Icelandic Sheep for the Small Farm
by Margaret G. Flowers of Aurora, NY
Congratulations! You have, or are planning, a diversified small farm and have come to the conclusion that sheep would be a good addition. But what breed should you include? There are so many to choose from! Let me introduce you to a very special breed, the Icelandic Sheep and its related breed, the Icelandic Leadersheep.
Icelandic sheep belong to the group of sheep known as the Northern European Short-tails, a group of relatively primitive sheep that have in common, as you’d expect, their short tails that never need to be docked, and their origin in countries and regions of northern Europe, including Iceland, the Baltic states, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Shetland and south through Scotland. The sheep of Iceland were brought to the island by the Vikings in the 8th – 9th century, and while there were in the past attempts to import animals to “improve” the breed, these experiments failed. As a result, the Icelandics have remained isolated and genetically pure. Unlike a number of the other members of the Northern European group (such as Manx Loaghtan), Icelandic sheep do not represent a relict population, but number in the hundreds of thousands in Iceland. There they make up a substantial percentage of the agricultural output of the country, and are a commercial production breed.
The Icelandic Sheep come to North America
The modern importation of Icelandic sheep to North America occurred thanks to the pioneering efforts of Iceland native Stefania Sveinbjarnardottir- Dignum (Yeoman Farm), who first brought two rams and twelve ewes into Canada in 1985, and in 1990 made a second importation of ten rams and sixty-two ewes. Icelandics were first brought from Canada to the United States in 1992 by Barbara Webb (Jager Farm). Additions to the genetic diversity of the North American flock has been increased by the Icelandic Sheep for the Small Farm importation of semen from Iceland for artificial insemination – a bit more about this later.
How can you recognize them?
Icelandics are classified as a medium-sized breed, with ewes weighing about 125 – 150 pounds and the rams weighing approximately 175 – 200 pounds. Thus, they are of a size that is manageable for men and women alike, and even as the shepherd gets on in years. Both rams and ewes may be either horned [DALUR] or polled [ASKJA]. Matings between horned individuals produce horned lambs, and those between polled individuals produce polled lambs; breeding between horned and polled will produce a variety of short horn-like structures or “scurs” (this unlike the usual pattern of horned rams and polled ewes e.g., Shetlands). Mature ram horns are very angular and have a magnificent full double curl, while ewe horns have a backward or slightly outward sweeping half circle.
A notable characteristic of the Icelandic is the double-coated fleece. The outer water-repellent coat, or “tog” is produced by the primary follicles (thus a true wool, not a guard hair or kemp), and is of medium coarseness, averaging about 35 ?m in diameter. This tog can actually be separated into several layers based on length and fiber diameter – the longest and coarsest layer about 45 ?m, and the inner and finest about 30 ?m in diameter. The inner coat or “thel” averages 19 – 22 ?m in diameter, and is produced by the secondary follicles. Faces and legs are “clean,” covered only with short hairs.
The sheep come in a range of colors and patterns, and may be spotted as well. The overall appearance of the fleece is determined by three genes: 1. the base color (black or moorit/brown, with black dominant), 2. the pattern(s) (white, gray, badgerface, mouflon, solid) and 3. spotting (unspotted is dominant to spotting – spots are white) [SKAFTA]. White pattern [JOKULL] is dominant over all other patterns and solid pattern [THORIS] (tog and thel the same color) is recessive to all other patterns. Gray [TORFA] (gray thel, with tog expressing the base color), badgerface [KINNA] (dark underside, light back) and mouflon [MOA] (the reverse of badgerface) show co-dominance, meaning if two different alleles are present, both are expressed [SOTA]. An additional rare pattern (the single gene gray-mouflon – SGGM, in which the gray and mouflon pattern are inherited as a unit) [SURTSEY] has been found in both Iceland and the United States, most likely a mutation of one of the more common patterns; it is co-dominant with gray, badgerface and mouflon. All patterns (except white, of course), can be expressed in either black or moorit animals, so the possibilities are almost endless! But understanding the fleece of the Icelandic sheep is only a little more complicated than the genetics you learned in high school Biology class – and a lot more fun than Mendel’s peas.
