Icelandic Sheep

Icelandic Sheep Remain Unchanged Since Medieval Times

Icelandic Sheep Remain Unchanged Since Medieval Times

Icelandic Viking Chieftain

Ingólfr Arnarson a Viking Chieftain, is recognized as the first permanent Nordic settler of Iceland.

According to Landnáma, a medieval Icelandic written work describing in considerable detail the settlement (landnám) of Iceland by the Norse in the 9th and 10th centuries AD, Ingólfr Arnarson built his homestead in (and gave name to) Reykjavík in 874, later to become the Capital of Iceland.

Icelandic Sheep
The Seafarers’ Warmth

The Icelandic sheep descended from the Norwegian Spelsau, brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the early to mid 8th Century.

Icelandic sheep have been bred for more than a thousand years in a very harsh environment. Consequently, they have become cold-hardy, efficient herbivores.

A gene also exists in the breed called the Thoka gene, and ewes carrying it have been known to give birth to triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, and even sextuplets.

The only type of sheep in Iceland is the native northern European short-tailed sheep brought there by the settlers, the Vikings, 1100–1200 years ago. Without them, Icelanders would not have fared nearly so well through centuries of hardship on an isolated island just south of the Arctic Circle. Sheep grazing in winter was one technique that had to be utilized in order to sustain the people of Iceland. As a result, a unique, small population of sheep developed which displayed outstanding abilities to help the farmers and shepherds manage the flock on pasture, namely the so-called leader-sheep (Icelandic: forystufé). Although farming practices have changed and reduced their role, these highly intelligent sheep with special alertness and leadership characteristics still form a population of approximately 1000-1200 sheep within the total national sheep population of just under 500,000.

Icelandic Sheep are Triple Purpose Breeds. They provide fibre, meat noted for its delicate mildness in the Gourmet world and milk for some of the finest butter you will ever taste.

Most leader-sheep are coloured and horned – even four-horned in a few cases. They have a slender body conformation, long legs and bones generally, yet of lighter weight than other sheep in the flock because they have been selected for intelligence, not for meat traits. Leader-sheep is graceful and prominent in the flock, with alertness in the eyes, normally going first out of the sheep-house, looking around in all directions, watching to see if there are dangers insight and then walking in front of the flock when driven to or from pasture. They may even guard the flock against predators. There are many stories on record about their ability to sense or forecast changes in the weather, or refusing to leave the sheep-house before a major snowstorm.

Robin Hood 2010

Icelandic Sheep have thousands of years of unadulterated primordial memory embedded in their genetics. Survival instinct and intelligence to forage in marginal pastures and flourish in winter conditions is the hallmark of their innovative and adaptive intelligence. Given their isolation for centuries and importance to the Norse Settlers, these Viking Classics are hardy and disease resistant, especially to hoof rot. Evolution has provided them with a ‘dock-free’ short tail to prevent extremities from freezing in sub-zero Arctic Circle conditions. The Icelandic Sheep are superior to engineered or genetically altered stock due to centuries of species adaptation in isolation.

In Ridley Scott’s movie Robin Hood (2010), starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, Robin Hood rescues an Icelandic Sheep Ram, followed by Maid Marian, in that order, both stuck, trapped in a watery mire during a wandering misadventure.

In several scenes, the youth of  Nottingham Forest, poachers and thieves, by-products of Richard The Lion Heart’s Holy Crusades, and King John’s brutal post rein, a precursor to the Magna Carta, rode the Norse, Icelandic Horse. The Icelandic Horse was popular with the emerging Yeoman Class now evolving from repressive feudal serfdom. The romantic saga fits the era and is a won­der­ful sto­ry­line woven into the his­tor­i­cal tapes­try of the epoch.

The romantic saga fits the era and is a wonderful storyline woven into the historical tapestry of the epoch.

In a quest to preserve the Icelandic leader-sheep, in April 2000 a group of interested individuals founded the Leader-Sheep Society of Iceland. Chief among their priorities is to improve the individual recording of these sheep throughout the country and to plan their breeding more effectively. It has been noted that the “best” leader-sheep have been found in flocks in northeastern Iceland, but farmers in all parts of the country are interested in their conservation. Society is also supported by people who do not keep sheep because they feel that Icelandic sheep in general have a special role in Icelandic culture.


Lambs are available in limited numbers. Those desiring to raise this heritage animal please contact us.