From early June until September the Icelandic sheep graze freely in the mountains, as those of you who have traveled around Iceland in the summertime surely know. Somehow the grass by the roadside seems to taste really good and when driving on gravel roads you often come across sheep licking the road! Why? They like the salt – the remnants from the winter when salt is used to make icy roads more safe to drive on. When a sheep crosses the road, be careful, because two more will almost surely follow. About 75% of Icelandic ewes have two lambs at a time, so they usually travel in threes .
In September the farmers head up to the mountains to herd the sheep, usually on horses or four wheelers with a few sheep dogs to help out. The sheep are then brought down to the Réttir – the sorting site – where they are first put together in a large corral in the middle but later sorted into smaller pens that belong to the farms in the area. Réttir are great fun and attract people from the surrounding towns, friends and families but also complete strangers who just like to join in on the fun and help out. Of course most people will wear their Lopi sweaters for the occasion.
The sheep don’t like the sorting all that much after a whole summer of chilling out in the highlands, chewing on yummy herbs and wild grass. They try their best to get away and wrestling them into the pens takes both muscle and determination on the human’s part. For beginners it’s usually the best to take on a lamb with horns – they are small-ish and the horns serve as good handles. Take a horn into each hand, straddle the sheep like you’re going to ride it, and drag it the way you want to go. Be prepared for very sudden movements! The animals without horns are best wrestled with by grabbing the wool at the neck or the chest, straddling them and dragging them to the right compartment.
But how do you know where the sheep belong? Well, they are marked on the ears – both with a specific mark that’s cut into the ear and with a plastic tag that shows the number of the farm and the individual number of the sheep from the farmer’s bookkeeping.
While the marks are clear and easy to understand – knowing where to drag the sheep is another thing. The pens are not marked in any way – so it’s usually a question of dragging them to a few different gates and asking, short of breath from your wrestling match.
“Why don’t they put up signs?” one knitting tourist asked me the other day. I don’t think anyone ever thought of that!
At the end of the sorting the sheep are herded to their respective farms and sometimes the farmers will throw parties to thank the helpers. Serving meat soup (lamb!) and other Icelandic delicacies. In some places there’s a dance in the evening where happy, lopi wearing sheep sorters will celebrate the day’s success.
In September, Knitting Iceland takes knitters on day tours to sheep roundups.