The History of the Icelandic Sheep Breed

The history of the Icelandic Sheep is inseparable from the conquests and explorations of the Vikings of the 9th century.

The conquests of the Vikings left us with a legacy of more than 34 breeds of Northern European Short-Tailed Sheep, of which the best known are the Shetland, Finn, and Romanov breeds.  
No matter where they went, these sheep which were indispensable to the Vikings' survival, followed the conquerers and adapted to their new environments. So, between 874 and 930 AD, the first sheep of the old Norwegian race landed on the country of Iceland and the history of Íslenska sauðkindin, the Icelandic Sheep, began.


An old race that hasn't changed for 1100 years…Truly?

Sculpted out of Ice: From the 9th to the 18th Centuries

From the medieval era to the arrival of modern agriculture, the Icelandic Sheep has evolved exclusively in a system of year round grazing on pasture, and breeding selection was carried out mainly under the selective pressures of Mother Nature. With the seasons, the bad weather, as well as shortages, this sheep adapted to its hostile environment, laying the genetic bases of the race that we know today: Robust, Resilient and Adapted to convert into energy all that he can graze. 
Thus in more than a thousand years, three hundred and sixty-thousand sheep populated this island by immersing themselves in its environment. These sheep thus accompanied Man in his survival, indispensable for his meat, his fiber as well as for his milk. However, it is still only an archaic breed: Small, puny and not very productive.  
We find in an edition of 1828, a scientific description of this race written by Georges-Louis Leclerc (1707-1788), account of Buffon: 

"That ram of Iceland weighed eighty-six and a half pounds ..." "Its wool was big, long, smooth, hard, up to eight inches in length, and amongst that long wool was another finer, less smooth, softer ... "

Forged by fire: The agrarian revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries 

In the wake of the world agrarian revolution, with a century of delay, Iceland is also sought to reform its agriculture: Their sheep, not very productive, needed to be improved. Wanting to act quickly, Iceland imported rams from Denmark of Spanish and English breeds: These attempts resulted in disastrous failures, introducing diseases and parasites not seen before in Iceland. Notably, in 1878, the import of an English ram led to the slaughter of 60% of Icelandic flocks. 
Importations in the early twentieth century caused three major epidemics resulting in further mass slaughter from 1941 to 1959 in order to eradicate the Maedi-Visna Virus and Paratuberculosis (Johne's disease). 
Iceland permanently closed its borders to importantion
: It would therefore be necessary to work the breed with its ancestral genetic heritage, to give birth to a modern breed that would no longer be quite the same.

The modern Icelandic sheep twentieth century to today 
It was in the '50s that the genetic work of the breed accelerated. The creation of the SouthRam Test Station, the use of ultrasound and a solid genetic selection breeding program allowed the breed to become what it is today. 
In the early 1990s the technique of vaginal artificial insemination, developed by Icelandic researchers, allowed the spread of quality genetics throughout the island. 
Thanks to the hard work of the Icelanders, the Icelandic Sheep breed has become productive and profitable while maintaining its ability to survive in a hostile environment, to grow rapidly on pastures, and to offer the best lamb meat in the world.

Already 35 years old in North America! 
Imported in North America in 1985 by Stefania Sveinbjarnardóttir-Dignum, a Canadian of Icelandic origin, the Icelandic sheep spread across the continent. We had the honor of knowing her personally. Unfortunately she died in 2007, we had the honor to welcome his daughter and her flock at our farm after her death

 Discover the full story of Stefania


The North American Icelandic sheep

Considered a medium-sized breed, rams reach 90 to 100 kg while a sheep in good condition will weigh 60 to 65 Kg. Horned and polled subjects are accepted on the breed for both sexes. The tail is naturally short, eliminating the need to cut the tails of lambs. An Icelandic sheep with a cut tail will not be registered. Canadian Livestock Records Corporation records Icelandic sheep from North American breeders.

The normal gestation period is 142 days, 5 days less than most commercial breeds. Lambs are born small but vigorous. They are on their feet and feed only a few minutes after birth. Often, in the case of twins, the first born lamb drank before the second lamb was born. Adult ewes require very little help with lambing. This vigor is transmitted when crossing with other breeds.

The estrus of sheep begins in mid-October and continues until May if not mated. The rams seem to be naturally seasoned. It is not uncommon for a healthy ewe to be productive at 10 years of age. Lambs quickly reach sexual maturity. Rams can be productive as early as 5 months of age, and lambs are often introduced to rams before their first year.

The prolificacy is rather good with an average of 175 to 200%. Triplets are not uncommon. A Booroola multiple birth gene was discovered in Icelandic sheep. The Thoka gene has been named in honor of the sheep where it was discovered.

General Appearance: 
-A medium sized sheep 
-Fine boned with an open face and legs 
-Mature body weights, Rams: 90-100 kgs., Ewes : 60-65 kgs. 
-Short with a broad forehead to the nostrils 
-Nostrils should be well open, lips thick and jaw strong looking 
-Eyes should be bright and alert 
-Horned and polled acceptable in both sexes 
-Horns growing too close to the face is undesirable 
-Short, round and broading at shoulders so that where
  neck and shoulders meet is not noticeable 
-Rams should have a much thicker neck area than ewes 
-Broad, blending smoothly into body 
-Rounded and meaty 
Chest and ribs: 
-Broad and reach well in front of legs 
-Wide chest cavity 
-Ribs should stand well out and be well rounded 

Back, Loin, and Rump: 
-Long, thick back muscle with firm flesh 
-Loin is broad, roundish, strong 
-Rump is broad, well muscled, fairly long but can taper back a bit 
Feet and Legs: 
-Legs are well muscled and thick, muscle reaching far down towards the hock 
-Feet are short, thick, straight and squarely placed 
-Pasterns are strong, angling about 45 degrees to the ground 
-There should be a lot of wool 
-Fleece comes in a wide range of natural colours 
-Wool is dual coated; fine, waivy undercoat called thel
  and long, coarse corkscrewy outercoat called tog. 
-Kemp in wool is undesirable 
-Colour variable, depending on colour of wool 
-Tail is naturally short, fluke shaped, mostly covered with hair,
  15-20 cm. long on a full-grown sheep.
  Docking of tail disqualifies Icelandic sheep from registration. 

Serious Defects: 
​-Badly twisted legs