Fall means it’s time for the annual gathering of sheep, the “réttir”—an important event for rural Icelanders that has been growing in popularity with tourists as of late. That’s no wonder—it is a unique and interesting ritual.
The round-up goes like this: after sheep have spent the summer grazing in the mountains they are rounded up and guided down to the valley. The actual event called “réttir” takes place the following day, when the sheep are driven into a large sheepfold—a round inner circle with small gates leading to a number of partitioned off areas around it that allows farmers to sort the sheep according to their markings.
Get those sheep down
On a crisp Saturday evening, some friends and I head to ‘Tungnaréttir’ near Geysir. The arrival of the sheep had been delayed for a day due to bad weather conditions. For the past week, fifteen to twenty people on horseback had been busy looking for sheep, collecting them in the surrounding mountain area. The evening before they chased the roughly 6,000 sheep down to the valley where they were greeted by farmers, families, friends and others who want to be part of the spectacle.
The air is filled with the sound of sheep bucking, bleating and making noise. They run in a seemingly endless trail along the river, followed by a large number of horses and riders. While the field is slowly being taken over by sheep that are grazing eagerly after their long march, my friends and I are surrounded by horses and Icelanders in lopapeysur (the traditional Icelandic woollen jumper that seems to be de rigueur at a round up).
Lopapeysur and beer
The mood at the sheep roundup is cheerful, as the arrival of the sheep is accompanied by a decent amount of beer, much deserved after all of the hard work. Once the sheep are securely fenced off in the field, the farmers call it a night and head home or to the local bar for a bowl of traditional meat soup and further beer consumption.
We spend the night at a nearby summer cottage. After a delicious meal of lamb-leg we head down for a couple of pints at the local bar, where a group of elderly Icelanders have gathered around a guitar to sing the night away.
Sheep, sheep, sheep
Réttir is already in full swing when we finally make it down to the sheepfold around ten the next morning. Parked cars block roads and fields everywhere, the atmosphere is lively and the rescue team seems ready and alert with their quads standing nearby—just in case.
The sheep had been chased into the middle of the sheepfold where people await to grab them by their horns and shove them into the designated partitions. The sheep’s ears are marked, but we get told that many farmers know their sheep without these aids
By noon it seems that the end is in sight, as people start singing and more and more cans of beer make the rounds. Horses stand very relaxed in their partitions, while children run around trying to catch or mount the sheep, which in turn run rather frantically from one end of the enclosure to the other.
We stand among the sheep, listening to the singing that grows gradually louder. All we see is a sea of wool—sheep and lopapeysur in various patterns. While the atmosphere is full of bleating, talking and an increasingly intoxicated mood, some of the sheep are already being loaded into small trailers. They are to be taken to their home farms where they will await their fate—contributing to the ever-growing demand for lopapeysur and delicious legs of lamb.
Unlike the unfortunate sheep in the northeast Iceland that were pummelled by early snow this year, this réttir turned out to be a smooth affair. Joining in on the sheep action was fun, the day was bright and sunny and the cold beer kept us running.