Why Icelandics?

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We first found out about Icelandic sheep while reading articles at homestead.org.  There we found a link to ISBONA where we continued to find out about this unique breed.  Much of the following information comes from there and this and more can be obtained at ISBONA's website.


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.  The Icelandic breed is in the North European short-tailed group of sheep, which exhibits a fluke-shaped, naturally short tail, making tail-docking unnecessary.  Icelandics are a mid-sized breed with ewes averaging 130-160 pounds, and rams averaging 180-220 pounds.  There are both horned and polled strains.  Conformation is generally short legged and stocky.  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.  Icelandics are seasonal breeders, beginning the breeding season in late Fall and continuing into early Winter.  Twins are very common, and triplets are not considered unusual.  They are a hardy breed, rarely requiring help during lambing, and it is said that the lambs "bounce" when they hit the ground.  Often the first lamb will be up and nursing by time the next lamb is born.   


The Icelandic sheep produces a premium fleece.  The fleece is dual coated, with a fine, soft undercoat called thel and a longer, coarser outer coat called tog.  The tog fiber with a spinning count of 56-60 and a micron count of 27-30, grows to a length of 6-8" in six months.  It is lustrous, strong, water- and wear-resistant, and sheds off the rain and weather.  Thel is the soft downy undercoat, with a spinning count of 64-70 and a micron count of 19-22, growing to a length of 2-4".  The thel provides the loft for the outer coat and insulation for the sheep.  Tog grows from the primary hair follicles and the thel from the secondary follicles.  Tog is a true wool, and is not a kemp or guard hair.  The combination of the two fibers on the sheep gives superb protection from the cold and wet.  Icelandic fleeces are open and low in lanolin.  The weight loss when washed is significantly less than many other breeds.  The tog and thel can be spun separately, or together, giving three possibilities from one fleece.  The traditional lopi is a lightly spun blend of tog and thel.  Thel is very soft and downy, with an irregular crimp and can be used for baby garments, and for fine shawls in the style of the Wedding Shawl.  The tog is similar to mohair; wavy or corkscrewed rather than crimped and is wonderful in worsted spinning.

The versatility of the wool, the ease of spinning and the wide variation of tones and colors are a true delight to handspinners, and put Icelandic wool into the exotic or premium category.  It is also known as one of the best fleeces for felting, which is fast gaining popularity in the craft community.  And Icelandics 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.  Patterns include white, grey, badgerface, mouflon, and solid.  There is also a spotting gene.

Meat Production

As well as breeding for premium fleece quality, we strive for lambs with good meat conformation.  Market lambs will start to reach slaughter weight at four to five months.  With continued access to quality graze, the lambs can be slaughtered directly off the grass all through the fall months.  This has positioned the Icelandic breed to fit well in the move towards grass-based farming, enabling “natural” and organic farmers to utilize the Icelandic breed.  As meat consumers increasingly recognize the health benefits of grass fed meats, and as economic pressures drive our farmers toward grass-based businesses, the genetics of the Icelandic breed become increasingly valuable to our sheep industry.

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Last update: January 25, 2011