Rounding up the Sheep: Icelandic Customs Die Hard

Rounding up the Sheep: Icelandic Customs Die Hard

Photos by
GAS

The Icelandic people have a strong, abiding connection with their farm animals. Though, admittedly, in everyday life in downtown Reykjavík, they’ve become a mere cliché – a stuffed animal for children or a novel cuisine found in national dishes like svið. But for generations past, sheep and horses both guaranteed income and survival for rural settlements. Every fall, this fact is celebrated when the urbanites flock to the country side to partake in traditional sheep herding!

Sheep by GAS

All over Iceland, sheep are led into the highlands in the spring, where they can enjoy the advantages of a life in nature for the summer: unlimited grass, freedom of movement and best of all, no people around to chase them. Before winter the sheep have to be on the farm again to save them from hypothermia or to be brought to slaughterhouse. Either way, every year between September and October (depending on the region, they are earlier up North) small groups of young men are chosen to round up the sheep and bring them back to the lowland. The search is an adventure, which can last up to a week and during which the participants get by on the backs of horses only accompanied by smoked lamb snacks, warm clothes, dirty jokes and some encouraging booze.

Sheep by GAS

The big social event is held the day the group is expected back with the herd. Originally, the farmers met to divvy up the returning sheep by their unique ear indentations. Nowadays, the homecoming of the sheep has become a popular tradition unique to Iceland. The whole community gathers at the herding place and passes the time waiting for the flock singing folk-songs, drinking and other forms of revelry. Kids have fun playing with the horses and sheep that have already arrived. In the evening there is often a great celebration with the requisite drinking and dancing, which concludes the festivities.