A Triple-Purpose Sheep… and more
Icelandic sheep have been advertised as “triple purpose” and with good reason. They can be raised for meat production, their fiber, and for milk production.
Meat. – In Iceland, the primary focus of sheep raising is for meat production, and this has been the focus of breeding selection for generations. The sheep were historically raised on timothy pasture in Iceland, and thrive on grass-based systems in the United States. The lambs are fast-growing and some can reach 70 –100 pounds within four to five months. As one of the “mountain breeds” the flavor of the meat is characteristically mild, and often described as a gourmet meat. Focused breeding in Iceland has been towards a meatier animal with less fat, and this has great appeal for the health-conscious consumer of today. Icelandic lambs will produce, on average, about 25 – 30 pounds of meat.
Fiber. – The Icelandic sheep produces a premium quality fleece that is in very high demand with hand-spinners. The tog (with a spinning count of 50 – 60) can be 8 inches or even longer, and is strong, water repellent, and wear-resistant. The downy “thel” (spinning count of 64 –70) is generally 2 – 4 inches long and very warm, and can be worn next to the skin. Since tog and thel can easily be separated and spun separately, it is possible to get three kinds of yarn from a fleece: tog alone, thel alone, and combined, or lopi. The fiber can be spun from fine lace-weight to bulky, depending on the desired use. It is also excellent for felting projects, both flat-felting and needle-felting.
Icelandic sheep are generally shorn twice per year – in the fall to produce a clean fleece, and again in the spring around lambing time and the normal “rise” or wool break, which is a common trait of primitive breeds. A fully skirted fall fleece will generally weigh between 2 – 3 pounds; the fleece, however, is quite low in lanolin so the fiber yield after washing is significantly higher than in many other breeds.
Fleece color is endlessly variable. Moorit, for example, can range from one animal to another from milk-chocolate, to dark chocolate, often with glorious red tinting. Likewise, in the same animal, the color of the fleece can be quite variable from year to year. Young lambs can look quite different from the adult – a very common occurrence with the gray patterned animals. [SILFRA LAMB AND SILFRA ADULT] I like to think of each fleece as a separate dye-lot. Therefore, especially if a project is intended that requires more than one fleece, it is advisable to make sure that the fibers are well-blended.
Milk. – Icelandic ewes are easily able to support twins or the occasional triplets. While not a focus of commercial production in Iceland at this time, in the United States, there are an increasing number of Icelandic sheep dairy operations, some milking upwards of 50 ewes. In addition, Icelandics have been successfully crossed with the more common dairy breeds such as East Friesian. Many more Icelandic shepherds milk a few sheep for personal use, for making yogurt, artisan cheeses, and soaps. In this setting, lambs are separated from the ewes only at night, and the ewes are milked only in the morning; thus the growth of the lambs is not compromised.
And more. – Beyond the three primary products that can be obtained, Icelandics are useful creatures. They can be used for “vegetation management” – keeping grass trimmed in yards, orchards and vineyards (protect the plants!), solar “farms,” and even cemeteries. They are avid browsers as well, so they can be used to trim lower branches of edible trees (be sure to identify the tree and check for toxicity). They produce a high quality, pelletized manure that can be used to increase soil fertility and structure. The possibilities are almost endless!
Icelandics on the Farm: The Nitty-Gritty of Raising Icelandic Sheep
The basics of sheep husbandry include food, shelter and medical care. Beyond this, it is useful to understand how the particular breed will behave during the different seasons of the year.
Food. – Historically, Icelandic sheep survived on pasture and seaweed, so they have developed large efficient rumens that allow the modern sheep to thrive on pasture/hay and browse. They are aggressive grazers and do not need grain, although some shepherds will supplement with grain prior to and during breeding, and in late gestation. Like other breeds of sheep, they require an available supply of minerals; unlike most other breeds, Icelandics require additional selenium and copper (note that one must still be careful to avoid copper toxicity). The level of additional supplementation will be dictated by local soil conditions, which can be determined by soil tests – whether soils are deficient in these minerals or rich in competing minerals. Finally, Icelandics require a constant source of fresh clean water – they will refuse to drink contaminated water.
