|Breed Description and History
ICELAND...a land of great contrasts. It's northern side, just
within the arctic circle, is cold and forbidding. The south
facing side of the island is cool and wet, sunny days experience
frequent mists and showers, but it is warmer than expected
because of the still-remaining influence of the Gulf Stream.
One of the most geologically active sites in the world,
volcanic events occasionally endanger towns and valuable
pastureland. The environment is very fragile, hikers are asked to not wander from the paths,
and what little topsoil exists is easily eroded away. Nevertheless, the Norwegian farmers who
settled the island in 874 A.D. to escape persecution in their homeland, considered it the gem of
the north and named it Iceland to misdirect & discourage settlement by competing wayfarers.
The Viking settlers brought their wives and cattle with them but it was their sheep in
particular that made their continued existence on the island possible...but with no natural
predators to curb the flock's increasing numbers, the forests
were denuded and the grasslands overgrazed. The harsh
conditions, coupled with the heavy demands of the farmers over
the last 1100 years have forced the Icelandic sheep to rapidly
develop to it's present remarkable level of hardiness.
Thought to be the oldest and purest domesticated breed, the
Icelandic sheep is firmly establishing itself as
today's preeminent multiple use breed. Genetically, the Icelandic sheep is the same today as it
was when the Norwegian farmers brought them to the island in the 9th and 10th centuries.
The Icelandic sheep is of the North European Short-Tailed type and is related to the Finnsheep,
Romanov, Shetland, Spelsau, and others. (See more on this! www.rala.is/beta/mapnord.htm)
The Icelandic is considered a medium sized sheep, the rams weighing 190-220 lbs.,and the
ewes from 130-160 lbs.
The Icelandic sheep is very intelligent, alert, and fast on their feet. They are like goats in
that they eat brush and wild grasses as well as pasture forage. They are good mothers and very
protective of their lambs, always watching every intruder that enters the pasture. They are
usually very aggressive with other breeds of sheep, dominating is most situations, but can be
very friendly & accepting of their shepherd.
They have a long life expectancy (up to 14 years), and after the first year are very
reliable twinners, continuing to bear twins up to about the age of 13, when a single lamb may be
The ewes come into heat in late October, continuing through April. The rams develop a
strong odor a couple weeks earlier which stimulates the ewes into heat. The lambs are born
about 5 days earlier than "modern" sheep (avg. 7 lbs), and are very vigorous, so there are few
The lambing rate averages 170-180%, but in the 1950's a ewe named "Thoka" (meaning 'Fog')
was found to have substantially more lambs than usual, and her offspring produced 2.14 to 3.4
ova per cycle instead of the normal 1.59 to 2.2 ova, a statistically significant increase. The
"Thoka"gene as it came to be called, was carefully propogated, and Thoka gene carriers have
produced as many as 6 lambs at one birthing, but Iceland's agricultural advisors suggest, and
most shepherds in North America generally strive just for reliable twinning.
Until about 80 years ago, winter hay was always in short supply because of the short summers
with highly unpredictable weather. Modern haymaking equipment was scarce and owned only
by the wealthy, so each ewe was put on a controlled starvation diet having the equivalent of
only 2 bales of hay for the entire winter, plus whatever they could scrape from under the
snow. By spring, the ewes were a bag of bones, but they were still expected to twin and provide
milk for the farmer and his family. (A few hundred years ago, to bear a single lamb the first
breeding season was forgivable, but they'd better twin the next breeding season or they might
have been culled!)
Icelandic weather does not allow for grain supple-
mentation, so the lambs in the summer are raised on grass alone,
averaging 3/4 lb. increase per day, and are slaughtered right off
the pastures when the grass stops growing in the fall. However the
ewes in Iceland as of late are being fed fishmeal in addition to
their now-plentiful hay allotment, and are being treated to heated
and insulated barns!
Being low and broad, the Icelandic has an excellent meat
conformation, with a light bone structure, the carcass dressing out
to about 40%. The meat is light-flavored and tender, and served
in the world's finest restaurants.
Capable of fairly high milk production, the Icelandic sheep is
more hardy than the rather fragile East Fresian dairy sheep and
considerably less expensive. The Icelandic's milk is used to make
hard cheeses and naturally sweet yogurts of the highest quality.
|One of our adult moorit ewes