Icelandic Sheep on our Vermont Sheep Farm, why
Icelandic Sheep are easy to keep!
the decision is made to keep sheep you'll quickly discover that sheep
come in a dizzying variety of breeds. Sheep
for fiber, sheep for meat, sheep for milking (if you want to get into
that). And each has its good points. The more refined the breed, the more
specific its purpose, in general, the more difficult it is going to be
to work with. The more primitive the breed, the less specific it is, the
easier it is to work with. With one caveat... primitive breeds can be
more difficult to herd, by hand or with dogs, because they haven't lost
their feral natures through selective breeding. The primitive breeds remain,
however, the most versatile, and robust, of the sheep breeds for the small
farmer. Why? Because in our drive to breed for desirable traits, we humans
often sacrifice other traits which have helped the animals survive for
thousands of years. Having said this... obviously some sheep are perfectly
willing to take a nap with you in the spring sunshine! So much for the
"feral" nature of the Icelandic sheep!
Sheep breeds do have trade-offs. For example we've
created meat breeds of sheep that produce very heavy lambs. But a heavy
lamb is a large lamb, and ewes often need help to bring them into this
world. Heavy wool breeds need to be cleaned on an almost daily basis,
lest flies hatch their eggs in the moist damp folds of their skin. Primitive
breeds like the Icelandic may not end as a heavy, well marbled,
carcass, nor produce a heavy, lanolin rich, fleece... but they also don't
require the care and maintaince of their more refined cousins.
It us unusual for us but one of the factors
that weighed heavily in favor of Icelandic sheep was that they are not
rare. Usually, we prefer the unusual
or rare breed of livestock, simply because farms like ours are what keep
these breeds alive. But when it came down to a choice between two breeds
in the same "class" of sheep, we decided to go with the better
known, and more readily available Icelandic, instead of the smaller Shetland.
There are more farms to buy stock from, and more farmers who can lend
a hand if you find yourself puzzling over a problem.
As a Small Farm Sheep Icelandics
would be hard to beat.
- Icelandic Sheep are thrifty keepers
which means, on our Vermont farm,
they can gain weight on grass alone, and gain it quickly. In fact, it
isn't advisable to feed an Icelandic sheep more than a handful or two
of grain, their systems aren't built for it. Not only are they thrifty
(efficient) users of feed, but they won't overgraze a pasture. This
is the result of thousands of generations of Icelandic sheep being kept
on the thin pastures of Iceland. Before they ruin the grass, they'll
stop grazing and live off their own stored fat.
- Icelandic Sheep breed later than other
breeds, and they lamb, on average, 5 days earlier...which
means smaller lambs and less likelihood of lambing complications. "They
bounce when they hit the ground!" one shepherd told us. Lambs are
up, and eating, with enthusiasm right after birth.
- A goodly percentage of Icelandic ewes
carry the twinning gene. And there's
nothing to speed along building a flock than having all the ewes in
your starter flock pop twins!
- Icelandic Ewes produce copious amounts
of milk. Enough to keep twins
happy, even enough to milk if you want to get into the sheep's milk
cheese or yogurt market.
- Icelandic sheep have a double coated
fleece. Long guard hairs on the
top called the Tog and a downy undercoat called Thel. The fibers can
either be spun together, or easily pulled apart to make a rug yarn from
the coarser fibers, and a soft light yarn from the undercoat. In short,
you don't get one fiber from the sheep... but three possibilities.
- Icelandic sheep will naturally shed
their fleece. The truth of it
is... the market is saturated with wool right now. It often costs more
to have your sheep sheared than the fleece is worth. And if you process
the wool into yarn at one of the micro-mills, you'll need to get a good
price for that yarn just to break even. When you're just starting out,
this can be an added expense and headache you don't need. No problem.
In the spring, Icelandic fleece "breaks" and the sheep rub
their long winter coats off. Icelanders used to pick the fiber off trees
and bushes before they discovered it might be easier to collect it all
at once... off the sheep! I should note that even though the sheep
will, eventually, shed their fleece, you'll want to shear your ewes
either just before, or just after, they lamb, so the lambs can find
the udder under all that wool! We sheer the winter coats off by
hand. It takes me about an hour to get a fleece off while the
ewe and her new lamb are in the lambing pen. She isn't happy about my
"messing around" with her, but the fleece comes off easily
and the lamb can find what it is looking for afterwards. You're also
cutting off anything left over from the birth, plant material in the
fleece, etc... things you don't need around your new lamb.
- Icelandic sheep are durable. Or
as one shepherd put it ruefully "when we were starting out, we
did everything wrong... and nobody died!" For generations, Icelanders
drove their sheep to summer pastures, and left them. Those that didn't
survive, didn't contribute their genes to the next generation. Some
of these sheep are so clever, they're called Leader Sheep, because they'll
take charge of the flock in an emergency. All of them are durable, and
given even rudimentary shelter will thrive in icy winters. Does it sound
like the perfect Vermont sheep yet?
- Icelandic sheep produce a lean, moderately
sized, carcass. While you may
be keeping yours for fleece and mowing, this was one of our considerations.
Lean, clean, meat, grown on our own pastures.
- And, in the same vein, a flexible, desirable,
pelt. Sheepskins used to be very
popular, and still are especially for people who have circulation problems.
They cushion and breath naturally.
- Icelandic sheep naturally come "polled"
and "horned." Polled,
or hornless, is the way for new shepherds to go, we've been told. But
we love the look of a fully horned ram. And horns give you handles to
grab, when you need to move a sheep around. Horns can hook you by accident,
but if a ram is determined to drive you out of his space, the comes
at you with the bony plate in his forehead, like a battering ram (hence
the name of..). Like any testosterone charged male, rams can be unpredictable,
so you'll exercise caution around them.
The List: What You Need To Keep Icelandic Sheep
Sheep: a quick primer
Go to our Resources and Links section
to visit? We're in Mansfield, VT outside of Stowe.