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Herding Sheep

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Herding Sheep

Click on the picture to experience réttir through an audio slideshow, the annual sheep round-up in Iceland. Every spring after lambing, farmers chase their sheep to the mountains where they spend the summer growing fat. Come autumn they herd them down to civilization again and choose which sheep become Christmas dinner.

Narration and photos by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir.

Réttir is turning into a major tourist attraction in Iceland for both native and foreign tourists, and some shepherds and sheep farmers only do it for fun nowadays. But réttir is a serious matter because the annual sheep round-up used to be, and in many places still is, one of the most important events in countryside Iceland.

After the lambs are born in spring, farmers chase their flock of sheep into the mountains where they spend the summer like wild animals. Those who have driven across mountain passes on Iceland’s Ring Road in summer are bound to have noticed all the sheep roaming free and grazing at the side of the road and sometimes, jumping in front of cars.

In fall, farmers summon a team of shepherds and ride into the mountains to collect their sheep. They recognize their ewes, rams and lambs because of special ear markings, and some farmers can even spot them from afar. The shepherding can take a whole day, because some sheep have lost their flock and are hiding behind rocks and in crevasses in the mountain slope. Some sheep aren’t found until late winter and others are lost forever, trapped and devoured by hungry ravens.

The farmers chase their sheep down to the valley and into a sheepfold, which is usually circular and made of wood. The sheep run into the middle of the sheepfold which has the most space. By then it is usually late in the afternoon and the farmers are tired, so they retire for the night and leave the sheep in the fold until the next day.

Spectators arrive early to watch the show and participate. The sheep bleat hysterically as people squeeze between them, grab their horns, mount them and drag them into the relevant compartment, an activity called draga í dilka in Icelandic. Each compartment of the sheepfold is labeled with the name of a farm and after checking the ear markings, the sheep owners and their helpers know how to categorize the sheep.

After all the sheep have been categorized the farmers have a cup of coffee and a slice of cake, often served by children in booths around the sheepfold. In the meantime spectators walk among the sheep, pet them, admire their colors, take pictures of them and the members of the youngest generation chase the sheep around and ride their backs.

Icelandic sheep have over 30 natural colors and though most are bred for their meat, farmers are becoming more concerned about perserving these colors too. The basic sheep colors are white, yellow, black and rust brown which can be mixed and matched in many different ways. But the vast majority is white. Like most farm animals in Iceland, the Icelandic sheep is a special breed, a species which became isolated after the settlement and is now protected. The Icelandic sheepdog is also unique with its spiky ears and curly tail.

After the coffee break it is time for business. The farmers review their flock and discuss the quality of each sheep, whether it should be kept for breeding or whether it should be sent to the slaughterhouse. The unfortunate ones are marked with a red cross on their foreheads and are later dragged into the back of a truck or a trailer destined for the next slaughterhouse.

Most of the sheep at réttir become roasts, hot dogs, lamb chops, soup meat, fillets, hangikjöt, smoked Christmas dinners, or slátur and svid, liver and blood sausages and singed sheep heads, Icelandic delicacies.

These photos were taken in early September 2007 in Fossvallarétt sheepfold near Reykjavík.

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