Come end of September, the days grow noticeably shorter, the grass turns yellow and it’s time to bring the sheep in for the winter. This is a two-part affair beginning with the act of rounding them up in the mountains—‘að smala’—and ending with the act of driving them into a fold where owners pick theirs out from the mix—‘réttir.’

It happens all over the country—which is home to more sheep than people—but on this particular Sunday we were going to the Þórkötlustaðaréttir roundup, which was scheduled to start at 7 AM. Getting up at the ungodly hour of 4 AM, Grapevine photo intern Natsha and I met up with horse trainer Katrine Bruhn Jensen to pick up her horses in Álftanes—one of the few places in Reykjavík where you’ll see horses basically grazing in people’s front yards.

From there, it was an hour or so drive out to Grindavík, a fishing hamlet on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Reykjanes is best known for being home to the Keflavík International Airport, and many tourists simply book it to the city, bypassing the area completely. This is a mistake for the lava fields there are definitely worth a closer look, and as we would find out, so are the beautiful mountains and valleys.

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Grindavík has sheep too

Once a community of farmers, Grindavík is primarily a fishing town today. Only a few still live on ‘lögbýli’ or ‘legal farms,’ Ólafur Sigurðsson told me. Ólafur, who is a captain by profession, was there with his daughter Jóhanna to round up their two sheep and four lambs.

“Most people in Grindavík are hobby farmers,” Ólafur said, pointing out that it costs more to do this than to buy lamb at a store. Nonetheless, he didn’t think there was any danger of the tradition dying down in Grindavík. If anything, he expected the tradition to grow. “There will be more kids than sheep when we get to town,” he told me.

Hobby farmers or not, they had nearly 2.000 sheep and lambs to round up from 1000 hectares of rough terrain. If that sounds like a large area to cover, Ólafur said the area was significantly larger—reaching as far east as the Bjáfjöll mountains—until this ‘smaller’ area was fenced off four years ago.

Kings of the mountain

Everything had been planned out and orchestrated by the elected ‘Fjallakóngar’ or ‘Kings of the Mountain’ Guðjón Þorláksson, Hörður Sigurðsson and Þórir Kristinsson. Still, it was often difficult to decipher who was in charge of the group, which has been going through this drill for years upon years.

From our starting point at Borgarhóll, the bunch of us—some on horseback and others on foot—were strategically sent along the perimeter of the area, sweeping across it in an arc until all of the sheep had been driven to a central path leading up to a fenced off enclosure at Vigdísarvellir.

With the exception of a few stray sheep that had managed evade the group and had to be collected separately, the group was generally pleased and they were confident that no sheep had been left behind.

no sheep left behind natsha

A friendly community

At Vigdísavellir, we got off our horses and took an hour or so break to eat and chat with crowd. Even as an outsider to what was clearly a tightly knit community, I was warmly welcomed and offered a swig of Tópas—black liquorice flavoured vodka—which is a recent sheep roundup staple.

Einar Dagbjartsson, a friendly Grindavíkingur who flies for Icelandair when he’s not participating in réttir, spoke fondly of his sheep, which he called Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. This year he said he was thinking about keeping one of their lambs for his ten-year-old son. He would call her Doris Day.

Naming sheep like this is not an unusual practice as Theodór Vilbergsson, who was collecting 57 sheep and lambs from the mountains, would later confirm. He told me he recognised all of his sheep—though not the lambs, which are sent into the mountains shortly after they are born. A moment later he slowed down in front of me, and said, “see the gray one there,” pointing to a rather large, pushy sheep in the middle of the crowd, “that one’s mine,” he said with a fat grin on his face.

Back to civilisation

When it was time to get going again, I climbed up onto Prince’s back and we began the slow fifteen kilometres ride down the mountain and back to town. By now I felt like Prince and I had developed a mutual respect for one another. I was quite pleased with him, though my tailbone and inner thighs were less so.

Riding and walking along side the sheep, we worked together to keep the herd in line, literally speaking. Every once in a while a few defiant sheep would break away from the group, and a few stragglers or injured ones had to be picked up by car and driven the rest of the way, but it generally went smoothly.

As we neared town, however, this surreal experience—which was all the while accompanied by a many hour long chorus of ‘baahs’ and ‘mees’ and ‘aaahs’ and ‘uhhhs’ and whatever else sheep say—was interrupted by the law-bound reality of civilisation.

A policeman approached two riders ahead of me and asked them to take a breathalyser test. When an inebriated rider protested, he was yanked off his horse in a most violent manner. After continued struggle, he was cuffed and escorted to the car, leaving his friend to take his horse. Don’t drink and ride, I guess.

no sheep left behind natsha

Into the fold

It was seven o’clock when we finally reached town with the sheep—which had been far more interested in eating than burning calories for fifteen kilometres—and as Ólafur had said, there were thousands of people waiting to witness ‘réttir.’

That’s the last part of this affair when all the sheep are packed into a circular enclosure and the farmers—or fishermen and pilots—and their family and friends jump in to sort their sheep from the mix.

To see owners pick out their Marilyn and Judy without so much as checking their ear marker is a sight to see, but after the twelve-hour long journey, we—and our horses—were knackered. It was time to go home—until next time.

For a schedule of the remaining Réttir around the country, check out www.bondi.is. To go on a horseback riding tour with Katrine Bruhn Jensen, call +45 214077285652737.

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