By Margaret G. Flowers
You have, or are planning, a diversified small farm and have come the the conclusion that sheep would be a good addition. But what breed should you include? There are so many to choose from! Let me introduce you to a very special breed, the Icelandic Sheep.
Icelandic sheep are a member of the group of sheep known as the Northern European Short-tails, a group of relatively primitive sheep that have in common…their short tails that never need to be docked (docking will disqualify an animal from registration in North America), and the fact that they originate in countries and regions of northern Europe, including Russia, the Baltic states, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Faroe Islands, Shetland and south through Scotland, as well as Iceland. The sheep of Iceland were brought to the island by the Vikings in the 8th – 9th century, and while there were in the past attempts to import animals to “improve” the breed, these experiments failed, and the Icelandics have remained isolated and genetically pure. Unlike a number of the other members of the Northern European group, Icelandic sheep do not represent a relict population, but number in the hundred thousands in Iceland, where they make up a substantial percentage of the agricultural output of the country, and are a commercial production breed.
The Icelandic Sheep in North America
The modern importation of Icelandic sheep to North America occrrred thanks to the pioneering efforts of Iceland native Stefania Sveinbjarnardottir-Dignum (Yeoman Farm), who first brought 2 rams and 12 ewes into Canada in 1985, and in 1990 made a second importation of 10 rams and 62 ewes. Icelandics were first brought from Canada to the United States in 1992 by Barbara Webb (Jager Farm). Addition to the genetic diversity of the US flock has been increased by the importation of semen from Iceland for artificial insemination – more about this later.
To See One Is To Know One
Icelandics are a classified as a medium-sized breed, with ewes weighing about 130 – 160 pounds and the rams weighing approximately 175 – 200 pounds. Both rams and ewes may be either horned or polled. Matings between horned individuals produce horned lambs, and those between polled individuals produce polled lambs; breeding between horned and polled will produce a variety of short horn-like structures or “scurs” (this unlike the usual pattern of horned rams and polled ewes in e.g., Shetlands). Mature ram horns have a magnificent full double curl, while ewe horns have a backward or slightly outward sweeping half circle.
A most notable characteristic of the Icelandic is the double-coated fleece. The outer water-repellant coat, or “tog” is produced by the primary follicles (thus a true wool, not a guard hair or kemp), and is of medium coarseness, averaging about 27 – 30 µm in diameter. The inner coat or “thel” averages 19 – 22 µm in diameter, and is produced by the secondary follicles. Faces and legs are clean. The sheep come in a range of colors and patterns, and may be spotted as well. The overall appearance of the fleece is determined by three genes: 1) the base color (black or moorit/brown, with black dominant), 2) the pattern(s) (white, gray-mouflon, gray, badgerface, mouflon, solid) and 3) spotting (not spotted is dominant to spotted – spots are white). White pattern is dominant over all other patterns, solid (tog and thel the same color) is recessive to the other patterns, and gray (gray thel and tog expressing the base color), badgerface (dark underside, light back) and mouflon (the reverse of badgerface) show co-dominance, meaning if two different alleles are present, both are expressed. An additional rare pattern (the single gene gray-mouflon- SGGM) has been found in both Iceland and the United States, most likely a mutation of one of the more common patterns. All patterns (except white, of course), can be expressed in either black or moorit animals, so the possibilities are almost endless! But understanding the fleece of the Icelandic sheep is only a little more complicated than the genetics you learned in high school Biology class– and a lot more fun than Mendel’s peas.
A Triple-Purpose Sheep
Icelandic sheep have been advertised as “triple purpose” and with good reason. They can be raised for meat production, their fiber, and for milk production.
Meat. – In Iceland, the primary focus of sheep raising is for meat production, and this has been the focus of breeding selection for generations. The sheep were historically raised on pasture in Iceland, and thrive on grass-based systems in the United States. The lambs are fast-growing and can reach 70 –100 pounds within four to five months. As one of the “mountain breeds” the flavor of the meat is characteristically mild, and often described as a gourmet meat. Focused breeding in Iceland has been towards a more meaty animal with less fat, and this has great appeal for the health-conscious consumer of today. Icelandic lambs will produce, on average, about 25 – 30 pounds of meat.
