We just brought home our first flock of Icelandic sheep, a breed I have been obsessed with ever since hiking in Iceland with only the rugged sheep for company. I found myself in Rekjavik actually tasting the meat for the first time — and I was hooked. I had never tasted lamb so good. I knew that one day when I had my own homestead, I would have a flock of Icelandic sheep of my own. Well, that dream came true — they are here and I am in love.
Our little homestead just welcomed four Icelandic sheep and I'm convinced that this hardy and ancient breed is perfect for smaller places like ours. As a breed renowned for its gourmet meat, luxurious wool, and high butterfat milk — how could we go wrong with this choice?
The Icelandic sheep looks like some half-wild creature plucked from a desolate cold place and placed amongst us from a different age. Their beauty is unmistakable but unrefined.
Both males and females are commonly horned (polled versions do exist) and their fleece is long and luxurious.
The Icelandic sheep are ancient. They are descended from the Northern European short tail breeds and were brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the 9th century. Without the sheep and their meat, milk, wool, and hides life would have been impossible in Iceland for the Viking settlers.
In Iceland, they remained isolated and only the hardiest of the creatures survived the cold and harsh landscapes, the months with no light. As a result, they are one of the purest and oldest domesticated sheep breeds in the world.
Icelandic sheep only found their way to North America via Canada in 1985 through the efforts of Iceland native Stefania Thordis Sveinbjarnardottir who imported the first Icelandic sheep.
The year I met the man who would become my husband is the same year I went on a solo trip to Iceland and had my first encounter with the sheep.
I found myself in Vik on the black sand beaches.
I had decided on a whim that I would visit this country and that I would hike solo to Skogafoss from Vik instead of taking the bus. From there I would hike the Fimmvorduhals Pass between two glaciers.
I camped in hidden spots as needed until I reached the famous Skogafoss waterfall which is also the start of the breathtaking and isolated Fimmvörðuháls Pass, a hike that takes you between two glaciers, past countless more waterfalls, volcanoes, and the most startling and surprising landscapes I have ever seen.
It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful places in the world.
And I was there right around the summer solstice, in the time of the Midnight Sun when the sky remains light all through the night.
Alongside the stocky and friendly Icelandic horses I encountered were also numerous sheep searching for the tastiest wild grasses and plants.
As I hiked and camped, taking my time over six days, I would see them in great numbers high above me casually grazing impossibly steep places.
I had never given much thought to sheep.
There was no way for me to know back then that I would find myself on my own homestead in 2021 happily married with a new baby.
I vaguely knew I craved a simpler life, a country life, a life closer to nature and God. It was part of the reason why I was in Iceland and seeking out isolated wilderness hikes, away from the city noise and pollution, and ever-present crowds.
But my life in Toronto felt so far removed from that possibility. It was an idle half-formed thought still.
Later on, the Fimmvorduhals behind me and back in Rekjavik, I got to taste Icelandic lamb for the first time in my life — it was the best tasting lamb I had ever tasted.
At the next restaurant, it was the same experience. Was there something special about the meat from Icelandic sheep that made it taste so good?
I've had lamb from sheep raised in Croatia and the Balkans, Canada, Italy, New Zealand. This was different. It was mild but still fully flavoured. There was no hint of game or bitterness that sometimes accompanies lamb meat.
I remember thinking to myself that if I ever did get that country life I was dreaming of — I would have my own flock of Icelandic sheep.
In Iceland, the sheep are left to their own devices
There is no shepherd or livestock guardian dog.
Iceland lacks the large predators to necessitate constant vigilance and human interference.
The sheep are left out to graze and then rounded up annually in the Réttir, one of the oldest Icelandic traditions, which occurs every September.
The Réttir is a tremendous amount of hard work followed by drinking and celebrations and plenty of traditional Icelandic lamb dishes being served across the country in homes and restaurants — such as black-pudding blóðmör and liver sausage lifrapylsa.
Meat. Wool. Milk: A Triple Purpose Breed?
Icelandic sheep are commonly referred to as a triple-purpose breed as the meat is of excellent quality, the famous wool is incredible and makes for soft and warm garments, and the milk has a high butterfat content which makes for delicious homemade cheeses, ice cream, and drinking.
