Bombshell birthing in a barn
We’d barely stepped through the weather-worn barn door before we were rushed over to a sheep giving birth, quickly realizing this wasn’t going to be a casual one—the lamb was facing in the wrong direction; to save the little guy, the social media savvy sheep farmer, Pálína Axelsdóttir Njarðvík (@farmlifeiceland), would have to make a desperate tug at its hooves for a safe and swift birth.
To say that we were shocked is somewhat of an understatement. As German and American city-girls, we’ve never witnessed a live lamb birth (actually, any live birth that is). Though, we’re no foreigners to farms. With high hopes to cuddle some newborn lambs, we traveled to the countryside to spend a day with Pálína during the lunacy of lambing season at her family’s farm.
A cornerstone of Icelandic identity and its realities
More than 800,000 sheep roam the island, doubling the population of Iceland’s inhabitants. The animals proved to be essential in the survival of Icelanders through the centuries. Sheep farming is a pivotal aspect of Icelandic culture but for many of us, the concept of entire seasons being devoted to various stages of farming is completely foreign. Lambing season occurs from May to mid-June, then they move to the Highlands to graze on grass, berries, and arctic herbs in July. By autumn, farmers venture into the Highlands, an elevated desolate land that occupies the center of Iceland, characterized by its infamous, harsh weather in the winter and luscious green summers. They gather the grazing sheep by foot, ATV, or horses, for the annual roundup known as “Réttir”. Impressively, many farmers can recognize their sheep from afar, known as “Fjárglöggur,” meaning farmers who know their sheep well—making the roundup a bit simpler. Friends, families, and even occasional tourists flock to the event come September—essentially turning into a big ‘ole party.
However, the reality of the event is that once the lambs have returned from the Highlands, they are sent to the slaughterhouses, primarily bred for their meat. Lamb is a traditional food in Iceland, one that’s sustained its people since it was first inhabited. “If you think about how meat is generally raised in the world, it’s absolutely terrible—it’s disgusting,” Pálína admits, referring to factory farming. Regarding slaughtering season, she explains “This is my least favorite part. I absolutely hate it but it’s the only source of income for sheep farmers. While people eat meat, we have to have the option of buying it this way—with heart and soul on small family farms.”
The season of life
Lambing season is undoubtedly the highlight of every sheep farmer’s year. It symbolizes life and light after six months of darkness and cold—especially in the Icelandic countryside, where barely anything is happening in the winters. “I think that lambing is all about life,” Pálína describes. Just as lambing season melts the sheep farmer’s—and our—chilled hearts after this past, arduous winter, it comes with its own challenges. Pálína continues to explain the enormous strain of lambing season puts on everyone, including her uncle who owns the farm. “[Farming] is constantly hard work. During lambing season you just go above and beyond, like my uncle. Some days he works twenty hours and sleeps maybe three,” She adds that she tends to leave the farm for some time after lambing season is over, to recharge.
“I think lambing is like when women give birth. They talk about how difficult it is, but then they have their baby and say, ‘Oh, I could do it all over again.’ I feel like lambing season is the same. It’s by far my favorite time of the year.”
Sadly, not all lambs can survive. Some already struggle with finding their entrance to this world, just as we witnessed in the beginning—but luckily that little guy survived. “We fight for every lamb. If a sheep is struggling with medical problems, we always pay for a C-section and that doesn’t pay off. The money that we get from the autumn is less than the cost of the C-section. But it’s just something we do. We take care of our animals, the best way we can.”
Every day is different and challenging, as there are multiple shifts throughout the day, including night shifts. The sheep cannot be left alone for more than forty minutes, in case something goes wrong. “Whenever a sheep is giving birth, you can’t leave,” she laughs, adding, “They usually start to give birth right when you’re about to leave.” However, she explains “When you save a sheep or a lamb, it’s all worth it.” If lambs not surviving the birth isn’t already hard enough, sometimes sheep can’t make it either. She tells us this while bottle-feeding two tiny orphan lambs, whose mother had suddenly passed away. “Whenever a sheep dies, or when a sheep rejects a lamb, we’re stuck with a lamb that we have to take care of. Those always turn out to be my best sheep-friends.” Pálína and her family tend to keep some of the most remarkable sheep as pet sheep—those lucky wooly creatures are then allowed to grow old in peace.
Sheep farmer captures a global audience
Aside from bringing little lambs into the world, Pálína manages other parts of her life just like anyone else. She has a social life to maintain in Reykjavík as well as online. She’s developed a significant following on Instagram, @farmlifeiceland, sharing the highs and lows of raising sheep on her family’s farm. As we followed Pálína through the day, we quickly realized that Instagram was a full-time job in itself. Any spare moment she got, she was capturing a cute or spunky moment of a lamb for her followers. For many, it gives insight into a world that’s completely foreign—even the city-folk of Reykjavík that don’t dare to venture outside 101.
Some followers can’t help but develop favorites, like the lamb Lilli that was born last spring. Pálína recalls. “He was tiny, but a big character.” He was rejected by his mother and “He just melted everyone’s hearts immediately.” Unfortunately, Lilli suddenly passed away in February. Reminiscing, she adds “I really liked sharing Lilli with the world because he was an underdog and there were so many people around the world just cheering him on. Getting invested in the life of this little lamb in Iceland—blows my mind. I never expected that to happen.”
Pálína has the best of both worlds
While Pálína has experienced tremendous success and support for her Instagram, revolving around the farming aspect of her life, she also balances life in Reykjavík. She admits, “I have a Master’s degree in Social Psychology. I love that field and I want to do something there, but at the same time I feel the most at home when I’m here [at the farm].” Nonetheless, she explains that farming is a huge part of who she is, asserting “Growing up on a farm shapes you.” Almost like a pillar of her identity, something that she isn’t ready to let go of. While Pálína’s not sure where it will take her, she seems to thrive in the challenges of having one foot in each world.
Be sure to check out Pálína Axelsdóttir Njarðvík’s Instagram, @farmlifeiceland, to catch a glimpse into the wild ride of a life she endures with some of the country’s biggest and most prominent personalities––Yes, it’s sheep!
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