Why Icelandic Sheep?
What’s so great about Icelandic sheep? For me, the first thing I fell in love with was their look. Long multicolored fleeces, broad bodies, strong, curling horns—I thought they were the most beautiful sheep I had ever seen.
Upon further research, I grew more and more impressed at their incredible versatility and practicality. Used for centuries for their meat, milk, wool, and pelts, these amazing, multipurpose sheep are much more than just another pretty fleece!
· Fleece: Icelandic sheep produce a naturally dual-coated fleece made up of the tog, a long, lustrous outer coat similar to mohair, and the thel, a fine, soft, crimpy undercoat. These two fibers may be spun together or divided and spun separately, to produce three different types of yarn. Icelandic fleece is also one of the most prized wools for felting. The wool is low in lanolin, which means much less weight is lost during washing compared to the wool from other breeds.
· Meat: Medium-sized, broad, and low, Icelandic sheep have excellent conformation for meat animals. On good pasture, lambs reach their slaughter weight in about 4 to 6 months, directly off grass, with no need for grain. The meat is much leaner and milder-flavored than typical commercial breeds of lamb. The October 2009 issue of Saveur magazine said, “Free-range, grass-fed Icelandic lamb is exceptionally fine grained and mild tasting; it is prized by chefs.”
· Milk: In Iceland, these sheep were used for centuries as dairy animals. Now farmers in North America are beginning to use them to produce milk, cheese, yogurt, and soap. High milk production also means fast-growing lambs. Many Icelandic ewes are prolific enough milkers that they can feed triplets without assistance.
· Pelts: Soft, lustrous, and incredibly luxurious, Icelandic pelts make gorgeous rugs, throws, and garments.
· Land clearing: Icelandic sheep are similar to goats in their ability to clear land and improve pastures by devouring troublesome weeds, brambles, vines, and “scrub” plants, such as alder, poison ivy, green briar, wild blackberries, multiflora roses, honeysuckle, and more. Their large rumens help them digest a wide array of rough forage.
· Colorful: Icelandic sheep come in a dazzling variety of colors and patterns, including whites, creams, tans, russets, chocolates, blacks, grays, silvers, badgerfaces, mouflons, and spots.
· Historical: Icelandics are one of the oldest pure breeds of sheep, and are the direct descendants of the sheep the Vikings brought with them when they settled Iceland in the 9th century. More than 1,000 years of survival in the harsh environment of Iceland have forged some exceptionally hardy, healthy animals.
· Prolific: High lambing percentages are normal. Twins and triplets are common. Even quads are possible. Some Icelandics carry a special gene for extra prolificacy, known as the Thoka gene.
· Easy lambing: The typical gestation period is about 142 days, several days shorter than most commercial breeds. Ewes rarely need help with lambing and are quite capable of lambing out on pasture. The lambs are born small but vigorous, and are usually up and nursing within minutes.
· Early maturing: Well-grown ewe lambs can easily produce lambs by their first birthday. Ram lambs reach slaughter weight in 4 to 6 months and are old enough to begin breeding by about 5 months. Because lambs typically reach market weight before the fall breeding season begins, ram lambs need not be castrated at birth as most commercial breeds are.
· Long lived: Ewes often continue producing lambs until age 10, 12, or beyond.
· Grass-fed: Expensive grains are unnecessary to bring lambs to market weight. Icelandics thrive on good grass/legume pasture alone, although some breeders do supplement their ewes’ feed a little during pregnancy and lactation. A high-quality sheep mineral mix should always be available.
· Short-tailed: Icelandic sheep have naturally short tails, so no docking is required.
· Intelligent: Contrary to the stereotype that sheep are stupid, Icelandic sheep are alert and intelligent. Some strains of Icelandic sheep carry a rare talent for sensing danger and leading the rest of the flock (and sometimes the shepherd!) to safety. These exceptional individuals are known as Leadersheep.
· Adaptable to poor pastures: When grazing, Icelandics tend to spread out over the whole pasture, rather than clumping together in a tight flock. This allows them to make the most of sparse grazing conditions, when necessary. Of course, the shepherd must still make sure that their nutritional needs are being met!
· No herd dog required: Icelandics are easily trained to come when called and to follow the shepherd carrying a bucket of grain. This means shepherds with modest-sized flocks and pastures don’t need to invest the time and money for a herd dog to move the sheep around. If you have a lot of acreage or a very large flock, herd dogs can still be helpful.
For more information about Icelandic sheep, visit the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America (ISBONA) website.