The modern Icelandic Sheep is a direct descendant of the sheep brought
to the island by the early Viking settlers, in the ninth and tenth
century. It is of the North European Short Tailed type, related to
such breeds as the
Shetland, Spelsau sheep and the Swedish Landrace, all of which are
descendants of this type of sheep which was predominate in Scandinavia
and the British Isles during 8th and 9th century. Of these the
Icelandic and the
Romanov are the largest, classified as medium size.
Very few attempts have been made to
"improve" the Icelandic sheep through the centuries with outside
crossings. The few attempts that were made resulted in disasters
brought on by diseases brought in by the "new blood". As a result
producers drastically culled all animals, which were results of
crossbreeding. As a consequence all effect of other breeds was
eliminated. It is now illegal to import any sheep into Iceland. As a
result of these factors selective breeding within the breed itself has done improvements to the
breed. Genetically the Icelandic sheep is the same today as it was 1100
years ago. It is possibly the oldest and purest domesticated breed of
sheep in the world today.
The Icelandic sheep are of medium size with mature ewes
weighing 150-160 lbs. and rams 200-220 lbs. They are fine
boned with open face and legs and udders. The breed has both
polled and horned individual of both sexes but it is
primarily horned. Icelandic sheep are not particularly tall
but broad and have an excellent conformation as a meat
breed. They are seasonal breeders; the ewes start to come
into heat around early November, lasting through April. By
early October the mature rams develop a distinct odor, which
stimulates breeding activity in the ewes. The odor remains
with the rams through the breeding season. This smell will
also have an adverse effect on meat quality if mature rams
are slaughtered during that period. Occasionally the
Icelandic sheep will breed out of season but that has not
been encouraged in Iceland. The fecundity in the ewes is
excellent and the mature rams are very efficient breeders.
Lambing rate is approximately 170-180%, with increases
possible through more intensive management. They are early
maturing and the ewes can easily lamb at 12 months of age.
Ram lambs can start breeding around seven months old. Life
expectancy is long, healthy ewes commonly lambing until they
are 12 to 14 years old in Iceland. The wool is dual coated
and comes in many natural colours, even though the white
colour is most common.
Recently a major gene effective prolificacy has been
identified in the Icelandic breed. The gene is called "Thoka"
after the ewe Thoka, born in 1950 at Smyrlabjorg farm, from
which it is thought to originate. This gene exhibits action
similar to the gene found in the Booroola Merino.
Researchers have observed marked differences in ovulation
rate between carrier animals and non-carrier animal. On the
average non-carriers were found to have 1.59 - 2.2 ova, with
carrier animals showing 2.14 - 3.4 ova, a statistically
significant difference. To date (1996) research has only
been conducted using heterozygous carriers of the gene.
The Icelandic breed is not a docile breed. They are alert
and fast on their feet. Most of them are very
individualistic and flocking instinct is poor. They tend to
spread out which makes them good users of sparse pasture.
They are good browsers and seem to enjoy eating brush and
wild grasses. The ewes are good mothers and high milk
producers, which is not surprising considering they were
also used as milk animals until the middle of the twentieth
century. It has been reported they are aggressive toward
other sheep and will usually dominate in those situations.
Behaviour in Icelandic sheep has been compared to that of
feral or early domestic animals. Some are nervous but when
they get to know their shepherd they get quite friendly. The
dominant ram, usually a horned one, can get possibly
The breed is famous for its wool around the world, but in
Iceland it is bred almost exclusive for meat. More than 80%
of the income from them in Iceland is from meat. Though the
lambs are born small, they grow fairly fast. On good
pastures they should reach 80-90 lbs in 4-5 months, at which
time they are weaned. The average growth rate is 250-300
g/day (10-12 oz/day). These lambs are not fed any extra
grain or creep feed but are slaughtered straight off
mountain pastures. Dressing percentage is around 45%. The
meat is fine grained and has excellent flavour. Dr. Clair
Terrill has stated that Iceland is among the top countries
in meat produced per sheep kept.
Even though the wool counts for little of the income from
sheep in Iceland (less than 15%) it is the wool for which
they are know. The fleece has an inner and outer coat
typical of the more primitive breeds with the fine undercoat
called Thel and the long, coarser outer coat called Tog. The
fleeces are open and not very greasy. The average fleece
weighs 4-5 lbs. in grease. Due to the length of fibre, the
openness of the wool, the natural colours and the
versatility, fleeces are usually sold through specialty
markets to hand spinners. The thel is down like, springy,
lustrous and soft.
The longer tog coat is similar to mohair, wavy or
corkscrewed rather than crimped and is wonderful in worsted
spinning. At present this wool is not suited for the
industrial market in North America, both because of how rare
it is and also because of its unique nature. The natural
colours vary from snow white through several shades of grey
to pitch black as well as several shades of morrit to
brownish black. Some individuals will also show mouflon,
badger-face patterns with several combinations of colour and
patterns. Bi-coloured individuals are also fairly common.
The skin of the Icelandic sheep is excellent as a pelt skin.
That is in part due to how relatively few hair follicles
they have. Fashion clothing, mostly coats, has long been
manufactured from the pelts. These items usually demand a
high price on the world market. The skins are also sold as
sheepskin rugs that are absolutely gorgeous.