The University of Iowa

Icelandic Pastoral

October 7th, 2014

By Sam Rust

“Góðan daginn! Do you need any help sorting your sheep?” I asked in butchered Icelandic, tapping an older woman in waders on the shoulder. She stopped directing sheep traffic and shook her head. Although she probably spoke English fluently, she apparently didn’t have the time to spare when tourists such as myself were eager to help. Instead of answering my question, she pulled an older man over for me to talk to and walked away.

Two young boys wearing the traditional 'lopapeysa' wrestling a sheep to the ground to see to which farm the sheep belongs.

Heading toward me, the farmer stepped around two young boys who were wrestling one dirty sheep to the ground. I repeated my question over the parade of frantic, bleating sheep running past us.

At my inquiry, the farmer searched around and snagged a sheep mid-leap by the horns. He straddled the sheep, and both of them looked up at me – one in triumph and the other in terror.  “See its left ear?” The farmer asked, shifting his position astride the sheep so that I had a better view of the sheep’s ear. “Farmers keep track of their sheep two ways: by earmarking one ear and attaching a colored tag to the other. For my sheep, the left ear is cut down the middle so that it is split into two.” He readjusted the sheep beneath him so that I could get a closer look at the sheep’s other ear. I had learned in class that the color of the tag is specific to the region in Iceland where the farm is located to which the sheep belong, and this particular region’s tags were a pastel blue.

“See how the tag says ‘A0049?’” The farmer pointed with his chin to the tag. “That’s my number. Bring this guy over to gate nine over there.” He stepped off the sheep and handed me the horns. “The trick is to straddle him and don’t let go!”

I was at the annual sheep réttir in Iceland, where farmers had spent weeks scouring the countryside, looking for any straggling groups of sheep that had been allowed to roam the wilderness during the summer months. Then, they were gathered into an enormous pen to be sorted to their respective farms. From an aerial view, the collection area resembled a giant bicycle wheel carved out of the earth for both function and spectacle – each spoke of the wheel belonged to one farmer, so the sheep contained in that specific area belonged to that specific farmer, and so on. In the middle of the wheel were masses of sheep, tourists, and farmers all trying not to get trampled by one another.

A view of the captured sheep in their respective pens. Spectators - both tourists and farmers - line the edges of the pen for encouragement and entertainment.

Since the settlement period in Iceland, sheep farming has been almost exclusively done for subsistence. Farmers utilized everything – skin, meat, bones, and wool. Yet with the rise in both population and tourism, the demand for the products reaped from sheep has turned sheep farming into both a spectacle and an occupation. For tourists, sampling ram’s testicles and buying an Icelandic wool sweater (a lopapeysa) rank the same as going to the Blue Lagoon on the Icelandic to-do list.

I sorted two sheep that day. The first sheep was handed to me, and the second sheep was also handed to me. As I was standing in everyone’s way, an older gentleman pawned his catch off to me. Whether he gave me his sheep out of his own lack of enthusiasm with the whole ordeal or if it was my own enthusiasm for sitting on a sheep, I’ll never know. Nevertheless, I ended up bringing another sheep to my farmer-friend’s gate. (Between me and you, the farmer who I was helping thought that I caught the last one on my own and congratulated me on my “first track.” I was too excited to correct him.)

Me with the second sheep that I 'caught.'

After grappling with the two sheep that I may or may not have wrangled up myself and sifting through the swarms of sheep evading capture, I reached the periphery of the throng. Two Icelanders reached their hands down to help me climb up the earthy fence to sit along the edge of the pen in order to get a better view of the action below. Despite the cooler temperatures of the Iceland air, the heat emanating from the sheep and the effort it took to move them left me sweating. I wiped a mitten’s worth of loose wool from my jeans and regained my breath.

From above, I looked down and although I’ve heard about the notorious “black sheep,” I had never really considered the possibility of seeing sheep in hues of brown, grey and black. Amidst the tufts of white below me was a spot of red. I looked down and saw a black lamb missing a horn and contaminating his neighbors’ coats with blood. Due to his size, he had probably been trampled by his friends and family in the pen. It was then that I felt guilty. Although I had only rounded up two sheep myself, I was an accomplice to the slaughter of 570,000 sheep – a number down from 1 million sheep roaming the countryside over the summer. Although I like the taste of lamb, it wasn’t until I saw the vivid red of blood against the white coat of another sheep that I actually contemplated what it meant to be a carnivore.

Conflicting morals aside, the round-up was a remarkable event. Tourists and farmers alike came out to the réttir site to hang out, help and just see the spectacle that is Icelandic families living their lives. It was an all-day event, and families bring their purebred Icelandic sheepdogs and horses. To finish the day, they crack open a few beers and grill up a leg of lamb probably belonging to the parent of one of the sheep just recently sorted (too soon?). I’ve dabbled in the geological thrills of Iceland already, but it was rewarding to experience an aspect of the Icelandic culture not only foreign to me individually, but unique to most farming communities. 

Samantha Rust is a senior from Ramsey, MN majoring in English at the University of Iowa. Sam is currently studying abroad on the University of Iceland Exchange program in Reykjavik, Iceland.