Icelandic sheep

Icelandic sheep

The Icelandic sheep or "Kind" in Icelandic, is a breed of domestic sheep. The Icelandic breed is a North European short-tailed variety of sheep, which exhibits a fluke-shaped, naturally short tail. The Icelandic is a mid-sized breed, generally short legged and stocky, with face and legs free of wool. The fleece of the Icelandic sheep is dual-coated and comes in white as well as a variety of other colors, including a range of browns, grays, and blacks. They exist in both horned and polled strains. Generally left unshorn for the winter, the breed is very cold hardy. Twinning is very common in Icelandic ewes, with an average birth rate of 175% - 220%. A gene also exists in the breed called the Thoka gene. Ewes that carry the gene have been known to give birth to triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, and even sextuplets on occasion.

Ewes can be bred as lambs as early as 5 to 7 months although many wait until the ewe's second winter to breed. They are season breeders and come into heat around October. Breeding season can last up to four months. Rams become mature early and can start breeding as early as 5 months.

Descended from the same stock as the Norwegian Spelsau, brought to Iceland by the Vikings, Icelandic sheep have been bred for a thousand years in a very harsh environment. Consequently, they are quite efficient herbivores.

Color Genetics

Each ewe and sire carry three categories of genes that affect the color or presentation of the Icelandic sheep. For each gene, there are dominant and recessive traits. The genes the offspring receive from its parents will determine the colors and patterns a person will see when viewing the sheep. Each sheep will receive one gene in each category below from each parent. [ [ An attempt to determine the pattern of inheritance of coat colors in hair sheep. Livestock Research for Rural Development, Vol. 16, Art. #6.] Saldaña-Muñoz V R, Torres-Hernández G, González-Camacho J M, Díaz-Rivera P, González-Garduño R and Rubio-Rubio M 2004: Retrieved August 2, 2006]


Locus-BAll Icelandic sheep are either black or "moorit" (brown). Black is the dominant trait. Both come in a variety of shades and tones. The appearance of colors can be altered by patterns and spotting.


Agouti Locus-AThere are 6 patterns genes in the breed. The most dominant pattern is White. White will hide any other pattern, color or spotting that may be present, producing a solid white sheep.

There are several patterns which will change the appearance of the color the animal shows. One of these is Grey, which will lead to either grey black or grey moorit. Another pattern is Badgerface, which displays as lighter coloration on the back, sides, neck, ears and face, with a darker color on the underbelly, under the tail, parts of the neck and right around the eyes. Once again, this pattern will show as a variant on either Black or Moorit sheep. The opposite of Badgerface is also possible, and is called Mouflon. These sheep will be light colored where badgerface sheep are dark, and dark where badgerface sheep are light.

The grey, badgerface, and mouflon patterns are equally dominant. A sheep can display any of these patterns individually, or they can display two of them at the same time. There is also a single gene that is currently found only in Iceland that displays as Grey Mouflon. This single gene is dominant to all genes other than White.

The least dominant pattern is solid, which is essentially no pattern at all. Solid patterned animals will simply be which ever color they inherited in the previously mentioned color gene. To be solid, a sheep must inherit the solid pattern from both parents. These parents could be solid themselves, or carry a solid gene that is visually hidden by their other pattern gene.

White sheep can also carry one of the five other patterns, but it will be hidden by the dominant white color.


Locus-SThis gene is noted as being on or off. The spots show over the pattern and color giving the sheep a potentially different shade or color when viewing. Spots can be large (entire body) or small throughout the sheep.

Each sheep carries the Spotting gene. However, when passing this gene to their offspring, both parents must pass a Spotting gene that is "on" for the offspring to exhibit spotting.

If one parent is positive for Spotting while the other parent is not, the offspring will not show spotting but may carry the positive gene. When this offspring is then bred to another sheep that carries the spotting gene (whether it show spotting or just carries the recessive gene), the spotting gene may be exhibited.

Meat Production

In Iceland, this breed of sheep is almost exclusively bred for meat. Lambs are not fed grain or given hormones. The lambs are ready for processing after 4 to 5 months and from 70 to 90 pounds. The meat has a fine grain and distinct, delicate flavor. The meat of the Icelandic Sheep is considered a gourmet style of meat.


Icelandic fleece is dual-coated. The long outer coat is called tog and the fine inner coat called thel. When separated, the outer and inner coats are used in the construction of different woolen products.


Tog is generally classified as a medium wool around 27 micrometres in diameter. This wool is good for weaving and other durable products.


Thel, being the finer wool and classified as such, is generally around 20 micrometres in diameter. This fine wool is used for garments that touch the skin.


There is an 8-week period where Icelandic Ewes give milk. After the first two weeks, the lambs are weaned off the mother's milk. Then for the next 6 weeks, the ewes are milked daily. Most provide about 1 litre of milk, while good ewes provide 2-3 litres. The milk is used directly, or made into butter, skyr, cheese, or yogurt that is naturally sweet, so it does not require a sweetener. Sheep milk is good for cheese, because it is high in fat and dissolved solids. A high yield of high-quality cheese can then be made from small amounts of the milk.


Icelandic skins come in many colors and generally are not dyed. The hide is quite soft and is generally convert|6|sqft|m2 to convert|8|sqft|m2 in size. Depending if the wool is trimmed, the wool length can be up to convert|8|in|mm in length.

The wool is not a hollow shaft. So, it generally does not shed with use like with other species. Also, dry cleaning will strip the natural oils out of the skin and wool rendering it scratchy and rough. Gentle wool cleaners are often recommended to clean these pelts.

The skins are used for mittens, gloves, hats and to upholster footstools. When stitched together, they are used for rugs and blankets. The variety of colors inherent within the species guarantees most clothing articles made from Icelandic sheepskin can be quite striking.

Breed History and Leadersheep

The only breed of sheep in Iceland is the native North European Short-Tailed sheep brought there by the settlers, the Vikings, 1100-1200 years ago. [ [ Icelandic Sheep History] ] Without them Icelanders would not have 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 which 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 to manage the flock on pasture, namely the so-called leadersheep ( _is. 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.

Most of the leadersheep 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. Leadersheep are 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 in sight 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, refusing to leave the sheep-house before a major snowstorm.

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


In North America (United States and Canada), the Icelandic Sheep is only registered through the Canadian Livestock Records Corporation (CLRC). Registration involves tattooing by the CLRC standards.


External links

* [ Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America]
* [ Icelandic Sheep]
* [ Icelandic Sheep Color Genetics]

ee also

*Sheep shearing

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