Narration and photos by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – [email protected]
Brimnes is a sheep and cattle farm located in the region of Árskógsströnd by Eyjafjördur fjord in northeast Iceland, offering a splendid view of Hrísey island, the pearl of Eyjafjördur.
The farm is owned by two brothers, Kjartan and Arnar Gústafsson. Kjartan is responsible for the cattle while Arnar tends to the sheep.
Lambing season begins unusually early at Brimnes, in mid-March. Arnar and his girlfriend (at the time) Edda Björk take shifts watching over the nearly 300 ewes and helping them give birth 24/7 for about two months or until the last lamb is born. Týra, their faithful sheep dog, is happy to keep them company.
Each ewe normally has between one and three lambs. This season one ewe had four lambs, which is very rare, but the Brimnes record is five lambs from one ewe. The national record is seven.
Even as young as the age of one, ewes are ready to have lambs. The gestation period is five months. Nowadays farmers often take their sheep to insemination stations, but Brimnes breeds its own rams and allow their ewes to be inseminated the natural way.
Usually the youngest ewes have the fewest lambs. Since a ewe only has two teats, the farmers try to make a ewe that only births one lamb adopt the third lamb from a different ewe. If they give it to her immediately after the birth, the adoption is normally successful.
Many problems can occur during lambing season. This season one lamb died when the mother lay down on top of it. The ewe was old and weak and didn’t realize what she was doing.
Another ewe that had three lambs was unable to feed them because her teats were too thick. The farmers have to milk her and feed her lambs with a bottle until they are large enough to feed from their mother. Because of this situation, the three lambs always run towards humans and suckle on their fingers.
Icelandic sheep come in many different colors. Most of them are white but the other basic colors are yellow, black and rust brown. These colors can be mixed and matched in 32 different ways. Sheep can have spots and stripes. Their heads and legs can be a different color than the rest of their bodies, or only the ears and muzzles, and sometimes they are even tricolored.
Sheep farms have one or two specially-bred leader sheep. At Brimnes, black ewe Ida is the leader. She is slimmer than the rest, independent and cunning, and when the entire herd of sheep is in the mountains, Ida makes the decisions and the others follow her lead.
During lambing season on Brimnes, the ewes and lambs roam around inside the sheepfold and inside the barn, which must be sheep heaven for them. The lambs are curious and when a new person enters their territory, they sometimes nibble on that person’s boot.
The grown sheep look a bit naked because they were recently shorn. The farmers shear their sheep’s wool off and sell it twice a year. It is beneficial for the sheep too; otherwise they would get too hot.
When a ewe is ready to give birth she becomes restless and mucus shows at the end of her birth canal. The ewe starts moaning and pushing and one can see the hooves of the lamb appear at her rear. The lamb is supposed to come out with its front legs and head first.
When the lamb comes out it looks like a slimy, bloody clump. Lying motionless on the floor it looks as if it is dead. Sometimes the farmer needs to help it breathe by grapping it by the hind legs and swinging it back and forth.
Then the newborn’s mother takes over and licks her lamb clean. The ewe eats the slimy membrane to familiarize herself with her lamb’s smell so that she will always recognize it. After only a few minutes the lamb tries to stand up on shaky legs and after that, it looks for its mother’s teats.
Suddenly the ewe gives birth to another lamb. This one has a very unusual color—black stripes and dots on its otherwise white body—a coloration which is called skræpóttur.
The mother of two licks her second lamb clean as well, while the firstborn continues with the task of standing up and finding milk. The young family is moved into the hallway where there is more room and the farmer helps the lambs find their mother’s teats.
During lambing season, the ewes are kept inside a sheepcote, while the rams stay outside with the ewes that did not get pregnant this season (and because of that sometimes a few lambs are born in fall as well).
When the lambs get bigger and the weather turns warm, the entire herd is let outside in the hayfield and later in summer they are driven up into the mountains where they stay until next fall.