The History of Sheep


Is the Icelandic farmer a dying breed? Recently I heard about two farmers who are quitting, not because they are tired of their job or want a change in their lives, but because external factors are forcing them to quit.

I’ve been away on summer holiday traveling to all corners of the country, fishing and meeting people outside of Reykjavík. I’ve enjoyed the fruits of the land and have been amazed by the country’s stunning natural scenery, again and again. Iceland never fails to dazzle me with its summer’s beauty.

I was raised in the West Fjords and I always visit my old hometown and the district of Ísafjardardjúp, the region’s largest fjord, when I have the chance. Every time I go there I catch myself at having forgotten the calmness of the deep fjords hidden between the high mountains which are covered with vegetation, low and crooked birch trees and heather on which various kinds of berries grow.

This is the perfect land for sheep farming, yet there are almost no sheep farmers left. The lamb meat you will get from these pastures is probably the best in the world. In fact it is more like game, light meat which tastes like heaven. It is totally pure as the sheep roam in the heather and unpolluted valleys for the whole summer until they are rounded up in the autumn.

Unfortunately the small farmer in Iceland is a dying breed and those who persist in farming with perhaps 200 to 300 sheep will most certainly also have other means of living these days.

They work as teachers in the small country schools, plow snow in winter, drive trucks, deliver mail and do all sorts of things besides farm work. Farmers who are isolated, and don’t have the opportunities to work elsewhere, give up, as their farms can neither sustain a family nor does their income cover the rising costs of modern farming.

One of the most prominent sheep farmers in Ísafjardardjúp is now quitting. He has persisted for years and has one of the best sheep lands in the country. But he is getting older and his children do not want to keep on. So this fall he will slaughter his entire herd.

The prize of fertilizers has risen 80 percent in one year, the prize of diesel over 40 percent, and the prize of the plastic he uses to pack his hay for the winter has gone up significantly because of soaring oil prizes. Globalization is biting him and other small farmers in the tail, eating up all of their profit from the farms.

Recently I visited the Sheep History Museum near Hólmavík. For me at least it is a very honest display of what sheep have meant for the Icelandic nation. I was staying at a farmer’s guesthouse in the vicinity and asked the hostess if they were still farming.

No, they were not, only running the guesthouse, the good woman said. “We rent our grasslands to a farm which is run by a young couple who are very optimistic and are building a new sheep house for over 800 sheep.”

I thought this was interesting: A young couple starting out in sheep farming. At the Sheep History Museum I mentioned this to the stocky young lady who came running with two baby bottles for my daughters so they could feed some milk to the museum’s lambs.

They were the kind of lambs which Icelanders call heimalningar which have been rejected by their mothers and have to be fed with milk from a bottle until they can start grazing. Such lambs become tame and attached to humans so children love them.

“Yes, I am the wife of the farmer who is building the new sheep house,” the young, friendly women revealed to me. “We think there is future in sheep farming. Here we also have opportunity to have extra work that supports our farming. My husband also works part time as a shearer for the farms around here.”

“Oh, that is very hard work,” I exclaimed.

“Yes, he has nearly ruined his back,” she admitted.

At the museum there was an exhibition of everything related to the Icelandic sheep, tools for shearing, slaughtering, wool processing and meat processing, the oldest tools dating centuries back and the youngest tools were the same as we use today.

This might sound strange but I found the museum very enlightening and entertaining as there are also many old photographs of sheep farming on display. My five-year-old daughter found it funny to see stuffed heads of rams and famous Icelandic ewes and she was delighted to be able to feed the lambs.

I asked the young farmer’s wife about slaughtering as many of the small Icelandic slaughterhouses had to close in recent years because of EU regulations. She said they were lucky to be able to slaughter their sheep in Hvammstangi, less than 100 miles away from their farm.

“We used to have a good slaughterhouse in Hólmavík (a small village in the district) but it was closed down a few years ago because it did not meet the export standards of the EU. I think it’s bad. We should have kept the small slaughterhouses near the farmlands as we mainly produce for the inland market. In some districts the sheep have to be driven across half the country before they can be slaughtered. It’s not good for the animals.”

Of course this too has meant increased costs for the farmers. And I cannot understand why EU regulations, imposed on us because of our EFTA membership, make life more difficult for farmers in Iceland. We hardly produce enough lamb for ourselves anymore and as I understand it there is almost no profit to be had out of exporting lamb meat although it is an extraordinary product.

Life is changing here as everywhere else in the world and last year sale of chicken in Iceland exceeded the sale of lamb meat for the first time in the country’s history.

Fewer farmers keep sheep and as result of that, the land, for instance in Ísafjardardjúp, has become greener as the vegetation heals from their grazing. Of course that is positive. But it is heart breaking to drive through entire districts with abandoned farms.

If we join the EU, like many people want, we can say goodbye to many of our Icelandic farmers as they will not be able to compete with the large European farms.

Farms in Iceland have been preparing for this evolution by growing larger, one cattle farmer even has up to 200 milking cows now, but still there are less than ten farms in the country with more than 100 milking cows. As I understand it these are much larger farms than can be found in Norway and Finland.

I think we should look to our Scandinavian neighbors in Norway and Finland and evade factory farming and keep our small farmers who care about their animals and call them by name rather than number. I also think it is healthy to know about the history of the sheep that kept this nation alive through the ages.

I honestly believe in food products that are produced domestically in the clean nature of Iceland. I think it would demean our living standards to have all our agricultural products imported.

Perhaps I am being old-fashioned and banging my head against a stone. Maybe it would increase our living standards to drink “autobahn” milk from Germany instead of the wholesome Icelandic milk from our small Icelandic cows that have roamed the grasslands of this country for over a thousand years.

However, I sincerely doubt that would be economic. Certainly it would not be eco-friendly as such products would have to be imported using planes, trains and automobiles.

BB – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.