remains only the easy main body part from which to cut the wool.

Have I left anything out? Oh, yes, Icelandic sheep are reliable twinners and are long lived, many producing well into their teens. Five of my eleven ewe lamb starter flock twinned last year.

Both ewes and rams come in horned or polled models. The horned rams have long horns that eventually make a double curl and are very attractive. The horned ewes have a one half circle horn that makes a great handle to catch them with. The horns are also the source of another product. Beautiful buttons can be made from the horn as well as selling the ram horns intact.

Although considered a non-flocking breed, my sheep stay and move together as a herd most of the time except when they have new lambs.

The breed is quite hardy and have thrived in out -30 degree winters and 100 degree summers. One breeder in Missouri tells me that they take the hot humid summers better than her other three breeds, including Shetland, Finn, and Coopworth.

One thing that surprised me is that these sheep don't have a strong "sheepy" smell, although the rams smell during the breeding season. I suppose the light smell is because they have less lanolin than other breeds. This also relates to the fine light flavored meat as I have read that the greater amount of lanolin or grease in the fleece, the more strongly flavored (muttony) the meat.

The breed is very fertile and matures very quickly. Ewes and ram lambs start cycling at seven months and breed from November through April. If fed well the ewe lambs can easily lamb at one year old. I did feed each of my ewe lambs one-third pound of whole corn a day along with the alfalfa hay during their first winter to promote maximum growth and support the growth of the lambs that they were carrying. My adult ewes have remained fat on hay alone but I provide some protein/corn supplement in March and April the month before they lamb when the fetus is growing fast. (***note- Since this article was written, I now do not feed any grain to the adults.)

Icelandic sheep are still rare in North America and scarcer in the U.S. . Prices start at $700 for rams and $800 for ewes. This price should hold until numbers exceed demand. With ewe lambs producing their first year, this means that a person could recoup the price of their original stock in one year.

But how about bloodlines? Is there enough genetic diversity to keep from inbreeding? There have been only two importations from Iceland made by Stefania Dignum of Parham, Ontario. Stefania is a native Icelander who settled on a farm in Canada with her husband Ray. Stefania went to great lengths and considerable expense to import two flocks from Iceland. The first had 12 animals, the second had 88, most unrelated, so there is a wealth of genetic material to work with. Also semen and embryos are available in Iceland and could at some time be imported to increase the gene pool. (***note- As of fall 98', we now have semen imported from Iceland!!) Stefania grew up around Icelandic sheep and so is a wealth of knowledge about the breed. She single- handedly introduced this wonderful animal to North America.

Is that all? Well, no. Because Icelandic is primarily a meat breed and because it is so unrelated to modern breeds, it is poised to become a top choice for those wishing to use Icelandic rams on other breeds, whether wool or meat, to produce fast growing market lambs. The more unrelated the sheep breeds are, the greater the amount of hybrid vigor is produced when they are crossed. Not only will these lambs grow fast, but the vigor of the Icelandic breed is passed on to the lambs in the first cross and the lambs are very lively at birth. The first cross is single coated. The dual coat will come back in the second cross back to Icelandic.

The Icelandic breed is very healthy and foot rot is unknown in Iceland and in the herds in North America. They are also OPP free.

I wanted a sheep breed that could lamb on pasture and my starter flock did just that. Since the breed starts coming into heat in mid-November, they then lamb starting in mid-April when the grass is starting to grow and the weather is generally warmer. I didn't want to stay up all night during lambing time midwifing sheep births. Besides, lambing sheds are expensive to build and labor intensive to manage. If I could pick a suitable breed, lamb in a more natural time of year, provide a natural diet and stress free environment, I knew that lambing problems would be minimized. Pasture lambing allows the sheep to pick her own private lambing bed which lowers her stress. A small lamb size decreases birthing problems. Exercise and good natural feed, especially high protein spring grass, and warm weather all stack the deck toward decreased lambing problems. Pasture lambing with Icelandic sheep in our first year was a success. I did provide temporary rain and wind shelters in the pastures that the ewes used when the weather was bad.

When the market becomes saturated with Icelandic sheep, will they be able to compete?

Most modern breeds are raised and finished with high inputs of grain. A breed that can thrive on grass will be the breed of the future. Icelandic sheep products have existing markets. Yarn stores carry the popular and expensive Icelandic yarn, gourmet restaurants in New York and San Francisco feature organically raised Icelandic lamb, and Icelandic sheep pelts top the markets worldwide. Icelandic hand knit sweaters sell for $125 and up. Icelandic imported fleeces (raw) sell for $20 a pound. Domestic Icelandic fleeces sell for $10 a pound unwashed and $12 a pound washed and Icelandic top sells for $25 a pound. Icelandic felt can be marketed in quilts and even homemade futons. The products from Icelandic sheep are only limited by your ability to be creative.

So what do you think? Meat, milk, fiber, pelts, hardiness, no special equipment needed, low input, low feeding costs, natural colors, no tail docking, finished to slaughter on grass in a short season, pasture lambing, marginal shelter needed, opportunity for income from breeding stock and products. Are Icelandic sheep the perfect homestead animal? They are just what we were looking for!