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What are Icelandic Sheep?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Icelandic sheep are triple-purpose sheep from Iceland. They have been raised in Iceland since the 9th century CE, and since few sheep were imported after the 10th century, they are genetically quite distinctive. Iceland also houses another unique farm animal, the Icelandic horse. Both Icelandic horses and Icelandic sheep represent ancient breeds, with some of the purest genetic stock available, and the residents of Iceland are committed to protecting the integrity of these unique animals. Vikings transported to modern-day Iceland would probably find the sight of a flock of Icelandic sheep very familiar.

Triple-purpose sheep are raised for meat, milk, and wool, making them very efficient. The Vikings brought sheep to Iceland to sustain their colonies there, choosing hardy sheep which would be able to withstand the sometimes severe weather in Iceland. Icelandic sheep today are famous for their hardiness and adaptability, and they are also notably fecund, a distinct advantage when one has a limited number of sheep to breed. Ewes regularly produce twins, and some have a mutant gene which allows for even larger multiple births.

This sheep breed is average sized, with ewes being somewhat smaller than rams. Some Icelandic sheep have horns, while others do not, and they come in a range of colors including white, black, and mixed. The wool comes in two distinct layers which are typically separated after shearing, with wool from the soft under-layer being used for garments which are worn next to the skin.

Although sheep have a reputation for being docile and easy to handle, this is not the case with Icelandic sheep. Icelandic sheep are intelligent, muscular, and sometimes very strong-willed. This is especially true of leadersheep, sheep which have been bred for centuries to head up the flock and assist the shepherd. Leadersheep are somewhat smaller than their counterparts in the herd, and they are naturally alert, sensitive, and extremely smart, keeping an eye on the flock and keeping it out of trouble.

In Iceland, very little cross-breeding has been done with other breeds, keeping Icelandic sheep relatively pure. Meat from these sheep is a delicacy in some parts of Iceland, while their milk is used to make a variety of dairy products, including skyr, a fermented milk product unique to Iceland. Wool from Icelandic sheep is used in the famous traditionally knitted sweaters of Iceland, many of which are made in natural wool colors.

Breeders of Icelandic sheep can be found all over the world. Some have genetically pure stock, while others offer cross-bred sheep which blend positive traits from several sheep breeds.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon204487 — On Aug 09, 2011

Few comments:

Icelandic sheep are rarely milked today in Iceland, or for the last 80 years.

For this reason, Skyr from sheep is uncommon in Iceland, it's mainly made from cows milk.

Majority of Icelandic sheep have horns, though sheep without horns are common also.

There also exist Icelandic sheep with four horns.

Additionally the color variation is far more than one might think from the article.

An icelandic sheepdog is also a quite unique animal.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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