Housing. – Icelandics are extremely cold-tolerant, requiring only 3-sided shelters to protect them from the wind and rain/snow when necessary. In the coldest areas of the country, it is advisable to have a fourth side that can be closed on a temporary basis as the weather demands.
Fencing/Protection. – Icelandic sheep are easily trained to electric net fencing; woven wire (no larger than 4 inch squares) or welded wire are also effective restraints. Electrical fencing must be kept “hot,” and wire fencing tight to deter the urge to explore the greener grass on the other side of the fence. Depending on the farm situation, predator pressure, and the preference of the shepherd, livestock guardian animals (dogs, llamas, donkeys) may be appropriate. Without guardians, it is imperative that the sheep be locked in safe quarters at night.
Medical Care. – Icelandic sheep are generally easy keepers, requiring little medical care. Lambs should be vaccinated (with a booster to follow) for clostridial diseases, including tetanus – this vaccine is referred to as CD/T. An annual booster is also required approximately 30 days pre-lambing so that the lambs can receive passive immunity to these diseases in the colostrum. (The lambs are born with no immunity and must receive this in the colostrum within the first few hours of birth.) In addition, Icelandics, like most sheep, need to be monitored for internal parasites, especially the barberpole worm that causes anemia, and if untreated, may lead to death. There are several dewormers on the market, and these should be used judiciously (only when needed). It should be noted here that careful pasture rotation, based on the barberpole life cycle (rather than strictly pasture height) is an essential part of successful parasite control. In some areas of the United States, other parasites, such as liver fluke and meningeal worm are present; it is imperative for the shepherd to know what is present in the particular region and what symptoms to look for. Medical care, including vaccinations, can generally be performed by the shepherd; the only notable exception is rabies vaccination, which must be performed by a veterinarian.
Icelandic Sheep Behavior. – Icelandic sheep are smart, and the successful shepherd will learn how to think ahead of the sheep and be smart in handling them. The key is remembering that they are a prey species, and are always looking for a way “out.” They are curious, and can be affectionate, but don’t expect them to behave like your family dog – to them, you are another predator. Beyond this, the sheep will recognize events and individuals (human and sheep), and their intelligence allows them to be trained to farm operations such as milking. They are a non-flocking breed, and will scatter over available pasture, seeking out the most nutritious food. Both sexes are docile and easy to halter-train, but as for any breed of sheep, rams should always be considered potentially dangerous, especially during breeding season.
Breeding and Lambing. – Icelandic sheep are seasonal breeders, with ewes coming into season in late October to early November as the photoperiod (day length) becomes shorter. If not bred, they will continue to cycle into the spring (as late as May). The sheep mature early; it is possible to successfully breed ewe lambs if they have achieved sufficient weight, approximately 75% of expected mature weight. For a number of reasons, most shepherds opt to wait a year before breeding ewes. Twins are normal but not invariable (profligacy is 175%); however, in individuals containing the “Thoka gene,” triplets or even quads are produced. Flushing (increasing the nutritional status) of the ewe is sometimes useful, but not necessary, especially if the ewe is entering breeding season in top body condition. Ewes can breed for 10 years or longer, although it is instructive that in Iceland, ewes are not bred after 8 years. Breeding can be accomplished with farm rams (and adult ram can breed up to 60 ewes), or with semen imported from Iceland using the technique of vaginal artificial insemination (VAI) that was developed in Iceland for use with Icelandic sheep. Singles are more common when this technique is used, but the benefit is that the best current genetics available in Iceland are introduced into the US flock. There are currently several farms in the United States that routinely employ VAI as a major part of their breeding programs.
Lambs are born after an average gestation of approximately 142 – 144 days (range is 136 – 151). Lambs are between 6 and 8 pounds at birth for twins (more for singles) and are up and nursing within a few minutes; in the case of twins, the first born has frequently nursed before the second is born. Intervention at lambing is rarely needed. Ewes have plenty of milk, and the lambs are generally strong enough to suck out the wax plug.
Registration. – Registration of Icelandic sheep in North America (both Canada and the United States) is through the Canadian Livestock Registry Corporation (CLRC). The Breed Association determining the rules for registration for Canadian sheep is the Canadian Sheep Association; for US sheep, the overseeing breed association is ISBONA (Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America). Only pure-bred sheep that do not have docked tails are eligible for registry.
