Thursday, September 15, 2016

sheep, sheep, and more sheep...

I found an article in the local newspaper while in Iceland last week which featured articles about the sheep roundup and about fleeces, about horses and the local business, Varma, which knits socks that you can find for sale throughout Iceland. How I would love to have such a weekly publication here so focused on wool and agriculture!

Anyway,  my sister's friend Maryann (who lives in Reykyvik) translated the gist of one of the articles for  me since I was curious to know what point the article was  making about the fleeces.

 It turns out that in 2013 a couple of Icelandic farms decided to breed for characteristics more like Gotland sheep and this article was reviewing the progress they are making in that effort.

Although I questioned the wisdom of trying to change the Icelandic sheep (I love Gotland too, but for different reasons - so in my estimation both breeds should be preserved and cherished for what unique characteristics they each offer to spinners and knitters),  as Maryann pointed out, it is nice to diversify so hand spinners in Iceland have more variety of wool to spin with. And I'd have to agree with that! As much as I enjoy the unique colors of the Icelandic wool, I would miss not having variety in fleeces to spin - and something softer and bouncier than Icelandic!

Not all farms that are involved in this effort to "Gotlanize" the Icelandic so there will still be traditional Icelandic sheep to preserve the genetics that go back to the original sheep the Vikings brought over in 900. And maybe this effort to introduce some of the Gotland features to Icelandic will lead to an entirely new breed - one that has less variation in color, is a bit finer and more ringlet formation (?) - that we'll all scramble to spin ourselves! 

Another reason to return to Iceland in a few years!

In tomorrow's post, I'll share some pictures of the sheep roundup and some interesting things I learned about the sheep and the farming of the sheep here. But first I thought I'd share a few photos to show the range of environment that these sheep inhabit because, is amazing to find sheep grazing 2.5 hours drive from absolutely nowhere!

And some of the land seems so inhospitable.No picture can quite convey the vastness of open land there, so maybe some of these figures will help:

  • 78% of Iceland's land is un-arable, unproductive for agricultural purposes (it is glacier or lava fields)
  • of the 22% that is arable, only 1% is actually cultivated - and 99% of that is with hay and fodder - the remainder is for potatoes!

In the north, where we focused this trip, the ratio of acres to population is 2 sq km per person (if you include the south and Reykyvik, I think the number of acres/person goes down to 1 square km!). Think about yourself standing in the middle of a 2 square kilometer (almost 4.5  miles) area and imagine that every neighbor has that same amount of land to him/herself as well!

There are about 325,000 people in Iceland (the vast majority in Reykyvik) and they wintered over about 500,000 sheep (in the summer after lambing and when the sheep are all out in the open land grazing, there are over a million - these figures are from 2013).

The sheep are let out to roam the highlands on their own devices for grazing and water from late May/early June  thru the "roundup" which happens from early Sept thru early October.  They roam on both "afrett" (which is publicly owned land up in the highlands) and also on their owner's "wild" land (rangeland that is not level and not fertilized). Since most farms in Iceland are on the order of 1500+ acres, there is a lot of land to be grazed!

 The arctic fox is really the only predator sheep have to worry about, tho' I'm told ravens and eagles can be a problem for lambs.

The dates for letting the sheep out and rounding them up are dependent on the year's weather, of course. In 2012, an early freak snowstorm before the roundup resulted in some significant losses.

And  while we were in Iceland a farm on the Skagastrond peninsula moved up the dates to roundup sheep because they were concerned about an eruption-Iceland has 130 active volcanoes. 

A side note about his "eruption" concern:

For the last month, Iceland had 4 times as many earthquakes as usual (the week before we went, I looked online at the earthquake monitoring site and there had been 35 earthquakes that week alone ranging from about 1.2 to 3.8!). The day we were at the Textile Museum, there was a 4.something-or-other which caused the  farmer some concern. Apparently Hekla has erupted every 10 years consistently until now (it is 4 years overdue) so scientists expect it to blow sometime soon. 

And although neither lava nor flooding (that's the big issue when one of the volcanoes that is beneath a glacier erupts) would impact the northern area we were in had Hekla erupted, a heavy ash falling on the grass the sheep are grazing could prove a significant problem So Hrafnhildur, who opened the Textile Museum for us, said she was going off the next day to help her friend's family bring in his sheep earlier than planned, just  in case!

We saw sheep everywhere - from the seashore to the lava fields, to highland pastures.

 The landscape there is so vast that at first glance you don't see any sheep. Then you see a few and think it is only a couple sheep  speckling the hillside. Then you see movement where you thought there was nothing and realize there are a lot of sheep on the hillside! 

The sheep pictured above was up a significant mountain (a few of the hikers I was with stopped below this point because the grade was too steep) and she wass enjoying the warmth from a steam vent (see the mist above her?) nearby.

On the Whale Fjord we spotted sheep on the water's edge where it appeared there was only seaweed to be had.This photo below showing the sheep grazing on the seashore is along a gorgeous fjord just a bit north of Reykyavik. This fjord is where Johannas goat farm, Haafell, is situated and it is a popular stop for the many knitting tours that come here. Since we had visited her on our last trip, we didn't stop by this trip. As some of you may know, there was a Kick Start Fundraiser for her a few years back to help her keep her family farm of goats. I participated by selling off a bunch of store models to help raise money. She raised over $100,000 and has kept the farm in her family, but reports suggest that she is trying to do too much (meat, sausage, cheese, fiber, soaps, etc) and still struggling, so that is sad to hear.

This next photo shows sheep on a hillside up north. You think you only see a few white specs, but then you see movement in places where you hadn't seen sheep before and realize there are actually hundreds there!

At this point, you might be asking yourself why all the sheep seem to be white, when the interesting thing about Icelandics is the range of colors! I know I kept wondering about this.  More about that topic tomorrow or the next day, I can't remember what I worked that into!

Anyway, the next photo shows sheep in an area that would seem uninviting (right near the base of Hekla) with not much to graze on! There were occasional patches of moss and a few hillocks of grass, but not much in this area. The sheep must have been passing thru to greener pastures! But It was miles and miles to greener pastures from where these sheep were.

One of the things we all noticed is that because of the vastness of the land, we could see for miles and miles and so things in our view looked close, but in fact were a long ways off. As we drove towards them we could see so many more sheep in these vistas than the camera could catch from this long distance off. The hills in the background of the photo below were  an hours drive from where I took the photo! In such vastness, distance is really hard to judge.

During a guided hike, we found some sheep enjoying the steam vents up in Landmannalauger (photo below). Lots of strewn lava and bright green Icelandic moss, natural hot water springs and tons of steam vents made this an appealing spot for sheep even tho' it was a 2.5 hour drive thru absolutely nothing to get there. And then about an 1.5 hour hike, UP.  And underfoot is really rocky terrain. And steep, too! Not a house, not a shed, nothing but rivers to drive thru and bumpy dirt roads for 2+ hours and still there were sheep here! It is really hard to imagine how they all get rounded up!
These sheep  didn't join us in the natural hot spring we soaked in after our hike, but they grazed all around it and enjoyed the warmth of the vents.

And look how clean this next sheep's fleece is!!  When I was riding up in the north (in a valley south of Varmahild) I rode past lots of sheep in the highlands and they were unexpectedly clean!

Apparently being out of doors fending for themselves for over 3 months keeps them cleaner than being in a fenced pasture or barn.  Here is a photo of the area I was riding in (the photo doesn't capture it well, but hopefully it gives you a sense of the vastness of the landscape) and another photo of one of the sheep we came across which seemed more curious than nervous about our presence.

If you can make out the little white dots in that vast landscape, they are sheep!

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