Everything You Never Wanted to Know about Icelandic Sheep
So. If you’ve been following this blog, you will have seen Saul mention sheep in his posts. Repeatedly. And he alleges that I’m the one who’s obsessed… Shall we just say that it’s been a mutually shared interest, always a good thing in marriages, and leave it at that?
Well, I would (leave it at that) except that there is so much more to be said on this rather fascinating topic. Within days of the start of our road trip, after some hours of focused observation from the passenger window of the campervan, I decided that Icelandic sheep are simply the coolest sheep in the world. Now I know that ‘cool’ is a not-so-articulate adjective that should only be used by people far younger than me (and then preferably two or three decades ago), but if sheep are that cool, they’re just cool, and there’s nothing I (or the Aussies) can do about it.
Sheep, as we all know, are even-toed ungulates and have been domesticated for thousands of years. Not that either of these facts does much to explain the behaviour of Icelandic sheep. Sure, even-toed ungulates as a group tend to be well-balanced and fleet of foot. But these free-roaming, volcanic mountain-climbing, goat-sheep are found everywhere. Everywhere. It took Saul a week or so to work out that my repeated exclamations of “Look there! THERE! Higher up!” on the steep mountain passes were more likely to refer to sheep high up on the scree than to the (admittedly majestic) scenery. I offer the following scientific evidence – spot the sheep, if you can:
I then started trying to capture some close-up portraits of the multi-coloured glory on display all around me (i.e. the sheep). Domesticated my foot! One look at my innocent little Lumix and they were off like the wind, preferably straight up the steepest slope around.
I needed an immediate explanation for this decidedly unsheep-like behaviour. Fortunately the solution was obvious: look for a museum dedicated to Icelandic sheep. Before you laugh, let me explain that Icelanders are obsessed with museums. We have yet to come across a one-horse Icelandic town that does not have at least two museums. Having eclectic tastes in museums, by the time I developed a yearning for a sheep museum we had already visited the (rather serious and well-done) Sea Monster Museum in the Westfjords, which is apparently the Icelandic region with the highest prevalence of the four main types of sea monsters found in Iceland, the most memorable of which is the Shore Laddie. But that’s a story for another day – let’s get back to sheep.
With the help of our Lonely Planet guide, the Museum of Icelandic Sheep Farming was rapidly located, opening hours determined and the GPS programmed. Happiness.
So what did the museum teach us about Icelandic sheep? Firstly, that although they seem to enjoy the freedom of an entire country, they do belong to farmers. But in summer they don’t have to stay on their home farm. Like Saul and myself, they are free to roam wherever they please (which, like us, appears to be as high up into the mountains as possible in the most remote regions of Iceland). However, unlike us, in September, when summer draws to a close, they have to go home. Since they are probably aware of the local passion for lamb chops (fully warranted, based on our extensive sampling), no sane sheep is going to do this voluntarily. The September round-up, called the rettir, is therefore a major event. Young and old come together for the expedition to round up the itinerant sheep, to sort them between owners in a specialised corral designed for this purpose and to subsequently bring them into barns for the winter. According to the laconic museum brochure: “Airplanes, helicopters, snowmobiles and jeeps are used for searching if needed. With all this modern technology only the most clever sheep are able to escape the searchers.”
Of course by now you know where this is leading: where could the sophisticated tourist (one with a sincere interest in sheep-related matters) attend a rettir and would we still be in Iceland at the right time? Neither our trusty Lonely Planet nor Google proved to be too helpful on this topic, but through a combination of well-targeted enquiries and dumb luck, we succeeded in being the sole tourists in attendance at one of the regional rettirs. To reward hardy readers who have made it all the way to the end of the first 800-word blog post they have ever tackled on the topic of sheep, I will refrain from giving a blow-by-blow account of the rettir. Instead, I will leave you to enjoy the Sheep and Rettir Gallery in all its glory (there are explanatory captions if you look in the right place). Of course all further enquiries about Icelandic sheep can be directed to me personally. I will gladly assist.