Icelandic sheep – a breed  with great genetic diversity such as a unique leader instinct  


Ólafur R. Dýrmundsson Ph.D.

The Farmers Association of Iceland

Bćndahöllin, P.O. Box 7080

127 Reykjavík, Iceland

Tel: +354-563-0300/0317  Fax: 354+562-3058


The only breed of sheep in Iceland is the native North-European Short - Tailed Sheep brought by the settlers, the Vikings, 1100-1200  years ago. Without them Icelanders would not have survived throughout centuries of hardship on an isolated island just south of the Arctic Circle. Even grazing in winter had to be utilised to the utmost and somehow a unique, small population of sheep developed , within the breed, which displayed outstanding abilities to help the farmers and shepherds to manage the flock at pasture, namely leader - sheep. Although farming practices have changed and thus the role of these highly intelligent sheep with special alertness and leadership characteristics in their genes, there is still a population of 1000-1200 such sheep within the national population of 460.000 winterfed sheep.

  Let us look at the Icelandic breed in more detail.

 The Nordic origin of the breed places it in the same group as breeds such as the Finnish Landrace, the Romanov in Russia, the Old Norwegian and Spael in Norway, the Gotland in Sweden, the Faeroe in the Faeroe Islands and the Orkney and Shetland in the United Kingdom. All the sheep in Iceland are of this native breed.

The Icelandic breed is hardy and although small numbers of sheep of foreign breeds have been imported on a few occasions in the past, however, none during the last 54 years, it appears that their effect on the breed has been negligible. Due to the relative isolation of the country, diseases such as foot-and-mouth and foot-rot have never been found in Iceland.

  While the majority of the sheep are horned (both ewes and rams) some 30% of the total population are polled. They are mainly white, however, coloured (non-white) sheep comprise some 15-20% of the total population. There is a great variation in colour patterns. The fleece is double-coated with a long and coarse outercoat and a short and fine undercoat. With the main emphasis being placed on lamb production (90%) wool and pelts are of much lesser importance (10%). The average ewe fleece weight is 2,0-2,5 kg.

  The average liveweight of mature rams is 90-100 kg and of mature ewes 60-65 kg. The ewes are prolific and good milkers. A high rate of twinning is normally achieved and ewe lambs are commonly bred. A special strain of exceptional fecundity is found within the breed, the Thoka sheep, known for a high rate of multiple births. The lambs grow at a relatively fast rate of 250-300 g/day, an average lamb having a liveweight of 36 kg and a dressed carcass weight of 14,5 kg at 120-130 days of age, when they are normally killed. Male lambs are normally not castrate

  Emphasis has been placed on improving growth rate and carcass conformation, the meat being of good quality. This has been confirmed in recent year in comparisons with meat from several European sheep breeds.

The Icelandic system of sheep production is highly seasonal in nature with indoor feeding and mating in winter, lambing in spring (May) at the onset of the grazing season and a slaughter season in autumn (September-October) The slaughter season is being extended so as to market also fresh lamb in late summer and early winter. The sheep graze natural pastures, including extensive mountainous commons throughout the summer, without shepherding. Thus sheep husbandry is in good harmony with nature.

  Iceland sheep are found in a few countries outside Iceland, the largest population being in Greenland originating in exports in 1915, 1921 and 1934 from both North-and South-Iceland. During the last three decades of this century there have been a few exports involving small numbers of live sheep, mainly to Denmark in 1973, to Great Britain in 1979 and 1990 and to Canada in 1985 and 1990. Ram semen was exported to Norway in 1971 and 1972, to Scotland and Wales in 1985 and to the U.S.A. in 1998 and 1999. Thus several flocks of Icelandic sheep, mainly purebred, are found in these countries. At present there is a  growing interest in the Icelandic breed in North-America where a special Newsletter is published and a web side is in operation (E-mail:

Now a few more words about the unique Icelandic leader-sheep.

Biskup ,from the farm Ytra - Áland in North - East Iceland is black pie-bald with a blaze and white legs He is docile and clever ,has
intelligent appearance and is likely to contribute to the preservation of
leader-sheep in Iceland  He is not related to Prestur.
Sire list
Some people may argue that sheep are not intelligent and clever. However, it is well known that sheep have their own intelligence although not comparible with that of people. We should not underestimate the wisdom of domestic animals anyway.

Most of the Icelandic leader-sheep are coloured and horned, even four - horned in a few cases. They have a slender body conformation, long legs and bones generally, yet of lighter weight than other sheep in the flock because they have been selected for intelligence, not for meat traits or wool. Leader-sheep are graceful and prominent in the flock, with alertness in the eyes, normally going first out of the sheep-house, looking around in all directions, watching if there are any dangers in sight and then walking in front of the flock when driven to or from pasture. They may even guard the flock against predators. The ewes are excellent mothers and their lambs are quick to get on their feet. There are many stories on record about their ability to sense or forecast changes in the weather, even refusing to leave the sheep - house before a major snowstorm. One wonders how better use could be made of such leadership genes in the future.

  We certainly want to preserve the Icelandic leader-sheep. Interested individuals founded the Leader-Sheep Society of Iceland in April 2000. Amongst the priorities is to improve the individual recording of these sheep throughout the country and plan their breeding more effectively. Two leader-rams are now available for artificial insemination.

Prestur  , from the farm Bakki in North-East  Iceland has a longstanding leader ancestry for several generations He is black with a white collar, long - legged with high shoulders. He is docile and alert .very manageable and walks readily with a lead or by holding the horn which among other things indicates good intelligence.The scrapie test indicates sensitivity.


We know that the best leader - sheep are found in flocks in NE-Iceland but farmers in all parts of the country are interested in their conservation. Support is also coming from individuals who are not keeping sheep. Icelandic sheep, not least leader - sheep, have clearly a special role in our culture. I keep a few sheep myself, including one leader-ewe, and have the honour of being the first chairman of the Leader-Sheep Society of Iceland which already has 130 members.

Although sheep are less important in economic than before terms they still provide some 20% of the total agricultural income in Iceland. The Iceland
breed is a good example of an old breed which has been successfully improwed by genetic selection without crossing with other breeds. It is well adapted to local conditions and its great genetic diversity is a treasure of scientific, social and cultural value.

Copyright The Icelandic Agricultural Information Service

The freedom to roam in summer; indoor accommodation in winter. Sheep range freely in the summer, but flocks are gathered in the fall and kept inside over the winter.

International links no. 6