Iceland’s Other Inhabitants


Iceland’s Other Inhabitants

All Icelandic land mammals but one were brought to the country by humans, either deliberately or by accident. Domestic animals, having been isolated on the island for more than 1,100 years, have developed special characteristics.

Published in the 2013 January-March issue of Iceland Review – IR 01.13. By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Illustrations by Erna Kristín Gylfadóttir.



Through the centuries, sheep have kept their masters alive as a source of meat, fat, milk, wool and skins, and also provided the materials for tools and toys. A clear sign of their value: the Icelandic word for sheep, fé, also means money. The hardy creatures are practically wild in summer and—as proven during the disastrous blizzard that struck North Iceland’s mountain pastures in September 2012—can survive up to 45 days under a cover of snow.

The toughest of the tough are the leader sheep, forystufé, which lead the herds across obstacles and to cover in bad weather. They are not a separate breed but have special characteristics. Leader sheep are described as longlegged, skinny, fit and resilient, with large intelligent eyes; they have a light and special kind of walk and their coat is often dark in color. Leader sheep are mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas but have also been known in other countries—they are even referenced in the Bible. However, nowadays, their breeding appears to be limited to Iceland.

Sheep are among the animals which were brought to Iceland with the Norse settlers more than 1,100 years back and have been isolated on the island since. They are of the short-tailed breed, which used to be common across Northern Europe but can now only be found there in small numbers, and in even smaller numbers in Russia. Icelandic sheep were first exported to North America in the 1980s, where the breed is in rapid growth.

Number of sheep: 474,759 (outnumbering the country’s human population of 320,661)Average weight: 71 kg (167 lb) for ewes and 96 kg (212 lb) for rams

You can read the remainder of the article in the 2013 January-March issue of Iceland Review – IR 01.13.Five times a year the print edition of Iceland Review & Atlantica brings you a wealth of articles on all aspects of life in Iceland including Páll Stefánsson's latest images of the country’s majestic landscape. Click here to subscribe and here to browse through a selection of pages from the current issue.