Experience the sheep roundup in Iceland
Iceland’s sheep freely roam the mountains and fjords during the long, sun-filled days of summer, fattening themselves with lush lichen, moss, and grass. In the autumn, entire countryside communities gather to stake their claim on their sheep and celebrate with friends, family neighbors and visitors.
“We go by horse or on foot and gather the sheep together. It takes anything up to a week depending on the number of sheep and the terrain,” says Sigridur Bragadottir, owner of Síreksstaðir farm in the village of Vopnafjörður, northeastern Iceland. “Here, we’re usually done in one or two days.
The sheep are rounded up into large wooden pens with different compartments assigned to the various farms. Each farm has its own earmark symbol so the sheep can be easily identified.
See the whole process
Réttir is a tradition that dates back 300 years. It’s very much a community affair, but tourists are welcome.
It seems like everyone’s out, and there are sheep trotting and bucking everywhere. The children are very much involved too, and can be seen climbing onto the backs of sheep to guide them into the right enclosures. When the sheep are sorted, farmers and guests relax and socialize over coffee and cake, while others walk between the pens, take pictures of sheep, and pet them.
Bragadottir has worked her farm for 35 years and is pleased to introduce visitors to the lifestyle. “We have 250 sheep and some horses,” she says. “Our guests enjoy seeing the whole process and getting a glimpse of what life is like on a working farm.” Bragadottir says. “And of course Réttir is a real treat for them.”
Her farm is situated in the village of Vopnafjörður, on the outskirts of the Sunnudalur Valley. It’s a beautiful part of northeastern Iceland, close to striking coastline with islets, coves, river mouths, and black sand beaches. Fewer than 700 people live in the village, and Réttir is one of the biggest events of the year.
Food is another important part of Réttir. Special dishes are served, and sheep are selected for slaughter. “When the sheep come in, we have to decide which will become food and which will be kept for breeding,” Bragadottir says. “Réttir is a reminder that fresh meat will soon be on the way.”
The meat will be served in a wide variety of forms, from lamb chops and sausages to Icelandic specialties including traditional meat soup, slátur (liver sausage), and svið (singed lamb heads).
Sheep are vital to Iceland and its 330,000 inhabitants. Not just for nourishment and a source of income, but also for their thick, warm wool.
Icelandic sheep are a unique breed as the purity of the strain has been protected and preserved by centuries of isolation. A millennium of evolution in a sub-Arctic climate has produced long and tough outer fibers and soft, fine, inner fibers.
Icelandic wool is highly prized for being warm, lightweight, breathable, and water repellant. The traditional woolen sweaters, called lopapeysur, can be seen all over the island – and are exported worldwide.
Many tourists are also delighted to learn that natural energy sources such as hydropower and geothermal energy are used to process wool in Iceland.
Text: Jenna Gottlieb