Once described as a “sub-breed” of the Icelandic sheep, the Icelandic Leadersheep are now recognized as a separate breed. Known in the literature of Iceland from the earliest records, they are thus as ancient as the “usual” Icelandics, dating back to the time of settlement and, in fact were the more highly valued because of the critical roles that they played. Leadersheep are particularly intelligent, and in Iceland were bred for this trait, rather than for meat. The differences that are seen today between the two breeds can be traced back to this selection strategy.
Leadersheep are taller and thinner that the “usual” Icelandic (more of a dairy breed conformation), frequently display a characteristic white blaze and socks over a solid pattern, [KATLA] and are unusually alert to their surroundings. They have a heightened sense of direction and of danger, and are able to alert the shepherd to impending weather changes. They are the unquestioned leader of the flock; this is distinct from “alpha” behavior that can be observed in any group of social animals. Historically, leadersheep were used in Iceland to take sheep to and from winter pasture; now they are much less common because of changed agricultural practices, but are still used in the annual roundup to lead the flocks back from summer pasture. Their presence in a flock of Icelandics on the small farm can be a great benefit to the shepherd. They are particularly human-oriented and vocal, so the shepherd who learns to listen to and trust the leaders can be fore-warned if anything is amiss in the flock – or if an unusual situation has occurred. Note that leadersheep can act as an effective “early warning system” but they are still sheep and do not replace the need for protective fencing or guardian animals. They cannot take on a marauding coyote or dog. Conservation of leadersheep (their status in the US and globally is classified as “critical”) is actively being pursued in both Iceland and the United States.
Leadersheep in your flock. – As Leadersheep evolved in the same environment as the “usual” Icelandic sheep, the care and maintenance described for the “usual” sheep also apply to the Leadersheep. They share the same “purposes” as the “usual” Icelandics, too. The meat has less fat as these sheep carry their fat around the inner organs, rather than in the muscle. The fleece is double coated, and may be found in the same colors and patterns as the “usual” sheep. They produce abundant milk, although on the milking stand, they may be more demanding of attention (and treats). And while it might be tempting to own an entire flock of these sheep, one must remember that they are leaders and need to have other sheep as their followers.
Before adding sheep to your small farm, seek out a large animal veterinarian who knows and cares about sheep. This may be easier said than done in some regions, but the increase in the number of farms with small ruminants has brought these animals more to the attention of the veterinary community. A vet who is conversant with cattle is a good second best as they are also ruminants. However, you will not always want or need to consult a vet. There are excellent books on sheep care on the market, and there are good resources to be had online. Topping this list is the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America (ISBONA; www.isbona.com), which has a very informative website, including a listing of active breeders throughout North America. ISBONA also maintains an online group for its members, and this is a good forum to connect with other Icelandic sheep owners…especially when emergency advice is needed; in addition, it puts out a Newsletter. There are also excellent resources from some state university sheep programs (e.g. Maryland, among others), and from the veterinary services at Primier1. There are several Facebook pages that can provide helpful information; these include Icelandic Sheep Owners, Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America [administered by ISBONA board members, but not an official publication], Canadian Icelandic Sheep, Icelandic Sheep of the British Isles). As with all social media anyone can post, so it’s best to have an additional source of information to check accuracy. Above all, purchase your sheep from a breeder who is willing and eager to mentor you both before and after you buy your sheep!
Icelandic sheep are an excellent addition to the small farm setting. They are easy to raise, without expensive inputs, and the triple purpose of meat, fiber, and milk provide many opportunities for a diversified farm. Besides, they are truly beautiful animals!
Margaret Flowers is Professor Emerita of Biology, Wells College, Aurora, NY, and is the owner, shepherd, and fiber artist of Trinity Farm in Aurora. She raises registered horned and polled Icelandic sheep and Icelandic Leadersheep (as well as registered Shetland sheep). She has a particular interest in up-breeding Icelandic leadersheep for North America and is one of a handful of Icelandic breeders using VAI with semen from Iceland to bring the best genetics of Iceland to the North American flock. She is a member of the ISBONA Board of Directors (currently the Vice President), and is the editor of the ISBONA Newsletter. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.