After Icelandic sheep are brought down from the mountains, those that will be wintered-over spend some time in pastures closer to the farms. Counts of Icelandic sheep are always given in terms of the winter flock, and thus do not include the lambs (that number would be almost three times as large, because many Icelandic ewes have twins—the breed’s lambing rate is 170 to 180%, or higher). Wintered-over flocks range in the hundreds up to a thousand or so sheep.
So: keeping sheep inside—how does that happen? As part of the North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference, we had the opportunity to see one of the largest and most modern winter-housing facilities, constructed several years ago by a farmer named Christian. As with many of the events, catching folks’ names was difficult. While I got many questions answered there, I have even more now—and if anyone who is reading this was there and wants to supplement or correct what I'm saying, you're most welcome to do so!
Note the round, plastic-wrapped hay bales to the left in the photo. More on those later (but a one-minute YouTube video of making them here: six layers of plastic, we were told, wrapped green, allowed to ferment slightly into haylage).
Ólafur Dýrmundsson (left) translated our questions and Christian’s responses.
The inside of the building has been set up for the comfort of both sheep and humans. It’s quite a contrast from the half-year that the flock spends in the mountains! And I think it's amazing that the sheep can adapt to the dramatically different living situations.
Established areas accommodate the bulk of the ewes (larger pens along the righthand side), the older ewes or others that need extra attention (the smaller pens at the right front), and other groups. The left side (mostly out of the photo, to the left of the walkway) is a long run, uninterrupted by barriers.
Here’s a view of the standard pens, with feeding bins at the rate of one for every two pens. The slotted floors allow manure to drop through to an open area beneath the building, but the openings are small enough that even the lambs’ feet can’t get caught after they're born here in the spring.
Mating and lambing do take place in this facility. Christian is in the minority among Icelandic farmers in that he manages his breeding the old-fashioned way: with rams. Most Icelandic sheep reproduction takes place through artificial insemination. (For more details on this topic than most of us need in daily life, here's a PDF of one of Ólafur's papers; suffice it to say that our primary guide on these travels is one of the top experts, if not the top expert, on sheep in Iceland.) Christian buys rams from the few locations where that’s permissible, because they are certified to be disease-free. He allocates one ram to each of the main pens (just during the breeding season; note that the barriers between pens are solid, which in part is to help keep the rams from seeing and being competitive with each other).
Here’s an adjustable feeding bin: the height can be changed with the boards along the sides, and the width with the rails. Each can hold a large round bale of hay (about 500 pounds, although the weight of a bale varies depending on what's in it), and the adjustments allow the sheep monitored access to the food, so they don’t get too much or too little. If I’m remembering correctly, Christian goes through 1,000 bales in a winter.
The design includes rails overhead for the transport of those bales of hay to the farthest reaches. A tractor can come in through the big door and offload bales. You can see two of the grippers (like huge calipers) that are used to lift bales—one is against the wall at the end of the orange rail on the righthand side, and once you recognize its shape you can see a second silhouetted against the large door, suspended from the center rail.
Sheep that need additional attention are housed close to where the humans spend the most time (by the door where the hay comes in).
The set-up has been devised to provide effective ventilation; temperature control; and more.
Because the sheep were just about to come down from the mountains, the group had access to the whole structure and examined it in detail, with some folks taking measurements.
The new system is not perfect. It has made many major chores easier, but as with everything in life, changes in one part of an ecosystem produce changes in other parts. Christian said that there are some downsides, although they are outweighed by the benefits. One complication is that the sheep experience a few more lambing problems than they did when they were housed in the older, smaller units, because in that situation the ewes could occasionally get outside during the winter and have a different type of exercise. Of course, they get serious workouts when they go to the common grazing areas, during the entire summer, and on the return trip in the fall. I didn't think to ask whether, or how, the sheep might get in shape for the journey before undertaking it in the spring! I would guess that they are pastured for a while before they set out. On the positive side, feeding and breeding are a lot easier to manage now, and Christian can keep a close eye on every sheep.
Building this facility involved huge investments of thought, time, and money. It's state-of-the-art for winter housing of sheep in an environment noted for severe winter storms. ("The lowest winter temperatures in northern Iceland and the highlands are generally in the range -25 to -30°C [-13 to -22°F], with -39.7°C [-39.5°F] the lowest temperature ever recorded." That quote is from the link in this paragraph—but temperatures only tell part of the weather story.)
Christian’s next chore before the arrival of the sheep was to go underneath the building with his tractor and remove last year’s manure (which will be used as fertilizer) in preparation for the start of this year’s collection, and then to go bring the sheep down from the high common grazing.
Our next chore was to get back on the bus.