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The Month of May and the Icelandic Sheep

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

Written by: Þórdís Edda Guðjónsdóttir

The Icelandic sheep has been a part of the country and culture since settlement. At that time the settlers brought sheep with them to Iceland and as time passed the herd grew bigger. The Icelandic Sagas tell us about rich farmers that had many sheep. In Laxdæla Saga we can read the story of Ólafur pá Höskuldsson (IR# 135549) when he sent his people with his livestock from Goddastaðir to Hjarðarholt in Laxárdalur, Dalasýsla county. When the first sheep arrived at Hjarðarholt, Ólafur was leaving Goddastaðir (the two farms are very close together).

Sheep have been a big part of keeping the nation alive and it's no wonder it has grown to be such an important part of the Icelandic culture. Back in the old days Icelanders used almost every part of the sheep: The milk, meat, insides and blood was used for food, the wool and skin was used for clothing and shoes, and the bones were used as children's toys. Stories were told of extraordinary sheep and most farm chores revolved around it. Today the sheep continue to play a big role in Icelandic culture, for example for food and clothing. Most, if not all Icelanders, have or have had at one point in their life, clothing knitted from wool, such as socks, hats, mittens or the famous lopapeysa (wool sweater). However bones are no longer used as toys (except in museums).

Much can be told and written about the sheep that could fill many volumes of books. The month of May is a very important and extremely busy time for sheep farmers in Iceland. This is the time when the lambs are born. Therefore the "Folklore Wednesday" posts in May were dedicated to these remarkable animals. In this blog post we've rounded up the social media posts from the past month in case you missed them!

Have you paid attention to the colour of the lambs?

Sheep breeding season in Iceland is around Christmas. Back in the day it was believed that the colour of the ground during that time had much to say about what colour the lambs would be.

If the ground was white during breeding season most of the lambs would be white in colour. If the ground was red, the lambs would be dark and if the ground was multicoloured, many lambs would have more than one colour.

Ear marks and tags

When the lambs are few days old, the farmer needs to ear mark and tag the lambs so everyone will know whose lamb this is when they are rounded up to „réttir“ in September.

There are usually more than one sheep ear mark on each farm, sometimes one for each family member. Some ear marks stay with the farm, others move around from farm to farm if the owner moves between farms (as long as the mark doesn't already exist in the county). In some cases sheep ear marks are passed down from one generation to another and can be well over hundred years old.