Icelandic peoples’ eating habits have been mostly centered around two animals: fish and sheep. In fact, the two have played an extremely central role in Iceland’s culture, shaping the development of its population.
For instance, during World War I, Icelandic sheep were highly sought after by the Allied Powers to feed their people. As a result, the prices of these products rose and Icelandic farmers profited heavily.
After the ewes birth their lambs, there are around 800,000 sheep in Iceland. That’s more than two for every human resident. If you drive around the country in the summer, you’ll undoubtedly spot these fluffy friends. You may even find them blocking your driving route, but we’ll get to that later.
This article will focus on Réttir - the annual Icelandic sheep roundup. What is it, when does it happen, and how can you see it for yourself? Let’s discover all there is to know about this interesting event.
About Icelandic Sheep
Before we get to Réttir, it’s important to understand that Icelandic sheep are recognized as a distinct breed, well-suited to the conditions of the Land of Fire and Ice.
Sheep were initially brought here from Scandinavia by the early settlers in the ninth or tenth centuries. Now they belong to the Northern European Short-tailed group, but no longer resemble their ancestors in appearance.
Icelandic sheep generally have horns, and their fleeces are double-coated, meaning they have two layers. The outer layer is a water resister, and the inner layer is for insulation.
Their wool can come in a variety of colors, including white, black, brown and grey. The traditional Icelandic jumper, the lopapeysa, is made from yarn derived from sheep wool.
As well as using their wool for comfort, Icelanders eat lamb frequently. For example, a national dish named Kjötsúpa, or meat soup, is made with lamb. In addition to being eaten domestically, Iceland’s lamb meat is highly prized abroad. Most of the sheep born here will be eaten in other parts of the world.
For most of the year, Iceland’s sheep population roams freely across the nation. They graze on the wide expanses of the countryside, even venturing into the interior. Interaction with their farmers comes mostly after the lambs are born in spring, and then again in the fall. That’s where Réttir comes in.
What is Réttir in Iceland?
Every September in Iceland, the time comes for farmers to bring their sheep down from the hills. They’ve been roaming freely throughout the summer, but Iceland’s winter is so harsh that the sheep are sheltered to protect them from the storms and snowfall that is common in the darker months.
As one can imagine, collecting hundreds of thousands of Icelandic sheep under the charge of hundreds of farmers is no easy task. Therefore, many assist in the massive undertaking, with the help of sheepdogs, ATVs and Icelandic horses.
They cover many kilometers together, going far into the highlands to bring the sheep back to the flats. While this takes several days, the job doesn’t end here.
Collecting the sheep together is one thing; they also have to be sorted into their individual herds by the farmers. To do this, they use circular pens, known as réttirs (which resemble giant spoked wheels).
The sheep are identified by unique earmarks, a process that is turned into a sort of party, whereby many locals come together and support the sorting.
Once the sorting is complete, a night of celebration follows, known as the Réttaball. This event’s timing depends on your exact location in the country and how long the round-up has taken. The Réttir normally takes place throughout September in Iceland.
One great thing about the round-up is the fact that it’s a collaborative effort. Farmers and whole communities come together to get the job done as smoothly as possible. The best part? If you’re here at that time, you can actually join in on the fun as well.
How to Join in the Réttir
There are several companies that offer the experience of taking part in a Réttir. How much input you’ll have depends on the tour, but it’s important to know that many have certain requirements.
If you want to assist in the actual rounding-up of the sheep, you’ll need to be an experienced horse rider as well as patient and physically fit.
As it’s a grueling task, expect very early starts and long working hours, especially since you’ll be assisting with herding thousands of sheep. The ground is uneven and rocky, so confidence is a must.
If the idea of helping Icelandic farmers with Réttir sounds exciting, know that it is a real possibility. Not to mention you’ll get a great workout and gain a deep insight into the culture.
The round-up is much more than herding sheep; it’s a tradition in which the animals are honored for their importance. The finishing celebration includes eating traditional lamb/mutton dishes.
On the other hand, perhaps the idea of chasing sheep around the Icelandic mountains sounds a bit too hands-on for you. Fortunately, there are other ways to enjoy the Réttir.
To start, you can spectate the corralling, and attend the party afterward. At the celebration, you can watch and even take part in traditional Icelandic singing and dancing.
The schedules of various Réttir events will be posted by local news outlets in the lead-up to them. Aim to head to Iceland around mid-September to see them taking place!
Sheep gathering in Iceland
So that’s Iceland's Réttir - the annual Icelandic sheep roundup. These animals are still very much an important part of Icelanders’ lives, both culturally and economically.
Once you’ve seen a Réttir, you’ll know how difficult of a job Icelandic sheep farming is. Allowing the sheep to roam freely for much of their lives is worth the effort it takes to herd them.
To learn about the life of an Icelandic sheep farmer in the early twentieth century, read Independent People by Halldór Laxness. This story will give you a valuable insight into Iceland’s development over the past hundred years.
If you’d rather see sheep roam in the wild in the Land of Fire and Ice, hire a car in Reykjavik and take a summer road trip. You’re guaranteed to get your sheep fix that way!