Lamb For People Who Don't Like The Taste Of Lamb
Do you dislike the taste of lamb or know someone who does? Try lamb from Icelandic sheep and you may change your mind.
If you can find any that is. I have never seen it for sale in Canada.
And I'm not just saying that. I love unique and stronger meats but personally find that lamb can be quite challenging, its flavour can be quite gamey or pastoral in an unpleasant way.
But Icelandic lamb is not like that at all.
The meat is mild but not bland.
Lopi: Icelandic Wool For Knitting, Spinning & Felting
Although in Iceland the sheep are raised primarily for meat, the wool is a valuable byproduct that has enchanted knitters and spinners around the world.
The inner layer, or the thel, is very insulating but also super light and airy. The outer layer, or tog, is long, strong, and repellant to water. The two can be carded and spun separately and used for different purposes but when carded together, these two layers make the famous lopi, versatile wool used to knit (amongst other things) the lopapeysa, the distinctive and traditional Icelandic sweater.
Icelandic sheep are sheared twice annually and their fleece grows quickly and very long.
Wool from the spring shearing is more coarse and best used to make carpets, while the prized lopi wool comes from the autumn shearing and can be worn right next to the skin.
The wool also felts beautifully and is perhaps the best wool breed to use for felting.
Perfectly Suited To Pasture
Icelandic sheep evolved in some of the harshest and most unforgiving conditions on the planet.
They are perfectly suited to pasture-based management systems as a result.
Our own pastures were unused save for the breeding trio of african geese and the five goslings they hatched. And although my geese are completely pastured (no supplemental feed) there is simply not enough of them to make even the smallest dent in the acre we have fenced off.
I watched, mesmerized, as the winter turned into spring and the pasture grasses sprung forth and grew — and kept growing. In parts they reached as tall as my shoulders (I'm 5'10) when I finally brought my ram and three freshly weaned ewe lambs onto it.
This season I'm going to watch and learn. See what they do and how they graze. Next spring when the grasses return I will start to rotate them according to the principles of holistic management, a system of rotational grazing that rebuilds topsoil, sequesters carbon, and makes for a healthy ecosystem.
For the winter I have found a source of certified organic hay. And Icelandic sheep with their large and efficient rumens are known for being thrifty feeders throughout the winter.
But I shall have to wait and see for myself.
The research will only take you so far. The doing is the real test.
High Butterfat Milk For Cheesemaking
Any breed of sheep and many mammals can be trained for milking even if they are not known for or generally kept for those purposes. But very few will also have the exceptional meat and fleece of the Icelandic sheep on top of milk that is high in nutritious butterfat.
I can't wait to make raw sheep milk cheeses like feta. But also ice cream, kefir, and more.
My Milk Recipes:
I am so looking forward to next spring when our three now-very-little-still ewe lambs will hopefully have their own lambs for the first time.
As this will be their first year being bred, I'm expecting singles from the ewes.
However, after their first year of lambing, I can look forward to twins every year after.
Do I have a plan for milking the sheep?
Not really. I have milked a cow once or twice as a child in Croatia but the truth is that I have no clue what I'm doing beyond the fact that I want to do it.
And that is enough for me.
Icelandic Sheep Are Prolific Breeders & Great Mothers
Icelandic sheep twin regularly and easily.
Triplets are not uncommon either.
And this is just a part of the breed standard, not some anomaly.
The lambs are born small at only 6-8 lbs but they quickly gain weight on mother's milk and pasture.
My beautiful ram, Lars, is a twin and so are 2 out of the 3 ewes I have.
I am nervous about going through the breeding and lambing for the first time — but they can do it as quickly and easily I did, it should all go very well!
Summer on The Homestead With New Sheep
This time last year I was very pregnant with my first child and we had no idea that our homesteading dreams would come through just a few days before our son was born.
This time last year I would sit on my condo balcony and look out at the city wondering how we would have the family we wanted in the small space we had.
Now I'm looking out at my own land. A flock of Icelandic sheep is grazing on my own lush pastures. And I'm really looking forward to what this chapter of our homestead will bring.