The Sheep round up in Eastern Iceland

I went directly from Holardalur to Fljotsdalur to chase more sheep. The round up area in the east is probably ten times bigger than the valley in Skagafirdi, and we were looking for a couple thousand sheep over a 3 day mountain ride.

Hallgrimur riding with 3 hand horses

We started in Skridaklaustur, the same farm where all the horse trips start from, and rode up from the valley into the mountains. We were about ten riders, each riding one horse and holding 1 or 2 extra, and I learned very quickly its quite difficult to ride with 3 horses over the swamped ground and crossing ditches and rivers. Some other riders started from deeper in the valley and another from the other side of the mountain in Jokuldalur, and we rode all day alone looking for sheep and chasing them towards the mountain hut where we’d all meet.

After a 14 hour day, we somehow did all make it to the hut, with all our horses and the tired sheep. For dinner we had lamb soup, a welcoming meal after eating dried fish and drinking vodka all day.

On the second day, most of the sheep had crossed the river that leads us down the other side of the mountain into Jokuldalur. We had the river on the right side and a mountain on the left side of us to help funnel all the sheep together into a massive, crying herd of white fluffy mass. Some sheep that didnt get the memo stayed on the wrong side of the river, and one farmer on a 4×4 had to spend the whole day chasing 5 or 6 sheep down the harder way.

the stupid gill I had to climb

Lucky me spotted 3 sheep standing in the middle of the river gorge on a huge piece of broken-off cliff, so I took a nice long hike straight down to the bottom of the gorge, and literally crawled on my hands and feet up the loose-gravel cliff. I took with me Tyra, a 6 month old border collie puppy who probably did more harm than good. She kept fighting me over foot space on the narrow sheep track we were following down, and would stop dead in her tracks if the leash got tangled between her legs. If I took her off the leash, she would stop, stare and cry at me. I certainly couldnt carry her as I had to keep grabbing at the ground with my hands for balance. When we finally got close enough to the sheep to see them and try to yell at them, they just ran further up the cliff, and it was me who had to go fetch them. It was times like this when I wished my eye sight was a little worse, so that I wouldn’t have spotted them and noone would have known these three stubborn sheep weren’t in the right place.

One day I spotted two sheep as far as my eyes could see and started riding nearly 5 km over the flat marshy ground towards them. When I got closer, half an hour later, I realized it was 2 swans and made a mental note to self: not all white things are sheep.

At the end of the second day, the sheep arrived in Klaustursel, a famous farm in Jokuldalur that has a petting zoo complete with reindeer and foxes. We had a traditional Icelandic christmas meal – smoked lamb leg and creamy potato stew, and drank even more vodka and beer. We sorted out which sheep belonged to that valley that night and the next morning, and the rest of the sheep had to be ridden back over the mountain to Fljotsdalur where we started.

funeling the sheep to Klaustursel

The last day was less lonely, since we rode in a massive herd together – 1000 sheep, 10 riders and 20 horses, but moved quite slowly. We lost one and two sheep here and there, those too sick or old to keep up. It was always a difficult decision to make, when to stop chasing them, pass them by and just say goodbye.

riding the sheep from Jokuldalur to Fljotsdalur

My hand horse on the last day was a young, newly trained horse called Freyr that nearly managed to kill two of us on the trip. The first day he threw one of the riders off, Lilja, and she had three massive, blue/black bruises on her back and ass. After this, he galloped off and went missing for an hour until me and Hallgrimur found him in the middle of nowhere. Then, of course, Hallgrimur (the farmed from Skridaklaustur, who owns most of the horses from the horse trips) decided I should ride him the rest of the trip, since Hallgrimur has a weird way of showing his affection to me by giving me crazy horses. Freyr was always getting tangled up with the second horse I was riding or holding, and he doesnt know how to stand still but he’s very good at rearing up. He tried to rip 3 of my fingers off at one point and managed to tear a chunk of my index finger and sprain my ring finger by tangling my hand up in his reins as he reared away from me, the entire weight of his body pulling on my right hand for a good 2 seconds! Hallgrimur thought it was funny, laughed, and cleaned my bloody hand with some vodka before bandaging it up with electricity tape.

The final sorting happened on Saturday, at Skridaklaustur farm in an old stone-walled round corral. It was the busiest I have ever seen the valley, with cars and people crowded everywhere, and even when it started pouring rain, all the farmers and their kids and very extended families kept on sorting sheep.

sorting sheep in rainclothes at Skridaklaustur

The drowning “baaaah” rang in my ears days after the sorting was finished, and I’ve still got black and blue bruises on my legs from all those gnarly sheep horns. Its hard to believe that now, one week later, the smell of horse and sheep is completely gone, and even the dirt on my fingernails has completely disappeared. Its hard to convince people I really was manhandling sheep in eastern Iceland one week ago, as I sit in the sun in Munich mentally preparing for yet another Oktoberfest night, so Im glad I still have the bruises as proof.

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