Icelandic Sheep

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Icelandic Sheep

Íslensk Sauðfé og Forystufé

The Iceland sheep belongs to the North European short-tailed group of sheep breeds, brought to Iceland by the settlers over 1100 years ago. The present winterfed population is 470,000, however leadersheep account for only 1500 and are therefore at risk. The Farmers Association of Iceland regards leadersheep as a special and distinct strain or a breed type. Icelandic sheep are hardy, excellent foragers, kept on rangeland pastures during the summer, and fed mainly on silage or hay during the long and cold Icelandic winter. Lambs are finished on pasture, not on grain. There is no other breed of sheep in Iceland apart from this native heritage breed and the leadersheep is unique in the world.

Adult ewes weigh on average 60-70 kg and adult rams 90-100 kg. The leadersheep are somewhat lighter but they have longer legs, are more slender and have a much less compact conformation. Thus they look quite distinct from other sheep. Icelandic sheep exhibit a very wide range of colors, and leadersheep in particular are nearly all non-white. The wool is double-coated. Nearly all leadersheep are horned, as are many regular Icelandic sheep, but polled individuals are a common occurrence among both males and females. Four-horned individuals also occur. Icelandic sheep reach sexual maturity early, and they are prolific. The ewes are good milkers and the lambs grow fast. In breeding, animals are primarily selected for efficient meat production, with wool, skins and milk being valuable secondary products. In the leadersheep, however, the main trait selected for is intelligence: namely the genetic, behavioral ability to lead the flock, even under difficult conditions. Their alertness may have a role to play in predator control.

A wide range of products is derived from sheep in Iceland, processed in several ways, both as fresh meat but also as several transformed products such as blood-pudding, livers, kidneys, sheep heads and ram testicles. The meat from leadersheep is normally leaner than meat from other sheep, and it is tender and has a pleasant flavor. Some claim that the leadersheep yield extremely fine undercoat wool.

There is an abundance of evidence in the culture and literature of Iceland for several centuries that all the sheep products have been known in its history for a long time. It is often rightly claimed that without the hardy, locally adapted sheep Icelanders would not have survived through centuries of hardship due to the harsh climate and all the natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions. Although food consumed in modern Iceland differs in many ways from what was eaten in the past it is fair to say that sheep products still maintain a fairly strong position in the retail market.

Since most of the slaughtering takes place in the autumn, fresh lamb is mainly available from September to November. Frozen lamb is available throughout the year, as well as several smoked and salted food items processed from sheep. The consumption of smoked sheep meat is typically higher during Christmas, while in January ram testicles are amongst the items of a special feast called Þorri, while salted lamb is in great demand on a certain day in February called Sprengidagur.

The Icelandic sheep has developed through the centuries a particular adaptation to the northerly latitudes and environment of Iceland, and even slight changes may jeopardize their ability to graze and exist in harmony with the environment. Regarding leadersheep, because the meat produced per ewe is lower in this strain than other ewes selected specifically for high meat output, there is not much incentive to keep leadersheep, although they are of great conservation value due to their unique, behavioral and genetically fixed characteristics. Out of the total of 2000 sheep keepers in Iceland, mainly on farms, leadersheep are only found in in small numbers in approximately 10% of the flocks, and the Leadersheep Society of Iceland has 160 registered members. Thus, competition with more productive sheep, from an economic point of view, and with other agricultural enterprises and imported agricultural products, are the main reasons for the need to protect these sheep.

Image: Slow Food i Reykjavik

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