Stepping outside to the port behind KEX Hostel last Saturday, I was greeted with the sounds of accordion music, a rather unpleasant but not too obtrusive smell and the sight of traditional Icelandic woollen sweaters, sixpence hats, and plaid shirts in abundance—in addition to Kex’s usual crowd of camera-wielding tourists. In one corner, a stage was being prepared and in front of it was a small fence where children had gathered, curiously observing a group of sheep within.
These sheep were volunteered by their owner, farmer Bjarni Bjarnason of Hraðastaðir, to be the ‘victims’ of The Golden Shears, a competition which KEX Hostel hosts in collaboration with The National Sheep Farmers’ Union. Sheep shearing is one of the many seasonal tasks that sheep farmers must undertake and Kex Hostel invited everyone to experience this glimpse into sheep husbandry.
Þórarinn Ingi Pétursson, the union’s chairman, and comedian Hugleikur Dagsson presented the competition and provided commentary, exchanging many jokes on the likeness of Icelandic sheep and Icelandic women which I couldn’t decide whether to take offense to or not.
May the best shearer win
The six competitors, two of which were foreigners, competed in pairs of two, each shearing two sheep under the watchful eyes of the judges Anton Torfi Bergsson and Gavin Stevens from England, with time and quality of the shearing being the main criteria.
Sheep were hauled from the fence and up on the stage where their wool was methodically sheared. Some sheep were jittery or downright panicky while others sat calmly through the process.
The Icelanders were faster but they had points deducted for shabby work, leaving the two foreigners–Uruguayan Julio Cesar and Englishman Foulty Bush—to compete in a final round. In the end, Julio Cesar won the Golden Shears. Again.
It seems a little embarrassing that neither runner-up was Icelandic given, as Hugleikur said, “You can’t compete in anything more Icelandic than this.” But with the quality outweighing the time of shearing, it seems that the much younger Icelandic competitors were simply not experienced enough. Yep, that must be it (there’s always a really good reason when Icelanders don’t excel at something).
Competitor and third runner-up Höskuldur Kolbeinsson pointed out that in some countries there are professional shearers who shear sheep all year round whereas Icelandic farmers only shear twice a year. Höskuldur comes from Stóri-Ás in Borgarfjörður where he works as a carpenter but he helps out at his father’s farm when needed, such as during the shearing period.
The winner, Julio Cesar Gutierrez, has lived in Iceland for twenty years, having moved here from Uruguay with his Icelandic wife. He has over thirty years of experience in sheep shearing, both at his father’s farm in Uruguay and his own at Hávarsstaðir in Hvalfjarðarsveit, so perhaps it’s no wonder that he is so good at it.
Höskuldur and Julio both agreed that Icelandic sheep can be very stubborn and temperamental and Julio finds them to be more difficult than sheep in Uruguay. Well, Icelandic sheep (and people for that matter) would probably be more docile if they had an average winter temperature of 12°C.
Also, as a result of harsh weather conditions, Icelandic sheep have double-layered wool, an inner layer of fine wool and an outer layer of coarse wool, which Julio believes makes the sheep harder to shear.
A raging success
Both Höskuldur and Julio thought enterprise is a good one and that was the general feeling I got from observers. This fusion of the urban and rural seemed to be a welcome breath of fresh air and all seemed to agree that The Golden Shears has been a raging success.
To further promote Icelandic farming, KEX Hostel also hosts a Ram Pressing event on the first day of winter. Ram pressing is another seasonal farming task, where the sheep’s condition and ability to mate is inspected.
Here’s to hoping that KEX Hostel, and perhaps other places, will continue their quest to bring the countryside closer to the city. It’s good for everyone and clearly popular.