Par Jonathan Duffy, Arctic Meta
The month of September generally brings a significant seasonal change in Iceland. The endless summer days begin to disappear, and dusk starts to creep in a little bit earlier each day. It’s a time of year when the locals start cracking out their autumn and winter clothing. The weather gets chillier, the leaves begin to fall from the trees, and the air has a little bit of extra bite. It’s a time of year when people can begin to see the Northern Lights if they are lucky enough to have clear skies at night.
In the city, September usually heralds a bit of a slower pace as Icelanders begin to shift their focus towards more cosy pastimes. Life in the countryside, however, is a little bit different because September brings the beginning of an industrious season that holds a special place in Icelandic culture and history. September is the start of Réttir.
What exactly is Réttir? Why does it happen? What does it have to do with sheep? If you’re intrigued, read on to find out everything you need to know about this long-held Icelandic tradition.
What is Réttir?
Réttir is an annual sheep roundup. It’s a collective effort of many different farmers in local regions. During this time of year, neighbouring farms join forces to find and herd the sheep in their local area. They then spend time counting and sorting the sheep before moving them to large sheep pens that will protect them from the harsh Icelandic winter.
Why Does Réttir Happen in Iceland?
The main reason for réttir is that Icelandic sheep are basically allowed to roam the countryside as they please throughout the warmer months.
Lambs are usually born in the springtime, beginning in the month of May. When they are born, the farmers usually keep them in special pens that protect them from inclement weather and from predators like the arctic fox, Iceland’s largest native mammal, and the introduced pest, the mink.
Once the lambs are old enough to evade the dangers of the big wide world, they are basically set free to go wherever they want. If you have ever driven around Iceland, you will have no doubt had an encounter with Icelandic sheep who decide to take a stroll on the highway. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to drive the speed limit and use caution.
If you are unlucky enough to hit a sheep, it’s important to contact the police immediately. In most cases, the sheep are able to be identified, and the farmers are able to collect insurance money for the loss. You will only receive a fine for hitting a sheep if it is found out that the sheep’s death was caused by negligence.
Because the sheep are able to roam free range, and Icelandic winter is harsh, the farmers need to spend a considerable amount of time locating and sorting the sheep before it sets in.
How Festivities Take Place
Réttir isn’t just a lot of hard work; it’s also an opportunity for celebration. It’s a time of year when local farmers can let their hair down after the roundup, and it’s also a time when locals celebrate the fact that lamb meat is on the way.
The réttir season usually also involves a lot of extra hands helping. Many farmers will call in favours from friends and family members to help track and sort their sheep, and they have celebrations to say thank you.
The réttir festivities can range from feasts to parties and even farmer’s balls where the entire town is invited, complete with music and dancing. Many farming communities put on special events to help celebrate the season.
What is the Origin of Réttir?
Traditional sheep farming usually involves fencing off the sheep’s roaming area so that farmers can easily track and locate them, but around the year 900 AD, it wasn’t very easy to erect fences in volcanic rock, especially with such mountainous landscapes in a country where even wood was a very precious resource that wasn’t really in plentiful supply.
The solution the Vikings came up with was to let the sheep roam freely in the warmer months and sort them cooperatively before the winter set in. They constructed shared sorting areas out of stone or wood with inner and outer circles, and this kind of structure is still used in réttir today.
When is Réttir?
Réttir usually begins in early September and can last quite a while, depending on where in the country the farms are located and how many sheep they need to herd. The process of finding and herding the sheep can be quite difficult because Icelandic sheep are known for being very adventurous. It’s not uncommon that they can be found at the top of a mountain, which means the process of bringing them down can be dangerous and painstaking.
The total réttir process can last all the way till the first week of October.
Can I Experience Réttir?
Visitors are definitely able to experience réttir and are more than welcome; in fact, the phrase ‘Many hands make light work’ is very much employed during this special time of year. There are many different jobs that can be assisted with during the sheep roundup, and most farms are able to put visitors to work.
