Why We Chose Icelandic Sheep For The Homestead

We chose Icelandic sheep for our homestead for their meat, milk, and wool potential — and I’m very glad we did. This breed has lived up to their expectations and beyond. I’m going to delve into the breed, its history, the pros and cons, and everything else you need to know about the beautiful Icelandic sheep — along with plenty of photos of my flock.

A large Icelandic ram with white wool and massive, curled horns stands in a pasture.
My Icelandic ram, Lars. I bought him first.

I had been struck by the wild beauty of the Icelandic sheep breed ever since hiking in Iceland with only the rugged sheep for company.

In Reykjavik, after actually tasting the meat for the first time — I was hooked. I had never tasted lamb so good. It was incredible: mild but flavorful.

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. We moved into our homestead in 2021 and that first spring I had already bought my breeding ram, Lars, and three ewe lambs I named Sigrit, Brunhilde, and Freya.

Let’s get into the specifics of Icelandic sheep as a breed. How they perform for meat, wool, and milk, and what the pros and cons are.

Icelandic Sheep At A Glance

  • Use: Primarily a meat breed in Iceland, the wool spun from their fleece is also incredibly valuable. They are gaining in popularity as a dairy sheep again as well.
  • Size (Rams): 180-220 lbs
  • Size (Ewes): 130-160 pounds
  • Origin: Iceland, where they were brought over from Norway by settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries
  • Conservation Status: Not at risk, the rare Leadersheep variety (a subpopulation) is endangered though.
  • Horns: Horned and polled sheep are common in both females and males.

Icelandic Sheep Pros

  • One of the most beautiful breeds.
  • Very cold hardy breed.
  • Can be used for meat, wool, and milk.
  • The meat is of exceptional quality and taste with no “mutton” or “game” smell or taste. It’s lamb for people who don’t like the taste of lamb.
  • The wool is beautiful and soft enough to wear next to the skin.
  • Fleece is in high demand by hand-spinners.
  • The pelts are similarly beautiful and in demand.
  • A hardy, healthy, and rugged breed (with exceptions).
  • Do amazing on a grass-fed pastured system of management, very efficient feeders.
  • Prolific breeders with a lambing percentage of 175%-220% as twins and triplets are common.
  • Ewes are excellent, natural mothers and birth easily and quickly.
  • Male ram lambs raised for meat do not necessarily need to be castrated at birth even if you plan to over-winter them to increase carcass size.

Cons

  • Smaller than other meat breeds. You will have less meat.
  • not suitable for very warm climates.
  • Not selectively bred (in general) for milk production and thus not necessarily the best choice for milking. You may have more challenges and also less milk.
  • Slower to get to weight than other meat breeds.
  • Susceptible to barber pole worm and other parasites. This is common in all sheep but barber pole is one the Icelandic does not have natural immunity to and it may be more of an issue. That being said, we breed for parasite resistance as a priority here and other breeders do as well.
Three Icelandic sheep ewes in a green pasture.

Icelandic Sheep Breed Origin & History

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 and 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.

A horned white and brown Icelandic ewe leaning up against a metal gate in her pasture.
My Icelandic ewe, Brunhilde, when she first arrived as a lamb. Icelandic female sheep can be horned as well as polled.

Réttir

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.

Two Icelandic ewes with long, white wool eating a very tall pasture of mixed grasses and legumes.
Sigrit and Brunhilde on our 1-acre pasture. Their wool is ready to be sheared.

Icelandic Sheep Meat

The meat of Icelandic sheep is the best I’ve had in any country I have visited from any breed.

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.

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 depending on the breed and how it was raised.

But Icelandic lamb is not like that at all.

The meat is mild but not bland.

If you do not like lamb, you will likely enjoy Icelandic lamb. It tastes more like veal, is very tender, mild, and lean but very flavorful too.

The downside of this breed is that the smaller size of the sheep means your hanging weight will be smaller too.

And Icelandic sheep will grow slower.

The spring-born lamb ram we slaughtered and butchered last October had a hanging weight of 56 lbs at 6 months, and the ewe we slaughtered — only 29 lbs.

And the ewe was last year’s lamb, so she was over a year old.

That said, the meat is exceptional and the other qualities of this breed still make it worthwhile.

One of the amazing things about this breed is that ram lambs do not need to be castrated to avoid any musky off-scents as they grow older.

Some shepherds will hold off slaughtering their lambs in the fall to allow for another season of growth in order to get more meat — and the do this with fully-intact males who still taste great the following year.

I’ve heard the same said of old rams past their prime for breeding from numerous reliable sources.

Lambs will naturally stop growing come fall, but when spring returns they experience another growth spurt that may last into the fall months.

Two white Icelandic ewes standing in a bright red sheep shed.
Freya in the front with Brunhilde in the back on pasture.

Icelandic Sheep Milk

What is the best sheep breed for milk and meat? The Icelandic may potentially become a contender, but with some considerable caveats.

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.

That said, the breed is primarily a meat breed in its native Iceland. And it has been a long time since they depended on the animal for milk.

Any sheep can technically be milked, but not every sheep is the best choice for a dairy sheep.

We have not attempted milking our ewes yet but this year I will try and update this page accordingly, and you can also follow me along on Instagram for a behind the scenes look at our flock.

There are shepherds breeding and selecting for milk lines and sharing information with others who are curious about this.

The milk from sheep is incredible and very nutritious so I’m determined to make it work here.

The potential is definitely there and it is possible.

Icelandic Sheep Wool Quality

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.

Lopi: Icelandic Wool For Knitting, Spinning & Felting

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.

