I first found out about Icelandic sheep while reading articles at www.homestead.org. There was a link to ISBONA's site (Icelandic Sheep Breeders Of North America - www.isbona.com) where I continued to find out about this unique breed. Icelandics were developed in - you guessed it - Iceland, where for over 1000 years they were bred for three reasons: milk, meat, and fiber. Hence, the Icelandic is considered a triple purpose breed, though typically breeders will tend to focus on only one or two of these traits in their particular flock. They are smaller than many other breeds, making them a bit easier to handle. Males typically weigh no more than 180-220 lbs, and females may weigh up to around 130-160 lbs. They have large rumens for their size however, and this allows them to do quite well in pasture based systems, with minimal or no supplemental grain. Lambs can finish on pasture alone in 6 months.
Their wool is grown as a dual coat. There is a finer softer undercoat called thel, and a somewhat coarser but still soft outer coat called tog. These can be spun separately, or together, giving three possibilities from one fleece. And they come in colors! Although in Iceland today they primarily breed for white sheep (because the wool takes dye extremely well), here in America they are often bred for their color as handspinners appreciate the natural variations. Besides white, they come in black and brown (called moorit), and several patterns add to the variations possible. White is actually considered a pattern, not a color. Black and moorit are the colors. Patterns include grey, badgerface, mouflon, and solid. There is also a spotting gene. In the picture below, there are represented black badgerface, moorit solid, and black solid.
Icelandics also may be either horned, or polled, or have small growths called scurs, that are not quite horns. Males and females both may have horns, although males typically have a more massive version. Don't ask me to explain the genetics of hornedness in Icelandics. I don't understand it, and probably very few people have a good understanding of it. But Quinn (a black grey) is horned (see post from 7/23/06), and so is Indico (a black mouflon). At three months old, his horns are quite impressive with broad square bases.
Our interest is in breeding for meat and for fleece. Icelandics are usually shorn twice a year, in spring and fall. The spring fleece is of lower quality and is usually used for felting, or some people use it for mulch! But the fall fleece is the best quality and is usually turned into yarn of various types, or into roving for sale to handspinners. I would like to learn to spin, and then to weave. I already crochet, and would love to learn felting too. Icelandic fleece felts very well.
As for the meat, this breed is said to have a very light "gourmet" flavor and texture. I like lamb anyway, so I can't imagine not liking Icelandic lamb. And the health benefits of pasture raised lamb/beef/chicken are beginning to be more realized and so there may be a local market for anything we can't use ourselves. We are particularly fortunate in that there is a USDA inspected slaughterhouse just a few miles away.
So all in all, we felt that this was a good choice for our small acreage, and having less lawn to mow was just the first of the benefits! :-)