You can contact farmers directly to see how to get involved, but there are also tour operators who connect visitors with their first réttir experience. Just remember that it is hard work, and you can spend days out in the countryside searching for sheep, but it’s an incredible way to see the rich natural landscapes Iceland has to offer while also delving deep into a tradition that is almost a thousand years old,
Where is the Best Place in Iceland to See Réttir?
The answer to this question really depends on which part of the country you want to see. The réttir season takes place all over the country, and sheep can literally be anywhere. If you want to see or experience réttir in a place that’s not too far from the nation’s capital, the South Coast and West of Iceland are good places to try.
Both of these regions have very rich grazing land, which means plentiful sheep and an abundance of some incredible natural attractions like waterfalls, glaciers, black sand beaches and mountains.
Why Are Sheep So Important to Iceland’s Culture?
When the Viking settlers arrived in Iceland over a thousand years ago, they brought sheep with them on their boats and very quickly realised how important these animals would be. The lands in Iceland are harsh, and they discovered that the volcanic soil made it hard to grow almost anything. To say that the first Icelanders almost starved to death is an understatement. There’s even a recipe in the Icelandic sagas for a soup made from moss, which probably wasn’t very tasty and had very little nutritional value.
They realised that keeping sheep alive and reproducing would be one of their main lifelines, and the task of tending to sheep was very quickly ingrained in their culture.
Over time and generations, the sheep in Iceland began to change and evolve, and today they are their own breed altogether. The Icelandic sheep is part of the Northern-European Short-tailed group of sheep breeds. Physically they are significantly larger than their cousins in mainland Europe, and they tend to have short legs and light bones. They are very resistant to cold and are incredibly fertile.
The Icelandic sheep also has a unique genetic predisposition within the breed. Some Icelandic sheep have an innate hereditary ability to guide other sheep safely over dangerous terrain.
Today, there are upwards of 800,000 sheep in Iceland at any given moment. Given the human population of the country is a meek 360,000, sheep basically outnumber people in Iceland by more than 2 to 1.
The Importance of Sheep Wool in Iceland
Just as the early settlers discovered that their sheep would be an integral source of nourishment, they also realised that the wool would become a vital part of their way of life. Icelandic sheep’s wool has two different layers, which help protect the animal from both the wet and the cold.
The outer layer of Icelandic sheep’s wool is made of thick, long hair that is called tog in Icelandic; this is very tough and quite water resistant. Closer to the sheep’s skin is a second layer of wool that is shorter, locals call this þel, and it is great natural insulation that keeps the sheep warm in extreme conditions. When both of these layers are combined in clothing for humans, the end result is a garment that’s incredibly warm and very resistant to rain and snow.
Iceland wool-knitted clothing is a basic item in the wardrobes of every single Icelander to this day.
What Happens to the Sheep During Winter?
After the sheep have been brought back closer to their homes, they spend some time on grazing land closer to their farms. Although the weather can still get quite cold at this time, Icelandic sheep can withstand temperatures much further below what humans can.
When the winter becomes much harsher, they are moved indoors to special stables. These facilities are designed to be comfortable for both the sheep and their farmers. The sheep are also sorted during this time into categories of age and gender. They do sometimes breed and give birth during this period, although the majority of Icelandic sheep farmers use artificial insemination rather than the more traditional method of using rams to reproduce.
It might seem strange that the sheep spend half the year roaming wherever they want and half the year ‘trapped’ indoors, but to them, this is a normal cycle of the year, and they aren’t particularly fussed by it at all.
Sheep have been an integral part of the lives of Icelanders since the first settler set foot on the volcanic soil of this little island nation in the North Atlantic Ocean. The réttir season has been and continues to be one of the most important dates in the annual calendar, and to experience, it gives unparalleled insight into the rich history and culture of Iceland and its people.