Icelandic Sheep Serve Dual Purpose

by Susan Briggs (1997)

Montana is now home to the largest flock of Icelandic sheep in the U.S. Still rare in North America, all are descendants of two imports brought over by Stefania Sveinbjarnardottir-Dignum of Parham, Ont. This is not a remnant of a once thriving breed, but a viable commercial breed that numbers nearly 500,000 in Iceland and accounts for a quarter of the total agricultural output. These herds help make the island country self-sufficient in animal products and provide Icelanders with 50 percent of their meat.

We picked this breed for many reasons: hardiness, excellent meat conformation, colorful, lustrous, versatile fleeces, no tail docking, easy lambing, early maturity, long lived reliable twinners, but best of all, grass-based genetics.

The breed was brought to Iceland in the ninth and 10th centuries by early Viking settlers. The descendants of these sheep are related to the European short-tailed race, which includes Finn sheep, Romanov Shetland, Spelsau and Swedish Landraco. Of these breeds, the Icelandic and Romanov are the largest, with ewes averaging 155 pounds and rams 180 to 210 lbs. Because of Iceland's relative isolation, the sheep have remained virtually unchanged. Now Iceland is trying to improve the breed through artificial insemination.

Because of the harsh, windy, rainy, cold environment and minimal management, the breed is hardy. The lambs are born small, five to seven lbs, so lambing problems are rare. Their gestation length is five days shorter than more "modern" breeds. The lambs, though small, are lively, vigorous and nurse right away. The ewes make protective mothers.

The ewes milk well and the lambs gain fast. Many of our lambs gain .75 to .91 .lbs/day on grass and mother's milk alone- no creep feed and no supplements for the ewes! Ewes milk so well that they can easily raise triplets. In fact, they were used for the dairy needs of farmers in Iceland until 40 years ago.

Icelandic sheep are alert and active but not crazy. They have dispositions ranging from sweet and friendly to timid and shy. Rams can be calm, quiet and friendly to aggressive, especially during the breeding season.

Either sex can be horned or polled. Horned rams grow outwardly curving horns that make a double curl as they get older. Horned ewes have a simple backward sweeping half circle curl.

The sheep are dual coated with a lustrous, long outer coat, called tog, which provides wind and rain protection. The undercoat, called thel, is fine and downy and provides warmth.

This is one of the most versatile of all fleeces as the undercoat can be used like cashmere for soft baby garments or next-to-your-skin clothing and fine mittens. The outer coat is strong and lustrous, not coarse and hairy, and is used for blankets, embroidery and tapestry.

The fiber ranges from 12 to 27 microns, with most being in the 20 to 24 micron range with a soft "handle" (unlike other dual-coated breeds). Fleeces are light and open and dry out quickly after a rain (on the sheep). Adults produce six to eight pounds of fleece with a 20 % "shrink" when scoured. This means that an eight pound fleece will yield about 20 % more cleaned fiber than more modern breeds, which can have half the weight of the fleece in the natural grease that coats the fibers.

The tog part of the fleece grows to 18 inches if left to grow for a year, so shearing twice a year produces the best length fibers for spinning. The breed is naturally shedding, starting in February and March. They can be rooed (plucked) at this time or sheared before lambing to remove the old fleece, then again in November. Colorful Breed

Seventeen colors and pattern include snow white, inky black, cream, taupe, browns in all shades, pintos (spotted animals), badgerfaces (look similar to badgers in their face), mouflons and all shades of greys. The natural colors and versatility of the fleece make it popular with hand spinners, knitters, weavers and felters.

These sheep mature early, with both lambs and ram lambs breeding at eight months or even earlier. They are strong seasonal breeders, cycling from November through April. They are reliable twinners and even ewe lamb mothers do a great job of raising twins.

Ewes are long-lived and will lamb into their 13th year. They are good grazers and because Iceland doesn't produce grain, the breed thrives on grass and hay alone. With rising grain prices, grass-based genetics are valuable now and will be even more so in the future.

Icelandic sheep are primarily a meat breed, with good, broad, deep-bodied conformation. They will reach 90 to 110 pounds (ideal for finish slaughter) in four to five months on grass alone. They can be slaughtered right off grass, as they are in Iceland in September/October.

Our lambs weigh between 80 to 112 pounds at 121 days (4 months). Their fine round bones make for a greater neat-to-bone ratio and they dress out at 45%. The meat is fine grained and has a light flavor.

The Icelandic breed also leads the world market in quality pelts. With fewer follicles, the pelt is pliable, looks and feels like a fine fur and is used by the garment industry for vests, trim and wall hangings.

Because these sheep are so unrelated to modern breeds and have been bred for meat production, they are a good terminal sire candidate, producing a greater amount of hybrid vigor in the crossbred lambs headed for market. First cross lambs retain the single layer coat of their "modern breed" mothers, while inheriting the vigor and liveliness of the Icelandic sire.

The fleece sells for $5 to $27 a pound to hand spinners and fiber artists. The meat is being served in fine five-star restaurants. The breeding stock sells for $700 to $1,000.