Young blonde woman wearing a traditional Icelandic  sweater in dark grey with purple designs.
Traditional Icelandic sweat or lopapeysa hand knit by Icelandic Wool Studio on Etsy.

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.

I have Icelandic wool sweaters and even baby clothes and it is is incredible.

A large Icelandic ram with white wool and massive, curled horns stands in a very tall pasture.

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 almost completely pastured (no supplemental feed in the summer save for a weekly handful of grains and seeds) 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 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.

For two seasons now i’ve watched that single acre sustain my flock and keep them in perfect health.

I have an article that covers his topic in greater detail — how many sheep per acre — and I’m very pleased and surprised with what is possible on our small homestead.

In November the sheep are confined to their comfortable and roomy sheep shed and fed a high quality third-cut alfalfa hay. That hay along with their sheep minerals and some seaweed is all they need.

See my article on the best hay to feed your sheep and other livestock for a breakdown.

Sheep do not need grains and Icelandics especially can be quite sick if fed too much of it. We will give our sheep the odd handful of oats or blackoil sunflower seeds as a treat, but it is not a real part of their diet.

This confinement gives the pasture time to rest and regenerate as my sheep will not be turned out onto it until it is about 4-6 inches long in May.

So far this is the only parasite-management system I have needed to implement.

See Also

A brown and white Icelandic ewe lamb with horns and long, curly wool stands in the doorway of a red sheep shed barn.

Sheep Parasites & Barber Pole Worm

All sheep are susceptible to parasites and barber pole worm is especially a danger.

I have never needed to worm or treat my sheep and I check their eyelids (I use the FAMACHA score card) for signs of anemia — a signal of high parasite load.

My 7-year old ram Lars has never been dewormed and the three ewes I bought were only wormed once by the previous owner before being sent here.

Since we let the pasture sit for 6 months and keep the sheep and lambs dry on hay, it has really helped.

From my sheep groups I know exactly how lucky I am with my flock and I’m now determined to breed for parasite resistance.

Any sheep that has parasite issues will be culled from breeding.

A horned white and brown Icelandic ewe nurses a newborn black and white ram lamb.
Brunhilde nurses her first lamb — a tiny ram lamb. We got two lambs that first year of lambing, but lost the other one.

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.

Our first lambing season resulted in a healthy and strong ram lamb who grew rapidly and resembled his father.

We had a ewe lamb born who died hours later for reasons I never found out. I tried to save her.

Our third ewe, Sigrit, did not lamb. Between that and her diminutive stature, we made the decision to slaughter Sigrit instead of overwintering her.

This spring of 2023 I’m anticipating twins from both ewes, and as I write this, lambing season is in full swing although my girls are not due for another few weeks.

It is common for ewes to have singles their first year and then twins (or more) each year afterwards.

Final Thoughts

When I first saw the beautiful Icelandic Sheep in Iceland as I hiked the Fimmvörðuháls Pass by myself, I had no way of knowing that a few months later I would meet the man who would become my husband and the father of my children. And we had no way of knowing we would ever be able to afford to move to our own homestead from our condo to actually have a small flock of Icelandic Sheep.

This breed has become something I am very passionate about and I absolutely recommend it to anyone interested in sheep if your climate allows for it. We will be expanding our flock soon and adding more registered Icelandic sheep to our small homestead.

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6 Comments

  1. We also have triple-purpose Icelandic sheep on our Utah homestead and we LOVE them! Now our small flock consists of ewes and a ram with excellent meaty build, soft and dense wool, and large udders with good teats for hand milking. We are not picky about color and enjoy the wonderful assortment. They thrive on grass and quality minerals (which includes some copper). We tried to give them up to 10% alfalfa hay for late gestation/early lactation and they all got fat!
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    Their wool is incredibly versatile. It can be carded together to make lopi. We also separate the fleeces to make warp yarn and next-to-skin garments. Their milk is so creamy and so sweet. Makes excellent cheese and yogurt, or just for drinking. And their lambs (if not sold for breeding) are in high demand for the freezer. They are ready to butcher at 5 months old, before they are sexually mature. No neutering needed. Amazing, super lean, gourmet meat. Pelts are also in high demand.
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    Icelandics are a non-flocking breed that tends to wander away from each other or walk single-file. We have zero tolerance for aggression, so all of our current sheep are mild mannered and friendly. They enjoy scratches and some are even snuggly. We sure love our sheep!

    1. I just saw this comment now, apologies in my very delayed response! Thank you for sharing your experience with them. I’ve grown to love the breed and everything it offers even more since getting a chance to raise them and see their behaviour. Very excited for lambing this spring!

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  4. I enjoyed reading your little story and congratulations for your dreams coming true. I hope your family is doing well. I live in Cape Bretton Canada, and although very difficult to find I was able to acquire two pure bred Icelandic bread ewes. There winter living quarters is almost set up and I will get them in about three weeks. The breeder was and is super helpful as this is my first time with sheep. This is the first time the ewes have been bread but still hopeful for twins. The ewes are white but bread with a black ram so I’m excited to see what the lambs look like… I will castrate and end up dispatching the ram lambs but will need to find a new ram in the spring for continuous breathing. (Dark colours are best) . Any tips and advice is always welcome and would definitely enjoy chatting with you. Good luck in the future, happy laming, and hopefully hear from you sometime…thanks, Patrick

    1. How exciting! I’m assuming my ewes are bred and we will have healthy little lambs this upcoming spring. They’ve been such a joy to keep and maintain. Good luck with your flock!