Wherein a Grapevine intern leads some lambs to slaughter, feasts on their bodies, gets drunk and sings songs—an Icelandic tradition if there ever was one
It was a tough climb to the top of the hill, and I was tired from the ascent. Luckily it wasn’t raining. Once we reached the top, I turned around and looked across the valley and found that, yes, autumn had set in. The once bright green pastures had turned yellow, red and brown. The tractor still had not moved. I could see the others in their bright yellow vests climbing up the other hill and the two horses on top of the hill.
It was beautiful.
And then we got the message through the walkie-talkie. “Let the games begin,” Siggi said. The hunt was on.
I was really excited when my Icelandic friend Siggi asked me if I wanted to join his family in Iceland’s countryside for something he referred to as an “annual sheep gathering.” While I had never heard about such a gathering, I could picture myself in Iceland’s picturesque scenery, happily skipping across the meadows, surrounded by fluffy sheep and jumping little lambs.
I would later learn that while the landscape is, indeed, breathtaking, the act of gathering sheep is by no means peaceful or idyllic. Quite the contrary.
So what is this sheep gathering thing? Well, most Icelandic sheep are kept indoors from November until after lambing in May. Once spring has properly sprung, the sheep are let loose to the summer freely grazing in extensive pastures in the highlands and lowlands (and on roads, much to drivers’ delight). Then, once autumn rears its head, the so-called sheep round-up—réttir—takes place, usually in the first weeks of September.
Réttir is a two-part affair. The first bit entails rounding them up in the rangeland areas, which can be rather time consuming as those sheep sure do get around. “Those rangeland areas vary in size and nature, from lowlands to uplands and mountains,” explains Ólafur R. Dýrmundsson from the Farmers’ Association of Iceland. “It usually takes a given farmer one to seven days to gather his flock, either using horses or on foot. Some of the rangelands are so big that it takes several days comb them,” he adds. “The annual sheep roundup is an integral part of our rangeland management system, which has developed ever since the settlement of Iceland over 1100 years ago.”
After the sheep have been led back to the lowlands, they are driven into a fold, where individual famers identify their sheep by inspecting their earmarks—each farm has its own earmark symbol—and drag them into a separate pen, the so-called réttir. As Ólafur notes, the roundup is one of the country’s oldest cultural activities. As it is a time consuming and often difficult endeavour, local sheep farmers will invite family, friends and anyone else who’s interested to help out.
On Friday evening we drove to Siggi’s grandparents farm in West Iceland, a three-hour drive up north from Reykjavík, between Stykkishólmur and Hvammstangi. As we approach, Siggi explains that the land around his grandparents’ farm stretches over several hectares of hills and valleys, so they need to draft as many people as they can to help. Luckily, it’s a great occasion for the whole family to get together, so the endeavour feels more like a party than the hard work it indeed is.
We arrived to a lively farm. At Siggi’s grandparents, a traditional round-up-Friday dinner consists of slátur (“slaughter”)—two very Icelandic dishes called blóðmör (blood sausage) and lifrarpylsa (liver sausage). I had neither encountered nor heard of such dishes before, and I must admit that they looked rather peculiar (and not very appetizing). The liver sausage is a pudding made from liver and suet of sheep kneaded with rye flour and oats, wrapped in sheep stomach. The blood sausage however consists of similar ingredients and, as the name suggests, lamb’s blood. Despite my reservations, I dug in to find that both dishes were very rich and filling.
The day of the gathering
The next morning was beautiful and sunny, and everyone seemed surprised by the just about perfect weather. Some had gone ahead earlier in the morning to tackle the hill from the other side. The rest of us, a group consisting mainly of children, stood outside the house waiting for our ride to wherever it was we were needed when a tractor rolled down the driveway. Our ride. We jumped onto the trailer and the journey began.
The tractor traversed a very bumpy path cross country through streams and puddles. “Last year one of the puddles we drove through was so deep that the wheels of the trailer sunk in sideways, causing the trailer to topple. Everyone fell out and landed on the children. They were a bit traumatised after that,” Siggi told me, laughing.
We drove along the path behind Siggi’s grandparent’s farm in the valley between two hills. Autumn colours covered the hills. There were sheep everywhere. Some were grazing in the valley, others had situated themselves in the steepest and most inaccessible parts of the hills—perhaps in anticipation of what was to come. All of them had to be collected, somehow.