Fiber. – The Icelandic sheep produces a premium quality fleece that is in very high demand with hand-spinners. The tog, with a spinning count of 50-60, can be 8” or even longer, is strong, water repellant, and wear-resistant. The downy “thel” (spinning count of 64 –70) is generally 2 – 4” long, very warm and can be worn next to the skin. Since tog and thel can easily be separated and spun separately, it is possible to get three kinds of yarn from a fleece: tog, thel, and combined, or lopi. The fiber can be spun from fine lace-weight to bulky, depending on the desired use. It is also excellent for felting projects, both flat-felting and needle-felting.
Icelandic sheep are generally shorn twice per year – in the fall to produce a clean fleece, and again in the spring around lambing time and the normal wool break, which is a common trait of primitive breeds. A fully skirted fall fleece will generally weigh between 2 – 3 pounds; the fleece, however is quite low in lanolin so the fiber yield after washing is significantly higher than in many other breeds.
Milk. – Icelandic ewes are easily able to support twins or the occasional triplets. While not a focus of commercial production in Iceland at this time, in the United States, there are an increasing number of Icelandic sheep dairy operations, some milking upwards of 50 ewes. In addition, Icelandics have been successfully crossed with the more common dairy breeds such as East Friesian. Many more Icelandic shepherds milk a few sheep for personal use, for making yogurt, artisan cheeses, and soaps. In this setting, lambs are separated from the ewes only at night, and the ewes are milked only in the morning; thus the growth of the lambs is not compromised.
Icelandics on the Farm: The Nitty-Gritty of Raising Icelandic Sheep
The basics of sheep husbandry include food, shelter and medical care. Beyond this, it is useful to understand how the particular breed will behave during the different seasons of the year.
Food. – Historically, Icelandic sheep survived on pasture and seaweed, so they have developed large efficient rumens that allow the modern sheep to thrive on pasture/hay and browse. They are aggressive grazers and do not need grain, although some shepherds will supplement with grain prior to and during breeding, and in late gestation. Like other breeds of sheep, they require an available supply of minerals; unlike most other breeds, Icelandics require additional selenium and copper. The level of additional supplementation will be dictated by local soil conditions – whether soils are deficient in these minerals. Finally, Icelandics require a constant source of fresh clean water.
Housing. – Icelandics are extremely cold-tolerant, requiring only 3-sided shelters to protect them from the wind and rain/snow when necessary. In the coldest areas of the country, it might be advisable to have a fourth side that can be closed on a temporary basis as the weather demands, but this is not generally necessary.
Fencing/Protection. – Icelandics sheep are easily trained to electronet fencing; woven wire (no larger than 4” squares) or welded wire are also effective restraints. Electical fencing must be kept “hot,” and wire fencing tight to deter the urge to explore the greener grass on the other side of the fence. Depending on the farm situation, predator pressure, and the preference of the shepherd, livestock guardian animals (dogs, llamas, donkeys) may be appropriate.
Medical Care. – Icelandic sheep are easy keepers, requiring little medical care. Lambs should be vaccinated (with a booster to follow) for clostridial diseases, including tetanus – this vaccine is referred to as CD/T. An annual booster is also required approximately 30 days pre-lambing so that the lambs can receive passive immunity to these diseases in the colostrum. In addition, Icelandics (like most sheep) need to be monitored for internal parasites, especially the barberpole worm that causes anemia, and if untreated, may lead to death. There are several dewormers on the market, and these should be used judiciously (only when needed). It should be noted here that careful pasture rotation, based on the barberpole life cycle (rather than strictly pasture height) is an essential part of successful parasite control. In some areas of the United States, other parasites, such as liver fluke and meningeal worm are present; it is imperative for the shepherd to know what is present in the particular region and what symptoms to look for. Medical care, including vaccinations, can generally be performed by the shepherd; the only notable exception is rabies vaccination, which must be performed by a veterinarian.
