Why Icelandics?

For all the potential shepherds who might be wondering why choose this breed over the many, many others out there, I have compiled a list of reasons.

1. They are colorful.

Two moorit spotted ewes in the foreground, a black solid ram lamb behind them, and a black grey ewe in the background.

The Icelandic breed comes in two base colors and 6 patterns, the combinations of which make for a vast array of beautifully colored sheep. Not only is this aesthetic for the artistic side of one’s soul, but it is practical for those who like to spin and knit wool using only natural colors. No dyes are necessary to get a lovely variety of browns, blacks, greys, creams, and white, plus about every shade in between. But if one does want to dye, there are always the white pattern Icelandic sheep. It’s just that one is not stuck with only white like they are with so many other breeds; there is a choice!

2. They have wonderful wool for hand spinning and felting.

Freyr the wether sporting a summer’s growth of wool. He’s still got another two months before shearing!

The Icelandic sheep is known as one of the best breeds for producing wool that is excellent for hand-spinning and felting. Each sheep has a soft, dense undercoat called the thel, and a coarser guard coat called the tog. These sheep are typically sheared both in the spring and the fall, though the fall clip is typically the better because of a longer growing season and lack of vegetable matter in the fleece due to them being pasture rather than fed hay. The resulting wool can either be separated, with the thel being soft enough to even make undergarments out of, or more commonly spun together to produce a little more durable yarn that still maintains enough softness to come in contact with the skin. The long fiber makes it easier to spin by hand, plus, it felts much more quickly and easily that most other wool types. It really is a versatile wool.

3. They are smart with interesting personalities.

My special little lamb, Cinthi, coming in for some more petting.

This breed lacks the extremely strong flocking instinct of other breeds, meaning they are more independent thinkers and less likely to blindly follow a leader into trouble. More than that, overall I have found them to be quite intelligent; they figure things out, especially those with some Leadersheep lineage. They are a braver breed; my matriarch will stand up to dogs or other intruders in her pen to protect the flock. But she is smart enough to know too when it is time to run. And for those people who have small flocks and like to spend personal time with their critters, this is a great breed for that too. Personalities are quite varied, but I find that most will tame down with handling, and some will steal your heart with how friendly they become. My lamb Cinthi is like that; she loves to curl up next to me and be pet, and she is always there to greet me when I come out to the pen.

4. They are hardy with fewer disease issues than other breeds.

Two healthy, happy sheep; April (the moorit) and Freya (the grey) enjoy some pasture grazing in the cool of the evening.

This breed doesn’t have as many endemic diseases in the flocks, such as OPP or foot rot. While these can be introduced to the Icelandic breed through other breeds, they are not yet prevalent, and will hopefully stay that way. These sheep just seem to be hardier and more disease resistant in general, likely from a thousand years of survival of the fittest on the plains of Iceland. Their continued health is, of course, contingent on proper nutrition and care; to thrive they need proper food, shelter, a good mineral balance, and a good worming routine. Once that is figured out well, they tend to stay healthy.

5. They birth easily, and twins are the norm.

Tryna nursing her 2012 twin ewe lambs, Solfi and Cinthi. Her last set of lambs was triplets.

There are far fewer birthing issues in Icelandic sheep than in other breeds, at least partly because the lambs are born smaller. Five to seven pounds is normal for a new lamb. (Though they can be born bigger, especially if a ewe is overfed the last month of gestation.) Yet they have no trouble reaching a good weight by fall. It is also the norm for ewes to twin, with triplets and singles being a bit less common. They have no trouble raising those twins without assistance, and often can even raise triplets without assistance.

6. They are rapid growing.

Father and son, Freyr and Sam. Freyr was very fast growing, and passed that to his son who was over 90 pounds at 3 months old.

Icelandic lambs grow quickly, putting on a lot of weight by fall. It is not unusual for a ram to finish out at 100 pounds by five months old, though even better gains are not that uncommon. And when especially good growth rates are found, it is heritable. What this means is nice large ewe lambs by fall, should one choose to breed them their first year, or nice large locker lambs for the freezer which dress out at 40-50%.

7. Icelandic lambs can be grown on good grass, with no need of grain, and adults can thrive on grass alone.

Freya grazing out on the pasture in July. Taken 07.16.2012.

Icelandic sheep have larger, more efficient rumens than many other domesticated breeds, and thus can pull nutrition more efficiently out of grass. As long as the grass is good and of sufficient protein levels, lambs do not need creep feed and reach the aforementioned five-month weights on grass alone. So as to not create the wrong idea, pregnant ewes do have a higher protein demand, and grass hay may need to be supplemented with a higher protein source like alfalfa hay to keep proper condition on the sheep. Grain can be used if desired, but is not necessary. I even have a ewe that got well conditioned on pasture alone. (See the picture!)

8. Icelandic lamb meat is known to be the best there is.

That may sound like a lofty statement, but it is one I’ve heard again and again from those who have eaten Icelandic lamb. The meat is more mild than other sheep, without the heavy muttony flavor. There was even a tale told of a vegetarian who gave it up because Icelandic lamb was just too good, and because she knew they were raised well.

9. Butcher lambs do not need to be castrated.

In fact, I would argue that you shouldn’t castrate butcher lambs, as it decreases their growth rate. Intact ram lambs grow more quickly than those wethered young, and leaving them intact does not affect their flavor come fall. I’ve been told by many others that it is regular practice to even eat a yearling ram or older, and that the taste is almost indistinguishable from lamb. They are never too old to quit producing delicious meat. One person told tale of a 13 year old ewe they butchered, and the only difference they noticed between that ewe and younger ones was that the meat was a little less tender.

10. You do not need to dock tails.

Freya and Lilija show off their naturally short little fluke-shaped tails. Taken 07.16.2012.

Icelandics are a naturally short-tailed sheep, and need no docking.

11. Most Icelandic rams are easy to handle and nonaggressive.

Freyr enjoying a good scratch on the shoulder, something he enjoys so much he’ll stop eating while being pet. He is now retired as a wether and will be the farm greeter.

Those that are aggressive get selected out of breeding programs very quickly; there are too many nice, nonaggressive rams to keep around a ram that could be a danger. Some are downright docile and love to be scratched, even during breeding season, which is heritable. My ram Freyr is an incredibly docile, mellow fellow, and his son is turning out the same way. Ramses too is of the docile, friendly nature. Even those that aren’t, are still very respectful and cautious of people overall, and most are not difficult to handle. Some people even prefer them that way. For more information on rams and their temperaments, see my page on Handling Rams.

12. You have a choice of horned or polled.

April (front) and Misha (back left) sport horns, while Jona (back right) is expressing polled. (Jona does carry one horn gene; she just doesn’t show it.)

If you like horns on sheep, Icelandics have magnificent looking ones. If hornless is preferred, there is the naturally polled variety. Both are completely normal for the breed, and heritable. So a person can choose what best fits their circumstance and/or fancy.