What Sort of Sheep Are Those?
-Dalarna Farms, Beresford, South Dakota
“Are those goats?”
“Why aren’t your sheep very sheep-y?”
Dalarna Farms in Beresford, South Dakota is home to a variety of common and a few uncommon animals. They have Icelandic Sheep on their farm and allowed us to share their story.
We have them because they are so very different – in mostly good ways in my opinion – from other sheep, they tend to elicit lots of questions. Icelandic sheep are one of the oldest pure domestic breeds of sheep in the world. Brought to Iceland by Viking explorers over 1,100 years ago. They lived in isolation for over a millennium, evolving to survive in the harsh North Atlantic climate with the relatively sparse fodder found on the volcanic island. Historically they were the primary dairy animal of the Icelandic people and also supplied them with meat and high-quality fiber—making them a true “tri-purpose” breed.
Today, Icelandic sheep are still utilized for all three characteristics. They have highly-prized fiber, especially by hand spinners, which is dual coated with the fine inner fiber called the thel and the long, coarser outer coat called the tog. Their natural wool provides ample protection against even the most extreme winter weather and our sheep will be happily chewing cud in the middle of the pasture while the rest of the farm is hunkered down in misery.
Icelandic fleeces weigh 4-7 pounds and are open and low in lanolin, meaning that weight loss after washing is significantly less than other breeds. One of the best things about the breed is the huge variety of natural colors from inky black to snowy white and blue-gray to chocolaty brown. Color genetics are somewhat unpredictable so lambing season is like Christmas Day every birth—you have no idea what you will unwrap!
Icelandic lambs are small at birth but grow incredibly fast. Twins and triplets are common and because the ewes have large volumes of high butterfat milk, they can usually feed a brood and bring everyone along fat and happy. Our lambs typically reach 70-80lbs or more by 5 months with zero grain supplement (and we don’t even have great pasture forage!). Icelandic meat is known for being milder than many sheep breeds, a trait that goes along with the low lanolin wool.
As noted above, Icelandic sheep produce huge volumes of milk. Udders on our ewes look more like prize winning dairy goats than sheep and oh, is that milk divine. Rich, creamy and sweet—without a hint of “barnyard”. I’m pretty sensitive to “goaty” or off milk and Icelandic sheep milk is like drinking a vanilla milkshake. Yum!
Lastly is the Icelandic personality. This, for me, is their very best trait. They are the least sheep-like sheep ever, in mostly good ways. Bold, unafraid and ridiculously smart, they will trounce all your ideas of how sheep “should act”. On the plus side, they get into less silly predicaments because they can think their way out of it. On the downside, they sometimes think of ideas you wish they wouldn’t! Either way, they will charm you and someday you might find yourself like me—going from a handful of sheep to “mow the lawn” to a full fledged herd of 21! We will have our biggest spring of lambing next year and I cannot tell you how excited I am.
We thank Dalarna Farms for sharing!
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