By Marguerite Chisick – We discovered that Icelandic sheep were our ticket to a more sustainable way of life! It is not uncommon for people who are living in dirty, dangerous, noisy cities to dream of starting over and going back to the land, to raise good food for their families, and to earn an income from selling products off the farm. Getting out of the city’s fast-lane life and onto the farm posted many challenges, and at the same time fit our goals and lifestyle needs. It was time to make a move.
The History of Our Family Farm
My husband, Robert, myself and our two children, Sarah and Connor, live on five acres in picturesque Port Townsend on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula. We began our homestead slowly, starting with chickens, geese, and turkeys, building up the soil and learning to garden in an altogether new climate. Then in 1994, we added baby Sarah as well as Romney sheep to the family farm. Thus began our adventure with sheep, of which we knew absolutely nothing. Spending lots of money on fencing, feed, medicine, supplies, and spending lots of time learning how to shear a sheep with little or no market value for the sheep or wool, we were becoming discouraged. We liked sheep and we needed something to keep our pastures down. We were not sure what to do.
We were ready to give up on the sheep business altogether when we discovered Icelandic sheep. Susan Mongold had written an intriguing article on this fascinating breed in Countryside in the Sept./Oct. 1996 issue. I had to re-read this article a couple of times, taking notes on all the positive qualities. It seemed unbelievable that those sheep could be so suitable for our needs. We worked through it all and decided to invest in Icelandic sheep. We were proud owners of two ewes and a ram in October of 1996. Over the past few years, we have made a few more purchases of Icelandics. These sheep have stood up to their standards and we would not change our decision to invest in this unique breed.
They were truly a good investment, and have actually paid for themselves. It is possible to make money on meat, milk, wool, breeding stock, pelts, and horns, all of which command a higher price for this quality sheep than do the more common breeds. We have also saved money by not having to feed grain, by providing less maintenance, and having less lamb mortality.
Icelandic sheep were brought to Iceland in the ninth and tenth centuries by early Viking settlers. There they have remained virtually unchanged. These sheep are one of the European short-tailed breeds which also include the Finn sheep, Romanovs, Shetland, Spelsau, and Gotland. These, in turn, all were descended from an old short-tail breed dominant in Scandinavia 1,200 to 1,300 years ago. Icelandic and Romanov are the largest in size of these breeds.
Stefania Sveinbjarnardottir-Dignum imported Icelandic sheep into Canada in 1985 and again in 1991. These two importations numbered about 88. All lambs born up to the spring of 1998 are descendants from these original sheep. After 1998, artificial insemination was made possible with Susan Mongold and Barbara Webb using Al on many of their best ewes in the fall of 1998. In the fall of 1999, the semen sticks for Al were made available to all breeders that were enrolled in the scrapie program. Al and Icelandics have resulted in an increased genetic pool and has increased high-quality breeding stock. Along with great meat conformation, increased milk production, and silkier wool, there are also bloodlines from leader sheep and some with the Thoka gene for multiple births.
So What About Those Icelandic Sheep Enthusiasts?
The North American Icelandic Sheep Newsletter started in February 1997 and continues with great advancements in the information and new subscribers. The first Icelandic sheep breeders meeting was held at Barbara Webb’s farm in 1997 with just a handful of people. Last year we had our third annual meeting at Susan Mongold’s Tongue River Farm with about 65 in attendance. This year the Icelandic Sheepbreeders annual meeting will be September 22-24 at the Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival in Canby, Oregon. An official board was also established.
In 1998 the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America (ISBONA) started a website for Icelandic Sheep at www.isbona.com. In 1998, there were around 800 Icelandic sheep registered and as of 12/31/99, there were 1,961 Icelandic sheep registered with the Canadian Livestock Register.
Natural Beauty of Icelandic Sheep Characteristics
The natural beauty of Icelandic sheep is applicable to all facets of their lives. They live in harmony with nature with low input and few if any health problems or lambing problems. They are a medium size sheep which makes for easier handling. Ewes average 155 pounds and rams average 210 pounds. They live and lamb into their teen years.
Sitting in the pasture there are dozens of sights that are so precious to me. Their faces are fine and delicate, with big expressive eyes. Some, ewes as well as rams, come adorned with horns sweeping up, out, and around. The vast array of coat colors is nothing short of awesome. It is not uncommon to see snow white, cream, taupe, tan, champagne, ginger, apricot, light brown, dark brown, inky black, grey black, blue-black, brown-black, black, silver, light grey, dark grey all in the same flock and there seems to be no end to the possibilities this provides.
What a sight to behold, getting to watch these puffballs of color come running to their shepherd, with their long wool blowing in the breeze as they run on fine, delicate legs that are both strong and sturdy. Handing out apples as treats and sitting patiently in the pasture, I get to know these sheep individually. These sheep are bright, smart, quick, alert and retain much of their natural instinct. They have various personalities from sweet and friendly to shy and cautious. It is fun to watch their piqued curiosity of new creatures in and near their pasture. They run up to cats, dogs, chickens, birds, and small children to see what they are all about.
Icelandic sheep have a subtype called a leadersheep. The leadersheep is intelligent and somewhat dominant and can sense when the weather is bad and will bring the flock home to safety. They are often tall and thin, carry their heads higher, and are very alert.
