This is in original edition, and with permission of Jostein Røyseland and Norsk Sau og Geit 

Icelandic sheep breeding and the future of the Norwegian spel-sheep.

It is the aim of the Kvinesdal Spælværlag, to develop a round, compact and meaty spel-sheep, and at the same time preserve the important breed characteristics such as frugality, mothering instinct, flock instinct and wool type. The potential for this, comes from importing quality semen from the Icelandic spel-sheep. "Project spæltex", is the optimistic name we have given this work. The Spæltex has nothing to do with cross breeding the texel sheep, but explains what we believe we can achieve if we exploit the possibilities we have.

By Jostein Røyseland


Background and objectives.

Sheep breeds have many important characteristics that must be recognised when one wants to improve a breed. It is the inferior qualities within a race which limit its use and development.

Since the introduction of the EUROP classification system, there have been many that have predicted that the spel-sheep would have no future, because it produced so little meat. However, since then, we have seen that there can be an huge variation within the spel race, if one takes a look at body conformation. Many do well though. If the lambs are big enough, ie. up to 20kg, then they can be classified using the system. But most of us cannot produce such heavy lambs, so what should we do? And it is particularly the spel-sheeps ability to be frugal - a quality which is related with the spel-sheeps relatively small size, we want to preserve.

As lack of meat cover is the spel-sheeps weakest characteristic, the Kvinesdal Spælværlag has set as a target to develop a round, compact meaty sheep, and at the same time keep the important characteristics particular to the race, such as frugality, mothering instinct, flock- instinct and wool type.

When we say conformation we think of the distribution of the meat on the body. We want the most meat possible on the back and thighs. At the same time, it is important that the carcass as a whole, appears "round and meaty". We believe therefore that we must have a breed that produces a meaty carcass, without being dependent on cross breeding.

There are several reasons for this: improvement of the classification system, use of ultrasound, use of rams that have an index high in meat cover rather than in slaughter weight, use of sheep-estimation, and aiming at a compact and solid spel-sheep type.


Another and healthier alternative is inbreeding of other races to produce a better meat cover. The spel-sheep of today is developed from the old Norwegian sheep breeds. In 1912 the state established two breeding stations for the spel-sheep, in order to preserve this old Norwegian sheep race. Feral sheep (Old Norwegian Sheep) from Austevoll in Sunnhordland and Spel-sheep from Setesdal (An old domestic spel-sheep type) were bought for these two stations. The adult sheep weighed 30-40 kg. Inbreeding between spel from Shetland, Iceland and Greenland was carried out. These crossings were a good idea as there were other types of spel-sheep that were used.

The problem though with cross breeding using different breeds, such as dala-sheep and texel, is that it can destroy other important characteristics of the spel-sheep. Therefore inbreeding shouldn't happen. The long tailed breeds should only be used for meat production, where all progeny are slaughtered.

Icelandic Spel-Sheep.

Sheep breeding on Iceland is very different from in Norway. Firstly, they have a race of sheep whose genetic material is tailor-made for them. Furthermore, they are much more involved in body shape than us. It has also been proved that some Icelandic rams differs significantly from the normal type concerning conformation (meat cover). Its now being investigated if this is due to single-genes.

In September, 1998, I had the chance to study the Icelandic breeding system, thanks to a "travel grant" from Norwegian Meat. So together with 14 others from Kvinesdal og Flekkefjord, I learnt about sheep and breeding systems on Iceland.

Hestur Research Farm.

The trip included both a farm visit and a stop at Hestur research farm. Here we met our contact person, Stefan Sch. Thorsteinsson, who is leader of the animal husbandry department at the Agricultural Research Institute. He showed us round, and explained the breeding plan for sheep. Luckily for us, that day all the lambs had been brought in to be scanned with ultra sound. It was therefore a great opportunity to watch, feel and gain experience with the lambs. We were really impressed by the lambs being solid and compact. Again, our impression was that the meat cover was a lot better than on our spel-sheep, in fact more like a spel-sheep with a texel shape. The wool was very variable though.

Thorsteinsson held a very enthusiastic lecture for us on Hestur and the sheep flocks of Iceland. Because of overproduction and poor economy, there has been a noticeable reduction in sheep numbers over the last few years. In 1978 there were 890 000 breeding ewes in the country. In 1997, the numbers had been reduced to 477 000 breeding ewes. The reduction was not only due to the fall in sheep flock size but also in the number of sheep farms. In 1993 the average flock size was 150 ewes and in total, about 3000 flocks. Roughly half of these were full-time farmers.

Hestur was an old parsonage, which had been a research farm since 1943. The farm is 1200 ha but only 90 ha are cultivated.. There are about 550 breeding ewes. One of the main projects on the farm is testing the progeny of the rams.

The Icelandic sheep is a relative of the spel-sheep. The adult weight of the ewes when they come down from the hills is about 65 kg. The wool quality is variable. There is no flock instinct and most of the rams have horns.

The rams are released about the 20th December. But with insemination, they start 10 days previously. They have 3 different stations for seed tapping and only use fresh seed.

The lambing starts mid-May, and sheep-gathering at the end of September.


Sheep breeding on Iceland.