After a 20-minute drive we found ourselves in the valley between two large hills. Our group gathered by the tractor and discussed the day’s plan of action. Five of us would tackle one hill; the other ten would tackle the other, where most of the sheep usually like to graze. Walkie-talkies and bright yellow vests were handed out to everyone, and a flask of whiskey was passed around to officially mark the beginning of the gathering, as per tradition. Everyone was given a group and assigned to a certain area. Some were to stay in the valley and others would be half way up the hill or right on top of the hill. We would all walk parallel towards the northwest, back to the farm chasing the sheep back home.
We started the journey up the hill. Every now and again we stopped to enjoy a few crowberries (we even found some big, ripe and juicy blueberries). We climbed past a stream and waterfall. Once we made it to the top of the hill, we had reached our assigned starting point. I looked across the valley to the other hill, to see another group of bright yellow vests nearly at the top.
Siggi and I stopped for a little while, waiting for everyone else to reach their starting point. We were exhausted from the climb, so we just stood there in silence. I was surprised about how silent and calm it was. A sort of pure silence, at least compared to what you’ll experience in urban areas. After a few minutes everyone had reached their assigned areas and the gathering could start.
I walked along the northern side of the hill while Siggi tackled the south side, making sure we wouldn’t miss any sheep. Once the sheep spot you, they generally run away, I was told, which means they run ahead towards the farm as we were walking towards it. “Not too bad,” I thought. “Just chase some sheep.”
It was a long walk. Every now and again I came across a few sheep, but they ran ahead and disappeared as soon as they saw me from afar. It was quite idyllic and peaceful up there, with a stunning view of the valley and mountains. I just kept walking and making sure I was on the same level as the other yellow vests on the other hill.
We had nearly reached the end of our hill. Siggi went ahead and chased the sheep downhill. My job was to stay on top for a while and make sure they didn’t run back up again by waving my arms, jumping and scaring them off into the opposite direction. Once I saw Siggi had gathered all the sheep, I decided it was time to start climbing down. I was two-thirds down the hill when I looked back up and there they were: two big fluffy sheep that I had missed. An expression I learned that weekend came in handy: “Helvítis rollur!” (e. “Bloody sheep!”)
All the sheep were gathered in the valley and most of them were heading back to the farm without much chasing happening. As if they knew where they had to go. But some just did not want to find their way back. In those cases, Siggi and his uncles had to run after the sheep, pinning them down and literally carry them to the trailer. And trust me, those were some huge sheep.
An end in sight
When all the sheep were finally lead back to the farm and into the barn, it was time for a well-deserved lunch! Of course, the traditional meal for the Saturday post-gathering is… lamb.
After a big lunch and a little sit-down inside, the second part of the sheep gathering began. There were about 200 sheep in the barn belonging to four different farms. In steps we led one batch of sheep after another into the large pen in the barn and identified them by their ear tags. They had to be grabbed by their horns or the wool below their ears and dragged into smaller pens. It got quite hectic and eventful inside the barn as the sheep jumped and ran across the dusty pen, trying their best to escape anyone that came close.
After some massive (and physically taxing) struggles with the captive sheep, it was finally time to relax. The children played on the lawn and the adults enjoyed a few beers outside. It was a beautiful day, which I later learned was quite lucky since the sheep gathering will often happen in dismal weather conditions. “We have gathered sheep in freezing temperatures, rain and snow. It was hard, but the job has to be done in one way or the other. It’s nice to do the sheep gathering on such a sunny day for a change,” Siggi’s uncle remarked.
Later that evening, some of us were sat in the kitchen when Siggi’s uncle brought out the guitar. As soon as he played the first tone of an Icelandic folk song, one by one, the kitchen started filling up and everyone joined into the singing. Icelandic folk songs, Eurovision songs, Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’, the Beatles—a bit of everything. At some point, just having a guitar wasn’t enough, so someone went hunting for potential new instruments. A washboard with a wooden spoon and a rice-filled tin added perfectly to the songs… until the lid of the tin fell of and the kitchen was showered with rice. For hours, everyone just sang, laughed and enjoyed the music.
This farm is located about 200km north of Reykjavík, between Stykkishólmur and Hvammstangi.
No sheep were harmed while researching or writing this article, although, chances are, that some of their offspring will be eaten this Christmas. YUM!