The natural beauty is apparent in the way the ewes separate themselves from the flock in preparation for birthing. They reliably give birth to twins unassisted. The ewe spends time using her mothering ability to cleanse and nurse her lambs. She remains isolated from the flock for a couple of days except to eat and drink and only does this when most of the flock is gone. She is very protective of her lambs and does not want anyone or any sheep near them. These lambs are born around five days ahead of most other sheep breeds and weigh five-to-seven pounds making it easier for them to lamb. The lambs are born full of life and eager to nurse right away without assistance. Born with naturally short tails, they do not need to be docked. This prevents pain, possible infection, and also saves time. Spring has become a favorite time of year for us. We have so many gift-wrapped surprises to look forward to. It is fun to see if it is a ewe or ram and also what color or pattern it has.
The natural beauty of meat production is in the fact that the lambs are born onto spring pasture when the grass is beginning to grow. They are slaughtered in the fall when the grass is dying off. The meat and the grass curve complement each other. The males can be left intact for faster weight gains of three-quarters to one pound a day on grass and milk alone. They reach 90-110 pounds in five to six months.
The meat is fine textured and light flavored without the mutton taste. Older ewes slaughtered can be made into wonderfully flavored sausages for use in a variety of ways. We slaughtered a couple of our ram lambs this year. The packaged weight was 75-80% of the hanging weight. Not much waste at all. Their fine, sturdy round bone makes for a greater meat-to-bone ratio.
Icelandic rams make an outstanding terminal sire. They have been bred for many centuries for a broad deep-bodied conformation. The resulting offspring will have a hybrid vigor resulting in vigorous lambs, increased weight gains and excellent meat carcass. They are well worth the investment.
Imagine the natural beauty of fiber. What would it be like? With 17 different colors there is no need to dye. It is dual coated so the possibilities of projects are countless. Let’s take a closer look at the fiber.
The outer coat is the tog. It is a coarser medium wool with 50-53 spinning count or 27 microns. It reaches a length of up to 18 inches a year with a long lustrous curl-like twist, perfect for worsted spinning. For the sheep, the tog provides protection from wind, rain and protects the undercoat from the elements. Traditional uses of the tog fiber spun separately include canvas for sails, aprons, twine rope, foot coverings, saddle blankets, tapestries, and embroidery threads.
The undercoat, known as thel, is as fine as cashmere. It is three-to-five inches long with 60-70 spinning count and 20 microns. It makes a luxurious woolen yarn for next-to-the-skin garments. For the sheep, the undercoat warms them. Traditional uses of the thel, spun separately, include underwear, baby clothes, socks, gloves and fine lace shawls.
When the tog and the thel are spun together it resembles a wool/mohair mix and is traditionally spun with almost no twist called lopi. In lopi the outer coat provides the strength and the fine inner coat provides the softness. When the tog and the thel are different colors it makes a true tweed.
Adults produce five-to-eight pounds of wool yearly and a lamb produces two-to-five pounds. Their wool has a 25% shrink once the grease is washed out. Compare this with 50% in most breeds.
Icelandic sheep shed naturally in the spring, or they can be sheared before or after lambing, with that wool used for felting, as it is a shorter clip. The fall clip produces a lengthy staple much desired by hand spinners.
Additionally, this fiber felts easily within 30 minutes. Value-added products such as hats, purses, blankets, rugs, and tapestries can be made. Just let your imagination run wild. The natural colors combined with the versatility of the fleece make it a sought-after fleece for spinners, knitters, weavers, and felters.
This breed is a true triple purpose breed raised on grass/hay, making it perfect for any homestead. So taking this breed one step further, we can see that they are also useful for milking. These sheep in beginning lactation average four pounds of milk per day. They taper down to two pounds per day after six months. Ewes reach full milking potential at third lactation. Feeding a small amount of grain trains them to the milking stanchion. They naturally shed their belly wool and udder wool just before lambing. Udder wool doesn’t grow back until six months of lactation. Milking for six months out of the year gives the homesteader a well-deserved break. The milk can be used whole or made into some fantastic cheese and yogurt.
Other extra bonuses include horns that can be utilized for buttons, cabinet handles, hat racks, incorporated into basket making and more. The hides make sleek fox fur-like pelts. The hides alone can be used for vests, shoes and overboots. The wool is sturdy and versatile and even makes great flies for fishing.
Raising Healthy Animals Naturally
We strive to maintain healthy, disease-free sheep as naturally as possible. The overall health of the animal is the best maintenance. We provide them with apple cider vinegar, garlic, kelp, nettles, red raspberry leaves, and comfrey leaves. Our worming program consists of pasture rotation and herbal wormer. We use herbal formulas for all sheep ailments as our first choice. If that is not possible we use conventional medicines.
Icelandic Sheepdogs to the Rescue
We also raise Icelandic sheepdogs, a rare, medium-sized dog used to drive and tend the sheep. The dogs have cute faces with large, dark eyes and a ruff of hair around the neck for protection and warmth. Their double dewclaws are intact and serve to help the dogs gain footing on the ice. They will go over and make friends with the flock in a submissive way when not on duty and will watch you work the sheep and help catch whichever individual animal you want. They are also excellent watchdogs and will bark at any animal intruder, including birds, especially the hawks, eagles, and seagulls, which they perceive as a threat to their “family.” They are brave little dogs and will go after coyotes and other predators. They are extremely friendly and love people. Given the opportunity, most people will take one home immediately.
Icelandic sheep and dogs are only part of our farm. We also have an extensive heirloom apple orchard, a variety of other fruit, nut, and berry landscapes surrounded by medicinal and culinary herbs, a huge family garden, honey bees, pastured poultry, angora rabbits, and Nubian goats.
Homeschooling in the midst of this is a wonderful learning atmosphere and our children are growing up healthy and strong. We feel that we sacrificed very little in return for the abundance of our farm.
Originally published in the September/October 2000 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.