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So What’re These Lambs On TV I Keep Hearing About?

So What’re These Lambs On TV I Keep Hearing About?

Photos by
Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir

Published May 26, 2015

Starting at noon on May 14, Icelandic state television RÚV broadcast continuously for almost 24 hours from a farm called Syðri-Hofdalir in the Skagafjörður region in North Iceland. That was because it was lambing season, with 20 to 40 sheep giving birth every day.

Why not the whole 24 hours?

It was supposed to be 24 hours, but the relay transmitter nearest to the farm short-circuited when there were still two and a half hours to go. This was RÚV’s experiment in slow television, a genre of broadcasting that has been developed and popularised by NRK, the Norwegian state television, since 2009. In Norway there have been many such programmes, with live broadcasts of entire train journeys, 12-hour knitting marathons and 60 hours of choral hymn singing.

Are governments trying to bore people to death to save on healthcare costs?

These Norwegian programmes, as well as similar shows made in other countries, have been a huge, popular success. In 2011, half the population of Norway, as well as hundreds of thousands of online viewers from all over the world, watched a 134-hour live broadcast of a coastal ferry journey from Bergen in the southwest of the country to Kirkenes, a town north of the Arctic Circle.

Well, it beats watching a hundred old guys drinking beer and listening to oompah music.

You are confusing Norwegian TV with the popular German-language show ‘Musikantenstadl’. The Icelandic lambing broadcast was also a hit, with people watching on television as well as online. The producers responded to requests made on Twitter and Facebook, adjusting cameras and asking questions of farmers.

Poor farmers! What awfulness did the internet hordes unleash?

Actually, they were quite caught up in the event, asking about naming practices and markings. There was even an outpouring of grief when one lamb was stillborn. Not that some trolls did not emerge from under the bridge, despite the lack of goats. Many people made jokes about grilling and cutlets, but the most persistent troll was a vegan Twitter user commenting on the meat industry using the hashtag promoted by RÚV.

I bet that was about as welcome as a coffin-shaped baby crib at a baby shower.

Yes, insofar as some really liked it, but most people either ignored it or reacted with annoyance. Largely, though, people went on Twitter, Facebook and other social media to talk about how much they enjoyed the programme. As a rule, Icelanders like and respect farmers and farming. Until the end of the 19th century, nearly all Icelanders lived on farms, and until about 1980, most children in Reykjavík spent summers in the countryside.

Hopefully not for the same reason lambs spend their summers in the countryside.

But as the practice has largely died down, most Icelanders under 40 years of age are unfamiliar with rural life. This broadcast was therefore a window onto a world they know little about. As the world has become more urbanised, Icelanders have been moving to Reykjavík. Roughly two-thirds of the population live in the city and the towns which are a part of the same urban sprawl.

Maybe if every third grade class were given a pregnant sheep to take care of, the city kids would get in touch with rural life.

A little bit of trauma builds character. There is something to be said for getting people in touch with different species and ways of living. Farmer Atli Már Traustason of Syðri-Hofdalir was asked by a viewer if seeing a lamb die had become routine. He said that it never stopped being sad.

The whole broadcast was a big bummer, then?

Not at all. The other most discussed moment was when reporter Gísli Einarsson fell on his ass because the piece of wood he was sitting on snapped. This happened off-camera, but farmer Ingibjörg Klara Helgadóttir could not stop laughing during the interview. During the long broadcast the farming couple, their children and various assistants became familiar to the audience, who gained an insight into the working life of farmers.

And a close look at the reproductive systems of sheep.

In the novel ‘Höfundur Íslands’ (“Iceland’s Author”), Hallgrímur Helgason wrote that “spring comes out of a sheep’s ass.” Up until a few decades ago, the rhythms of Icelandic society were linked to animals. While television is no substitute for experience, it at least allows people to glimpse different ways of life. The sheep, meanwhile, paid the cameras hardly any mind, except for sniffing at them occasionally. Not long after the lambs were born, mothers and children were released to roam around the countryside until winter. Hopefully some of them will avoid the slaughterhouse and bring the next spring forth from their behinds.


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