Icelandic Sheep

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The basics:
The Icelandic Sheep is a Northern European short-tailed breed, and is believed to have descended from sheep brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the 9th century. Icelandics are a small to mid-sized sheep and are found with and without horns. In Iceland, the sheep are used mostly for meat. In other countries, their multi-colored fiber is their primary appeal.

The Icelandic is characterized by a fluke-shaped, naturally short tail and a double coat. The breed remains pure because attempts to cross breed Icelandics with more commercial breeds resulted in unwanted diseases, and the crossbreds were culled. The importation of sheep into Iceland was prohibited in the mid-1900's.

Icelandic Sheep semen was exported to Norway in 1971, and live sheep were first sent to Denmark in 1973, Great Britain in 1979, and Canada in 1985.

Appearance / health:
Icelandic sheep are medium-sized, stocky, and short-legged. They have a dual coat (inner and outer wool) that may be white, brown, gray, or black. They are typically horned but polled (hornless) individuals are also common. The face and legs are wool-free. Some ewes have the tendency for multiple births.

One of the most common ailments among sheep is a viral skin disease called soremouth or “orf.” Ringworm or “club lamb fungus” is a rash also common among sheep. And much like “mad cow disease,” sheep can have a similar neurological ailment called “scrapie.” Sheep health issues should be addressed by a qualified veterinarian. Good health is promoted by sanitary habitat conditions and proper nutrition.

Behavior / temperament:
Sheep are herd animals that rely on staying together as a flock to protect themselves from predators. They are highly sensitive to predators because they are basically “prey animals.” They sense the presence of threat from several hundred feet away (they are able to twist and turn their ears to detect potential danger) and instinctively flee instead of fight or attack. While fleeing, sheep run in a winding pattern to be able to see what is behind them.

If left unshorn, Icelandic sheep can withstand extreme winter temperatures.

Housing / diet:
Sheep are grazing animals and do well living their entire lives outdoors. They get sufficient exercise and fresh air out in the field. They do need shelter from bad storms and unusually hot days. Many sheep keepers install field structures to provide shade, for example, hutches, domes, carports, and makeshift sheds. A common shade structure is a hoop house, like an open hangar or a greenhouse, which has a metal arched frame covered with tarp or other heavy-duty fabric.

Some sheep owners keep their flock in a barn or similar enclosure to protect them from predators. These enclosures must have very good ventilation because moisture and poor air conditions lead to the sheep’s poor health.

For warmth and comfort, bedding material should be provided. The best bedding is absorbent, clean, and dry. Some options are straw, wood shaving, sawdust, corncobs, dried corn stalks, peat, hemp, paper, and alfalfa hay. Preference is determined by cost, availability, convenience, and type of sheep. Wool sheep will not appreciate sawdust because it gets in their fleece. Paper is highly absorbent but difficult to manage in the field.

Lambs start with their mother’s milk and a light diet of pasture grass at two weeks old. After weaning the lambs from ewe’s milk at six weeks old, they can start eating dry feed of grains (wheat, oats, barley, cottonseed, corn), soybean and peanut hulls, and hay. The main diet of sheep is fresh grass and other forage and pasture vegetation. The pasture must be fertile and large enough to support the grazing of sheep for about seven hours a day (morning and afternoon). Fresh water must be constantly available, especially during the warm months and if the diet is mostly dry hay. Supplements are recommended, and must be given in the middle of the day to balance the sheep’s food intake.


great maternal instinct, cold temperatures, Icelandic lamb meat, wonderful colors, calm, hand spinners


white muscle disease, heat stress, extreme heat, humid periods, wild acting ones


old history, european shorttailed group, striking color variations, famous wool, sheep love kelp

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