Icelandic Sheep Behavior. – If nothing else, Icelandic sheep are smart, and the successful shepherd will learn how to think ahead of the sheep and be smart about how to handle them, remembering that they are a prey species, and are always looking for a way “out.” But beyond this, the sheep will recognize events and individuals (human and sheep), and their intelligence allows them to be trained to farm operations, for example, milking. They are a non-flocking breed, and will be scattered over available pasture, seeking out the most nutritious food. Both sexes are docile and easy to halter-train, but as for any breed of sheep, rams should always be considered potentially dangerous, especially during breeding season.
A sub-breed of Icelandics, known as Icelandic leadersheep are particularly intelligent, and in Iceland were bred for this trait, rather than for meat. Leadersheep are taller and thinner that the usual Icelandic (more of a dairy breed conformation) and have a heightened sense of direction and danger. They are able to alert the shepherd to impending weather changes. Historically, leadersheep were used to take sheep to and from winter pasture; now they are less common, but are used in Iceland in the annual roundup to lead the flocks back from summer pasture. Their presence in a flock of Icelandics on the small farm can be a great benefit to the shepherd. Conservation of leadersheep is actively being pursued in both Iceland and the United States.
Breeding and Lambing. – Icelandic sheep are seasonal breeders, with ewes coming into season in late October to early November. They will continue to cycle into the spring until bred. The sheep mature early, so it is possible to successfully breed ewe lambs. Twins are normal (profligacy is 175%), but in individuals containing the “Thoka gene,” triplets or even quads are produced. Flushing of the ewe is sometimes useful, but not necessary, especially if the ewe is entering breeding season in top body condition. Ewes can breed for 10 years (or longer). Breeding can be accomplished with farm rams (an adult ram can breed up to 60 ewes), or with semen imported from Iceland using the technique of vaginal artificial insemination (VAI) that was developed in Iceland for use with Icelandic sheep. Singles are more common when this technique is used, but the benefit is that the best current genetics available in Iceland are introduced into the US flock. There are currently several farms in the United States that employ VAI as a major part of their breeding program.
Lambs are born after a gestation of ~142 – 144 days. Lambs are between 6 and 8 pounds at birth for twins (more for singles) and are up and nursing within a few minutes; in the case of twins, the first born has frequently nursed before the second is born. Intervention at lambing is rarely needed. Ewes have plenty of milk, and the lambs are generally strong enough to suck out the wax plug.
Registration. –Registration of Icelandic sheep in North America (both Canada and the United States) is through the Canadian Sheep Association of the Canadian Livestock Registry Corporation (CLRC).
Before adding sheep to your small farm, seek out a large animal veterinarian who knows and cares about sheep. This may be easier said than done in some regions, but the increase in the number of farms with small ruminants has brought these animals more to the attention of the veterinary community. A vet who is conversant with cattle is a good second best. However, you will not always want or need to consult a vet, and there are good resources to be had online. Topping this list is the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America (ISBONA; <isbona.com>), which has a very informative website, including a listing of active breeders throughout North America. ISBONA also maintains a Facebook page and Yahoo group for its members, and this is a good forum to connect with other Icelandic sheep owners…especially when emergency advice is needed; in addition, it puts out a quarterly Newsletter. There are also excellent resources from some state university sheep programs (e.g. Maryland, among others), and from the veterinary services at Pipestone. An Icelandic Sheep Owners Facebook page is also active, and can be a good source of information. Above all, purchase your sheep from a breeder who is willing and eager to mentor you both before and after you buy your sheep!
Icelandic sheep are an excellent addition to the small farm setting. They are easy to raise, without expensive inputs, and the triple purpose of meat, fiber, and milk provide many opportunities for a diversified crop. Besides, they are truly beautiful animals!
Margaret Flowers is Professor Emerita of Biology, Wells College, Aurora, NY, and is the owner, shepherd, and fiber artist of Trinity Farm in Aurora. She raises registered horned and polled Icelandic sheep (as well as registered Shetland sheep), and has a particular interest in up-breeding Icelandic leadersheep for North America. She also served as the editor of the ISBONA Newsletter. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in the February, 2017 issue of The Shepherd.