What Are Icelandic Sheep?

Today’s Icelandic sheep are direct descendants of sheep brought to Iceland by early Viking settlers, in the 9th and 10th centuries.  They are North European Short-Tailed sheep, related to the sheep that predominated in Scandinavia and the British Isles during the 8th and 9th centuries.  Very few attempts have been made to “improve” Icelandic sheep through the centuries with outside crossings – in fact, the few attempts that were made resulted in disasters from the diseases brought in by the “new blood”.  As a result, producers drastically culled all animals which resulted from the cross-breeding, and it is now illegal to bring other breeds of sheep into Iceland.  Improvements to Icelandic sheep have thus been done by selective breeding within the breed itself, which leaves Icelandic sheep genetically the same today as it was 1100 years ago.  It is possibly the oldest and purest domesticated breed of sheep in the world today.

A gene affecting prolificacy has been identified in the Icelandic breed, called the “Thoka” gene after the ewe Thoka, born at Smyrlobjoerg farm in 1950, from which the gene is thought to originate.  Researchers have observed marked differences in ovulation rate between carrier and non-carrier animals – the average number of ova non-carriers were found to have ranged from 1.59 to 2.2, and the average ranged from 2.14 – 3.4 ova for carriers, a statistically significant difference.

The gestation period is ~142-144 days – a few days shorter than most breeds.  The lambs are small when born – a good weight is 6-8 pounds, leading to a high percentage of births needing no assistance.  Albeit small, the lambs are quite vigorous when born and are up and nursing in a few minutes, with the first-born of a set of twins often looking for the teat before the second-born arrives.
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Icelandic sheep are of medium size, with mature ewes averaging 150-160 pounds and mature rams generally 200-220 pounds.  They are fine-boned, with open face, legs, and udders.  They are not particularly tall, but are broad and have excellent conformation as a meat breed.  Icelandic sheep can be naturally polled, horned (both ewes and rams), or may have scurs (incomplete horn expression).

They are seasonal breeders, with the ewes coming into heat around early November, lasting through April if they are not bred.  The mature rams develop a distinct odor in early October, which stimulates breeding readiness in the ewes.  Icelandics will occasionally breed out of season, but that is not encouraged.  The fecundity of the ewes is excellent and the mature rams are very efficient breeders.  Lambing rate is generally 170-180% but can be higher if the ewes are given richer feed leading up to the season.
The Icelandic breed is not docile.  They are alert, and fast on their feet.  Most of them are quite individualistic, and flocking instinct is poor.  They tend to spread out, making good use of sparse pasture, and are good browsers – enjoying eating brush, wild grasses, and sedges.  The ewes are good mothers, with high milk production.  Behavior in Icelandic sheep has been compared to that of feral or early domestic animals.  Some are nervous, but when they get to know their shepherd they become quite friendly.

While the breed is world-famous for its wool, in Iceland it is bred almost exclusively for meat.  Although the lambs are born small, they grow fairly quickly – on good pastures they should reach 80-90 pounds in 4-5 months, at which time they are weaned.  The cool, wet climate in Iceland precludes the production of most grains, so the breed has developed a very large rumen that allows them to eat larger quantities of a rougher forage and still thrive.  In Iceland, they are not fed any extra grain or creep feed, but are brought to slaughter straight off summer and fall pastures.  Dressing percentage is around 45%.  The meat is fine-grained, has a distinct, delicate flavor, and is relatively low in fat.  The leaner carcass and mild flavor can appeal to the palate of even those consumers who “just don’t like lamb”.

The wool is loved by artisans.  The fleeces are open and are low in lanolin, offering significantly less loss in weight than many other breeds, when washed.  Icelandics are dual-coated – the fleece has an inner and an outer coat typical of the more primitive breeds.  The fine
undercoat is called the thel and the coarser outer coat called the tog.  The thel is down-like, springy, and soft, with a spinning count of 64-70, and is generally around 20 micrometers in diameter.  It provides the loft for the outer coat and insulation for the sheep.   The longer tog, generally around 27 micrometers in diameter, is similar to mohair – wavy or corkscrewed rather than crimped, strong,
wear- and water-resistant, shedding off rain and weather.  It is wonderful in worsted spinning.  Tog grows from the primary hair follicles and is true wool – not kemp or guard hair.  Thel grows from secondary follicles.  The fibers can be spun together or separated, with the thel making fine lace-weight yarn good for garments worn close to the skin, and the tog making a more robust yarn for outerwear.  When processed together and lightly spun they can be formed into lopi, a distinctive knitting wool only made from the fleeces of Icelandic sheep.  Processed together, they give superb protection from the cold and wet.  Icelandic fleeces are also known as one of the best for felting, making it popular with the craft community for yet another reason.

The natural colors range from snow white through several shades of grey to pitch black, as well as several shades of brown (moorit)  to brownish black.  There are several patterns and combinations of colors and patterns – mouflon, badgerface, spotted, bicolor.  Due to the length of the fiber, the openness of the wool, the dual coat, the variety of natural colors, the ease of spinning, and the versatility, fleeces are usually sold through specialty markets to hand-spinners.

The skin of the Icelandic sheep is excellent as a pelt, in part due to how relatively few hair follicles per square meter, making the pelts soft and flexible.  They are beautiful, lustrous, soft, and luxurious, and come in a delightful range of colors and patterns.  They make absolutely gorgeous sheepskin rugs.