Preface: The sheep roundups we saw were highlights of my time in Iceland, and also emotionally difficult for me. As much as we textile folk hear about Icelandic wool, the primary market is meat, principally lamb. Most of the four-month-old lambs born last spring leave the roundup area on trucks headed for the slaughterhouse, or abattoir. There was an abattoir tour as part of the North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference this year, as there was last year. The management of this aspect of sheep raising plays a critical role in the overall economic and welfare picture. Every farmer and shepherd I have met cares a great deal about the welfare of the animals, up to and including the slaughter. (Some don’t, of course, but I haven’t met them.) Part of me thinks that in order to have a comprehensive view of the world that I research I should fully understand this part of the cultural picture as well, and should not shy away from direct contact with the meat processing, but I have not been able to bring myself to do so. (I did visit the tannery, although I didn't take the tour or stay as long as others.) I don’t eat meat, for many reasons, and that choice has worked for me for decades. I do want to see increased use and valuing of wool—which I think is appropriate from multiple perspectives, including the ecological, long-term economic, aesthetic, and ethical. I suspect that if I forced myself to personally witness the meat-processing aspects of sheep farming I would not be able to continue my work, which I think is important—or I wouldn’t be doing it. I don’t judge the existing situation. I would like to see a shift in priorities and values in the larger economy. I’m perfectly aware that this is like somebody in a kayak wanting to change the course of a cruise ship (and I’ve paddled a kayak around an anchored cruise ship, so I know exactly what sort of size disparity I’m suggesting). What I can do is paddle my kayak, admire the sheep and the humans who care for them, and hold the hope that some of my actions may make a difference in the long run. But I need to leave the meat-related parts of this story to those who are involved with them. And so, other than to mention my personal challenges here, I will simply note—and not elaborate on—some aspects as we go through the roundup.
Most Icelandic sheep spend the months from approximately May to September on their own in the common grazing areas. Flocks have assigned areas, and return to the same location annually. The types of landscape and quality of grazing vary, but all are remote. Familiarity with the environment likely helps members of the flock retain an understanding of weather patterns, sheltering areas, vegetation, and other aspects that help ensure the animals' survival over the summer.
In September, the sheep are rounded up and sorted by owner. The ewes are mated in the fall and spend the winter in shelters. Shearing takes place in the fall and again in the spring; the fall wool, cleanest and whitest, has the most value. Spring wool contains more vegetable matter and may be off-color, because it has been grown under more restricted conditions. After lambing in the spring, the sheep return to the common grazing areas.
Roundup schedules vary by common grazing area, and generally take four or five days of intense work involving sheep, humans, horses, and dogs. The sheep walk a long distance into the mountains in the spring—and walk a long way back in the fall to a sorting area; each grazing unit has its own facility, consisting of a large fenced pasture that initially contains the sheep after they come off the mountains, connected to a central, circular enclosure into which smaller groups of sheep are released for sorting, which in turn is surrounded by pie-shaped pens for the sorted groups. From these smaller pens the sheep are trucked off, either back to the appropriate farm (ewes, for breeding) or to the abattoir (most lambs and the older ewes who will not be bred again).
We watched two parts of the roundup process at two different locations: we saw the sheep coming down from the mountains in one area, and the sorting at another location. Here’s an overview of what a sorting area looks like, because you need to be able to get an aerial shot to comprehend the structure. That image is a pretty fancy one! They can be constructed from a variety of materials, including wood, concrete, or whatever is available that will be strong and durable enough.
From the rain-spattered bus window, we caught sight of one sorting area as the sheep were still coming down from the mountain but due to arrive in the foreseeable future. The building is a community house, which offered us some shelter while we waited. To its left, that big brown area contains the sorting pens. The sheep would be coming from the right and across the road.
After watching for an hour or so, we caught sight of the first horses and riders. At the far edge along the horizon, you can see the next batch, which turned out to be about a dozen horses that had also spent the season on the range.
Not too long after that, the lines of sheep began to appear.
They arrived in clusters, and spread out as they got near the road, where interesting grass grew.
They were encouraged to cross the road. . . .
. . . which they tended to do at a bit of a run. At this point, everyone involved was tired—sheep, people, dogs, horses. They’d been walking for literally days, and were ready for a rest.
Just the other side of the road, they were funneled into the large holding area, where they would spend the night resting up. Sorting would follow the next day.
Again through a rainy bus window: an indication of the way multiple generations were involved—both with the roundup and with the sorting. There were toddlers, and there were ninety-year-olds. It’s definitely a family and community event.
That was the first stage of the roundup, involving perhaps 30 people and 12,000 to 15,000 sheep. A number of days later, another, smaller group of people will go out and do a second pass over the same area. Finally a skilled pilot with intimate knowledge of the terrain will fly over, looking for more sheep and will communicate their locations to a smaller crew on the ground. Then that job is done for the year.
Now we skip to the other location for an actual sorting. The perimeter was lined with cars and small trucks filled with rain gear, picnic equipment, kids, and other necessities.
There are many more people involved on sorting day than on the long days of the roundup.
Interesting window sticker. . . .
Within the circular center section, representatives of each flock grabbed likely sheep . . .
. . . checked ear tags and earmarks (distinctive for each farm, and useful if tags are lost) . . .
. . . and put each sheep into the appropriate pie-shaped pen.
Some pens were fuller than others.
Sometimes the vegetation in an adjacent pen was more appealing.
Mostly the sheep were grateful to settle down once they’d been put in their assigned location.
Iceland has had problems in the past with disease transfer that have resulted in large-scale slaughter of animals. A number of measures have been put in place to prevent a recurrence of similar problems. Since before the middle of the twentieth century, no new sheep have been introduced to the country. If you see a sheep in Iceland, there’s no guessing game about what breed it is. In addition, the country has been divided into regions. Each region has a characteristic color of ear tag. Sheep that are missing identification or that have strayed from another region are placed in the slaughter group. In addition, most of the breeding takes place through artificial insemination. We did meet a farmer who breeds his ewes “the old-fashioned way,” buying in rams from the handful of disease-free locations from which it is possible to transport animals.
Speaking of transport, while there were large trucks arriving and departing with loads of sheep, going either to farms or to an abattoir, one nearby farmer transported ewes to pastures with a tractor-pulled trailer that needed to ford a fairly wide river (almost a small lake).
Here are two posts from Baablog, by a U.S. shepherd who participated directly in a roundup:
And here’s a post by an Icelandic farmer with a small flock.
Most Icelandic sheep are white, but we were told that colored percentages of the wool clip have recently increased some, to about 17 percent.
Some farmers breed more colored animals than others.
From the commercial wool-processing perspective, the most valuable fleeces are the solid colors. From a handspinner’s point of view, the multicolored ones have a lot of appeal.
White, black, brown, solid, or patterned, aren't they pretty sheep?