Chasing Sheep in Skagafjörður

After the touristy summer season ends in Iceland, the farmers have start to prepare for the long winter ahead. The biggest task is probably the sheep round-ups, when all the sheep in Iceland have to be brought down from the mountains back to the farms where they belong. They’ve been left to roam freely during the long days and good weather, turning grass into meat, growing bigger and stronger. In the highlands and mountainous fjords there are no fences, so the sheep graze themselves over huge areas, as far as the highest cliff will allow. Each farm, valley or peninsula picks a day or two in mid September to go and round them up, combing these vast areas by foot or horseback.

chasing the sheep down Hólardalur

Working with horses all summer has made me some horsey friends, and that plus traveling a lot in the countryside has allowed me to meet farmers from all around Iceland, so I managed to sneak my way into a couple sheep round ups. It’s a tricky thing to get into, and Ishestar even sells a sheep-round up tour for the tourists who want to experience one of Iceland’s most authentic events. The first for me was this weekend in Skagafjörður, a bay in northern Iceland that boasts amazing scenery and most of Iceland´s best horses. I was staying with Gunnar from Víðines, the farm beside Hólar, Iceland´s only horse university. I would ride again with Denni, my horse boss from the east, since his girlfriend Arna works at Hólar and is a good friend of Gunnars.

riding into the sunrise

There were about 15 riders of all ages, all farmers or children of farmers from the area, or students from Hólar, doing this sheep round-up. We started at the crack of dawn on Saturday, getting up before the sun and riding into the sunrise to the end of the valley. The valley has two names, since a river splits if in half, and 6 of us were responsible for the southern half, Hólardalur.  Once we got to the end of it, blockaded by some big snow mountains, we started riding back out in a line formation, yelling at any sheep we passed along the way to head on out. I rode one of Arna´s horses, and held another horse for the poor guy that had to walk to the top of the cliff and clumber along the rocky tops yelling at sheep to go down.

It took about 6 hours clear the whole valley of sheep, and then drive the couple hundred of them over a small river where some managed to get away and run back into the valley. The northern part of the valley brought their sheep down a couple hours later, and then all 5 or 6 hundred sheep were escorted along the main road to the sorting corral, closing the highway to any traffic faster than 5km/h.

a kid peers into the fluffy white abyss

The next day, all the farmers from the valley and their very extended families came to the corral to sort the sheep. The corral has a circular center with lots of doors, each leading into a pie piece of the outer circle that’s split into many different fences. Sorting them involves a few rounds of sheep being herded into the center corral, and each indiviual sheep being manhandled in order to read their ear-tag number. We were looking for 12S4 and 27S4, and lambs went into one door while adults went into the door beside. After a couple hours of tackling sheep, atleast one ends updragging you in the wrong direction, another manages to throw you over, and many of them leave horrible purple bruises on your thighs from trying to headlock them with your legs. Sheep may be small, but don’t be fooled by their cuddly exterior – they are tough, crazed little buggers in the corral. My entire body aches and the palms of my hands are still throbbing after trying to drag them by the horns to the right door.

Gunnar trying to recognize his sheep

There were children sorting that were smaller than some of the sheep, and they resorted to a full-on rodeo tackle tactic. Some still tried to get the sheep between their legswithout realizing they weren’t quite tall enough, so the sheep bounced away with them as they struggled to hang on to the horns and wait for an adult to rescue them.

the horse round-up at Staðarétt

That same weekend, another valley was doing a horse round up. Its the same idea as the sheep round up, but instead you’re herding horses on horseback, and sorting the right horses to the right corral fence requires it to be a little bit more of an adult-only event. Its Iceland’s best showing of the bold and beautiful horsey people, the tough, young farming generation, and people seem to be having too much fun as the sobriety levels dwindle and herd after herd gallops off into the distance, in all different directions to their respective farms.

waiting to go home

Once we found all of Gunnar’s sheep, we said a regretful goodbye to all the lambs taken out for the slaughter house, and reuinted the rest with their mothers, silencing the drownding “baaaaaaah” we had been listening to all day. All the other farmers did the same and took their sheep home. At the end of the day, Gunnar´s herd of colourful sheep were also returned to Víðines farm, and peace and quiet was restored once again to the valley.

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