In the 1920's, Iceland exported some sheep carcasses to London. The feedback was "great taste but poor meat cover". In 1940 Halldor Palsson wrote his main project "Meat qualities in the sheep with special reference to Scottish Breeds and crosses". This project was the scientific beginnings for his work as an advisor, and his being responsible for sheep breeding on Iceland, and later led to sheep breeding following a different path than that of sheep breeding in Norway. In 1943 , the research farm Hestur was founded and in 1957 testing of the progeny had begun, with a special interest in meat cover and body form. Other selection criteria was shorter leg length, combined with meat cover and compact body form. Later breeding goals pay attention to less fat and better maternal characteristicts. From 1958 - 1994 the area of back muscle has increased from 1100 cm2 to 1400 cm2.

The use of ultra sound scanning has increased dramatically over the last few years. Back muscle measured with the help of ultra sound, has a genetic inheritance of 0.42 and a genetic correlation with back muscle measured on the carcass of 0.94. Genetic correlation between back muscle measured with the help of ultra sound and meat cover on the thigh on the carcass is "only" 0.43. This confirms the Norwegian observation that ultra sound scanning does not always catch all variations of meat cover on the thighs.

Icelancic sheep, with and without horns.

Meaty lambs

Farm visit.

We were also on a farm visit. We travelled to Nedre Hundadalur, which lies north west of Rejkjavik. The farm was owned by Sigursteinn Hjartarsson og Maria Lindal. The size of the farm was 3000 ha, where 60 ha was cultivated. There were 560 breeding ewes.

The main fodder was round bales (60% dry matter). Fishmeal and herring were used in the mating season. Herring meal was used before and after lambing. The lambing percent lay at 1.71. Slaughter weight was 15.7 kg. The flock had a quota of 6481 kg meat. There was a state subsidy for this production, and one was allowed to produce more, but would only get paid for the quota.

The sheep stable was built in 1981-82 and had space for 600 animals. This and some of the other buildings had been insulated as the sheep had been shorn in the winter months. The economy in the sheep flock was poor. The average price per kilo meat was 217 isl. kr. (22 NK). In 1997, the flock had an income of 3.3 million isl. kr. of which 40 % came from the state subsidy. Because of this poor economy, both of the owners had outside jobs.


Slaughter results.

From what we saw on Iceland, it appeared that the Icelandic spel-sheep had a better meat cover than the Norwegian spel. We requested the slaughter statistics for Iceland for 1998, the first year in which the EUROP system was used. The results are shown in Table 1 below and are compared to the Norwegian results.

Average weight in R class was about 16 kg. The average Icelandic sheep has a definitive better classification than either spel or dala-sheep.

Our conclusion therefore, based upon our own impression and slaughter statistics, was that the Icelandic sheep has a lot to offer the Norwegian spel-sheep in relation to meat cover. This should however, influence how we continue to breed, and that we should import semen from the best "meatcover" rams on Iceland.

Tabel 1. Classification results for lamb - % of distribution of slaugther classes.


Icelandic sheep

Norwegian spel 1997

Norwegian spel 1998





























The next step was to find out how we could use our new found knowledge. We mostly discussed the breeding of the type of sheep and the importing of semen from Iceland.

Our conclusion was that we would try and import semen from Iceland, as a method of development of the spel-sheep, into a breed that was round, compact and with good meat cover, which produced a lamb that was ready for slaughter at 36-38 kg.

Kvinesdal Spælværlag has 17 members, 8 of which are involved in sheep control and active breeding work. Concentrating on the use of own selected ram-lambs is the basis for the development of the spel-sheep race in the desired direction:

1. The owner must be in under the sheep control program.(Sauekontrollen)

2 Spel-rams must be used on enough ewes, in order to get a sufficient basis for comparison and selection.

3. Each autumn, the flock must be sorted through by the team and the best ewes for breeding selected.

4. The owner must meet with ramlambs for selection.

5.The team has priority in buying ramlambs.

6. Ultra sound scanning must be used for selecting ramlambs and gimmerlambs.

7. Final selection of ramlambs must take place after the lambs are shorn.


Then we had to investigate the possibilities of importing semen from Iceland.

We got in touch with KOORIMP, to find out about the veterinary requirements, and especially to find out what other requirements there were with importing semen. In fact, it turned out that there were no problems in meeting the veterinary requirements.

We have an agreement with Iceland to deliver semen in the autumn 2000. The first year will be a trial in order to gain valuable experience, both in Iceland and with the progeny from the inseminations. In the autumn 2001, we can receive larger quantities of semen.

The sheep owners association (Norsk Sau og Geit), together with the national council for sheep breeding are invited to come with their input to the above proposals, in order to find a solution which could be a benefit to all sheep breeders.

Icelandic rams.


Most of the rams on Iceland have horns, but there are some without. We prioritise hornless rams with good wool, and horned rams with especially good meat cover.


BASSI 95-821 is one of the best hornless rams. It is progeny tested with very positive results for meat and growth. It is a long sheep with deep, well formed back muscle, especially meaty thighs and good wool. The offspring that were slaughtered in 1999 were spread over the individual EUROP classes as follows:

E: 6%







MOLI 93-986 is a fine example of a horned ram. It is progeny tested with positive results for meat cover and slaughter weight. Moli has powerful shoulders and a wide breast, a strong back, good meat cover and deep and thick thighs. Moli has a thick coat of wool with yellow hair on the neck and tail and black spots on the back. The medium amount of wool on the back is short in length.


For more info. You are welcome to send e-mail for Jostein Røyseland

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