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Leader sheep and sheep farming in Iceland


Leader sheep and sheep farming in Iceland

Meg Rodger

Blönduós, February 2019.

Blönduós, February 2019.

Iceland Review: 10th September 2012

“Between 15 and 20 centimeters of snow fell in North and Northeast Iceland overnight leaving roads impassable. It is believed to be a new record for snowfall at this time of the year.

According to the manager of the Icelandic Road Administration in Húsavík, Gunnar Bóasson, strong winds are hampering efforts to clear the snow.

Search and rescue teams have been called out to assist foreign and Icelandic travellers.

Winds of more than 20 m/s have been recorded across the country and severe weather warnings have been issued.

People are advised against traveling today.”

In early September 2012, the most severe snow storm in decades hit Northern Iceland. Farmers struggled to retrieve their flocks from the mountains, to bring them down to safety in the valleys. As the snow fell and the winds rose, the drifts accumulated into several meters deep in some areas. Thankfully, the farmers had some very dedicated helpers, their Leader sheep, to assist them as they battled with the elements.

These Leader sheep, as the name suggests, have distinct leadership qualities. In the instance of the extreme snow storm of September 2012, these Leader sheep guided many flocks down from the mountains out of danger to the safety of the valleys. Farmers then took the sheep in trucks and trailers to shelter while the Leader sheep were then taken back up into the mountains on snow mobiles to guide yet more sheep down to safety.

Sadly the storm was so extreme that thousands of sheep were lost, buried under the snow. However, if it had not been for the Leader sheep the losses would have been much higher.

Leader sheep have, what my Icelandic sheep farming friend Sigrún Indriðadóttir refers to as ‘a special kind of intelligence’. 

Many sheep farms will have three or more Leader sheep depending on the size of their flock. The majority of Leader sheep are ewes 83.7% with only 8.8% wedders and 7.5% tups (rams) and in the main, their fleeces are black and grey. They are a special breed of Icelandic sheep and have been known to exist since Iceland was settled by the Vikings over 1100 years ago.

Farmers will actively purchase Leader sheep to introduce them into their flock as a means of managing them in the mountains and extreme weather conditions. It is estimated that there are around 1500 Leader sheep with most them found in the Northeast of Iceland.

Sigrún’s family farm Stórhóll   in   Skagafjarðarvegur, Northern Iceland

Sigrún’s family farm Stórhóll in Skagafjarðarvegur, Northern Iceland

It was February, earlier this year, when I visited Iceland on an art residency at the Icelandic Textile Centre. On of my main interests during this time more about their sheep husbandry. Icelandic sheep are close relatives to our Hebridean sheep as both breeds belong to the North Atlantic sheep family having been brought to our respective islands by the Vikings around the mid 800s AD.

They shear their sheep in October and then bring them indoors for the winter months until lambing in May. If there are good days throughout the winter they are let out to get some fresh air and sunshine. On most farms they aim to balance the number of sheep with the amount of hay they can make from their valley fields. Therefore, although there is some supplementary feeding the farms are mostly self sufficient.

Sigrún’s sheep barn.

Sigrún’s sheep barn.

My first encounter ‘face-to-face’ with a Leader sheep was on a visit to Sigrún’s farm Stórhóll in Skagafjarðarvegur, Northern Iceland. As I entered Sigrún’s sheep barn it was immediately apparent, like most Icelandic flocks, that the majority of the sheep are white. This is a result of selective breeding for the wool industry. They also breed for meat aiming for a lamb weight of around 40kg by their first Autumn (August-September). Our Hebridean sheep, by comparison, are only black and mature for meat sales at 18 months i.e. in their second Autumn.

One of Sigrún’s Leader sheep.

One of Sigrún’s Leader sheep.

So I was standing admiring Sigrún’s flock while this black and white sheep worked its way through the throng that were very happily munching on the delicious hay we had just spread out for them.

Look at this handsome fella … he is one of Sigrún’s Leader sheep. Look at the intelligence in his eyes. He is totally checking me out. Sigrún says that when they first bring the sheep in her Leader sheep will go around the barn to all the exits not resting until they have checked out the whole area. On good winter days she will let the sheep out if the weather forecast is fair but sometimes he will not leave the barn and she wonders why. Sure enough a couple of hours later, the weather will take a turn for the worse and all the sheep are scampering to get back into the barn.  It is as if he knows the weather is coming she says!!

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Sigrún leads a very busy life as farmer, mother and artisan. She has a wonderful flock of Icelandic goats, ducks and a herd of Icelandic ponies. The weather was still very cold and icy when I visited so we didn’t spend much time outside but we had a wonderful time exploring her creativity in her gallery/studio. It was very kind of her to take time out of her very busy schedule to spend time with me, please check out her gallery website to find out more:

Now that it is May, Sigrún is in the midst of lambing. As the days warm up, the ewes and lambs will be let outside to the sunshine and at the end of May the sheep will be taken up into the mountains for summer grazing.

In early September, the farming families within each valley come together on horse back to gather in their flocks. While several days of hard work, it is regarded as a good way to catch up with neighbours and family. I have been invited back to one of the sheep farms to help with the horseback gathering and I hope to join the team sometime in the future as it would be a truly wonderful experience.

For more information on Leader sheep, please consult Daniel Hansen’s website: