While there are a few Icelanders that have sheep for a hobby (some 500 or so Icelanders keep sheep for their own consumption - the average Icelander eats 45 pounds of lamb each year and since the average amount of meat from a lamb is 37 pounds, that is 1+ lamb per person), most farms need to have 200 - 400 head of sheep and still need to keep other animals like dairy, in order to make ends meet.
An aside about horses for those interested:
Some sheep farmers keep horses to supplement the income from sheep. Since the horses are left out in the rangelands all winter (no stable for the horses in winter even if the sheep are brought in !), it is little cost to the farmer to keep them overwinter. Then in the spring, summer and fall, they lease their horses to the many riding centers that take tourists thru the landscape! So horses offer an income stream that costs very little. Although in the past the horses would be left to fend for themselves completely thru the winter, the guide I had said that now farmers will put out hay for them.
In order for a farmer to depend solely on income from sheep, it is estimated that he/she must overwinter around 600 ewes.
The sheep farmer that we talked to in the Lake Myvatn area (shown in the picture below) has 400 to overwinter and then he also has dairy. According to my brother-in-law, who had an extensive conversation with this farmer's wife, this farmer had already sent many of his lambs to the slaughter house and on this day he (in yellow overalls) was supervising the rounding up of about half his herd. The other half he expected he would roundup the following weekend. These next photos show the kids herding the sheep home from the Hildarett rettir where they were sorted from sheep of other farms.
Most ewes will have twins, so his 400 ewes becomes around 1200, and once the lambs are strong enough, and the weather permitting, the sheep will be released into the "wild" in late May/June to forage for themselves until roundup. But not before they are shorn again - so most farmers get two shearings each year: when they bring them indoors in late fall and just before sending them out to forage again in the spring.
Most of the Icelanders raising sheep are doing so for the meat, not for the fleece!
Lamb makes up about 25% of the meat that Icelanders eat each year. I don't eat a lot of meat, but I do love lamb. And Icelandic lamb is so incredibly tasty! They attribute the great taste of Icelandic lamb (as opposed to Australian, which is what we get around here) to the nature of the plants that the lambs forage on all summer in the highlands. And it makes sense - you are what you eat! They graze on arctic thyme and whatever other arctic grasses are growing in the summer months in the highlands of Iceland and these plants flavor the meat.
With so much focus on raising sheep for meat, there is less attention paid to the fleeces! Most farmers just shear and send their fleeces in bulk to the Istex Mill (formerly Alafoss), makers of Lopi yarn. When Alafoss went bankrupt years ago, a group of the employees along with the Sheep Breeders Association in Iceland purchased the mill and now operate it under the Istex name. The sheep breeders group owns 50% of the mill. This is the "main" Istex mill pictured below just north of Reykyavik. There are several other Istex sites around the country - we discovered one up north in Blonduos which is where much of the wool is washed - 1000 tons of wool washed here in 2013!
It is apparently not uncommon for sheep farms in Iceland to be as large as 1200 - 3500 acres in size! The Sheep Breeders Association there takes great care of their sheep tradition. Almost 90% of all sheep farms participate in a national program for quality assurance which ensures ethical husbandry.
Because during a short period in the early 1930s when Iceland relaxed its rules about importing other animals to Iceland there was a terrible disease spread by karakul sheep imported from Germany, Iceland now restricts the import of sheep, horses, etc. And the government has built thousands of miles of fencing to keep the sheep in different sections of the country contained in order to control the spread of disease should something get into the herd. There are 26 such "containment" areas around the country.
Ah ha! That explained the ridiculously long fences we saw built up nearly vertical mountainsides! We didn't understand who in the world would bother to build these insane fences we saw here and there since the sheep, afterall, seemed to be free range! But reading about these 26 "containment" areas, answered that mystery. I wish I had a picture to share of one such fence because you just couldn't imagine anyone building a fence in the remote and steep areas we came across them!
And this next fact was surprising to me. Contrary to what I would have guessed, farmers actually get more money for white fleece than for the colored. I'm always drawn to the range of beautiful natural colors myself, so this was unexpected given my "handspinners" point of view. But thinking thru the lens of the commercial yarn industry, it makes perfect sense! White fleece can be easily dyed any color the yarn industry wants. White is genetically dominant, too, so today 87% of the Icelandic flock is white.
And I was shocked to learn that the farmers don't get anything for the pelts of the lambs they send to slaughter! When we were in Gotland many years ago, the pelts were selling for $900 - $1000 a piece! But apparently in Iceland the slaughter house gets the pelts in payment for transporting the sheep to the slaughterhouse for the farmer (minus, of course, the cost of tanning). Here is a photo of one of about 20 such palettes of sheep skins sitting outside the tannery in Saudarkrokur.........but more about the tannery tomorrow!