The Shepherd from Shepard Avenue

16 09 2012

Icelandic sheep have over 30 natural colors and though most are bred for their meat, farmers are becoming more concerned about preserving these colors too. The basic sheep colors are white, yellow, black and rust brown which can be mixed and matched in many different ways. But the vast majority is white. Like most farm animals in Iceland, the Icelandic sheep is a special breed, a species which became isolated after the settlement and is now protected.

In the autumn, Icelandic farmers summon a team of shepherds and ride into the mountains to collect their sheep in an event called the réttir or sheep round-up. For the past several round-ups the Westfjords students have been helping a local farmer, Betty, bring in her flock for the winter.

Its a LONG WAY DOWN from our drop off point! The farm is situated nearly at the beach. The mountains tower about 800m above the valley. Around 40 people cleared 400 sheep from this huge area!

The sheep are free to roam all summer long and they wander in small groups all over the countryside. Teams were assembled and dropped off in the mountains and valleys. The mountain group drives the sheep down from the hills and also extract the stubborn sheep from behind rocks and in crevasses in the mountain slope. Down in the valley we formed a line to urge the sheep home. So we stood at 50m intervals, waving our hands and shouting nonsense to convince the sheep to go the direction we wanted. Coordinated by walkie-talkie and hand signals, the 2 mountain teams and valley team work in unison to walk the entire countryside and funnel the sheep to the farm. Any sheep missed in the sweep would likely not make it through the winter.

If you look very closely, you can see 13 year old Thorr (in orange) and his dog Rosa driving a herd down from the mountainside. The landscape is treacherous and the work is slow.

The shepherding can take a whole day, because some sheep are just plain stupid. They just walk where ever they want and if one gets turned around the whole group follows. Our line was broken once and it was a mad scramble to get the sheep headed in the right direction. Despite the mishap, this year was a quick one and we finished 3k in around 5 hours. The locals said the sheep act the same every year and the reason we finished so quickly this year was the shepherding!

Got ya! The sheep were rounded into the sheepfolds, which are usually circular and made of wood. The sheep run into the middle of the sheepfold which has the most space.

After the whole operation, there was not a dry foot in the house. In thanks for all the help, we were treated to a huge meal of fish soup and sandwiches. We all exchanged stories over hot cups of tea and coffee as we thawed out. Betty then reviewed her flock. She decided the quality of each sheep, whether it should be kept for breeding or whether it should be sent to the slaughterhouse. The unfortunate ones are marked with a red cross on their foreheads and are later dragged into the back of a truck or a trailer destined for the next slaughterhouse.

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One response

18 09 2012
Kelly Lenihan

You’ll have to take up knitting and make a sweater with Icelandic wool.

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