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Growing Interest in Breeding ‘Leader Sheep’

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Growing Interest in Breeding ‘Leader Sheep’

Ram.

Photo: Páll Stefánsson.

Farmers around Iceland are showing increasing interest in breeding so-called ‘leader sheep,’ unique to the Icelandic breed, RÚV reports. Today leader sheep in Iceland number around 1000, and many farmers are working toward maintaining the special and useful strain.

Since the settlement of Iceland, the Icelandic sheep breed has produced rams known as a ‘leader sheep’ (forystufé). These rams have inherent leadership qualities: they walk ahead of the herd, and are accepted as its leader. They usually have a sixth sense for the weather, and are known to anticipate storms by seeking shelter, prompting the rest of the herd to follow.

Leader sheep are very useful to Icelandic farmers, and to ensure their continuation, there are breeding centres located in South and West Iceland which house two leader sheep at the service of farmers. A ‘ram registry’ is also available in the form of a yearly publication from which farmers can choose leader rams to pair with their ewes.

Sæþór Gunnsteinsson, a farmer in Aðaldalur valley, North Iceland, has 10 leader sheep among his herd. They are energetic and lightweight animals, significantly different from sheep bred solely for the purpose of producing meat. Sæþór considers the breeding of leader sheep a hobby and somewhat of an eccentricity of his. “I have fun doing it,” he stated.

Sæþór told RÚV a good leader sheep has many qualities. “It has to of course be calm. And always to go ahead of the herd and lead it. Always confident when going inside and through gates and leading the herd.”

Leader sheep were especially useful in the past when sheep would graze outdoors during the winter, a practice that has petered out. “But we should of course maintain this very special strain. It isn’t found anywhere in the world other than here,” Sæþór states.

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