Meet the Sheep: Icelandic
Icelandic sheep are among the oldest and purest breeds of sheep in the world, in the family of Northern-European Short-Tailed sheep. They were brought to Iceland about 1100 years ago by some of the earliest settlers. The sturdy, long-fleeced sheep are rugged and well-suited to cold winters with sparse grazing prospects. Icelandic sheep ranchers utilize the breed for meat, fiber, and milk products.
We yarn people, of course, are mostly interested in the fiber part. The fleece of Icelandics is made of two parts: the topcoat, or tog, is long and coarse, water-resistant and very strong-wearing. The undercoat, or thel, is much softer and finer. The two are spun together to make the traditional Icelandic Lopi yarn; the combination of their qualities makes yarn which is very warm yet lightweight and airy, providing the same qualities of water resistance and insulation to humans as it does for the sheep. Knitting a traditional Icelandic yoke sweater, or lopayesa, is one of our favorite projects!
My Daytripper Cardigan ready to be cut open
All of the qualities that make these sheep well-suited to life in Iceland also make them ideal citizens of our own Montana landscape. To learn more about these amazing animals, I spoke to Amika Ryan, owner and operator of Copia Cove Icelandic Sheep & Wool, located near Butte, Montana. I'll share some of our conversation here:
Q: How did you get into Icelandic sheep ranching?
A: I got into Icelandic sheep a little over 5 years ago when I found myself a single mom in Montana - place where I didn’t know anyone or have any family.
I spent my only savings to acquire the fencing, feed and equipment needed to care for a leased flock of 150 Icelandic sheep so that I could start my own flock with the lambs that would be coming that spring.
My first lambing season rewarded me with 60 ewes of my own and that was the season Copia Cove Icelandic Sheep & Wool was born!
In the following years, my flock has allowed me and my family to go from nothing to now owning my modest flock of Icelandic sheep, a 48 acre homestead outside of Butte, Montana and my very first tractor.
Q: Why did you choose Icelandic sheep in particular?
A: Starting out, I was interested in finding a breed of sheep that would thrive in the harsh Montana winters as be relatively easy to manage.
I jokingly say that Icelandics can thrive off of the dew of a lotus flower. But it’s pretty much true when your Icelandic have a good bite - meaning their teeth are right.
I don’t have first- hand experience with any other breed of sheep, but I’ve heard (on numerous occasions) the old cattle ranchers around these parts say that, “sheep just go somewhere and die.” So I gather that domestic sheep breeds are perhaps fragile in comparison to Icelandics.
I also was looking for a breed of sheep that allowed for multiple products to be harvested. I found Icelandics to have excellent wool, milk and meat characteristics, depending on the specific genetic line.
Q: Is the breed well suited to our climate here? What makes them compatible?
A: Icelandic think it’s hot when the temperature is about 60 degrees. So they’re well suited for the Montana climate. The only time I see that the cold bothers them is when the wind is blowing the snow sideways, which is more of an aversion to 50 mph winds than the actual cold.
Icelandic sheep have evolved over 1000+ years to thrive in the Icelandic landscape. I think Montana must not be too different from Iceland.
Q: Are there any specific characteristics of the sheep that you would like to mention?
Icelandic sheep are tough, feisty, and great mothers having multiple lambs (typically twins) each Spring.
They’ll stand up to predators, are hard on herding dogs and can be difficult for the shepherd and shearer to handle.
Icelandic sheep are hands down the best homestead animal because of the multiple resources they provide: fantastic wool, gourmet meat, milk, sheepskins, and horns (yes, mine are horned).
They also have outstanding personalities. They’re quite a lot more like goats that domestic sheep, in fact, in terms of shenanigans and nutritional needs.
I’ve never met an Icelandic sheep that “has it all”. Specific genetic lines of this heritage breed are better for quality milk, meat, wool, personality, parasite resistance, respectively. But you’ll find that most Icelandic sheep have outstanding marks in at least two of the three categories listed. And I’ve never met one that isn’t a great mother.
Their strong mothering instinct allows them to lamb a majority of the time on their own in pasture, even in harsh weather, with little interference from the shepherd.
Q: For what purposes do you raise the sheep?
A: Icelandic sheep is my full-time business. I have an online store where I sell Icelandic wool yarns, roving, batts and other goodies.
Icelandic sheep have premium wool that we shear twice per year, once in the fall and once in the spring.
They are a dual coated breed. But we process all of our fiber products with both tog and thel combined. And our fiber products are mill- processed at local Montana fiber mills.
The fall fleece is when we get the soft, clean fleeces that make outstanding yarns, rovings and batts. Some of the shearings, if they didn’t lamb, will have a premium, soft Fall fleece as well. The long staple length, average 4 to 8 inches, make their wool a breeze to hand spin. And many hand spinners love working with a Fall lamb’s fleece raw.
The adult fleeces are great for felting batts, felted sheets, and core- spun yarn depending on how dirty (spring fleeces) or coarse they are.
We have sheep milk soaps and bath products made with my ewes’ milk, which I hand-milk.
Sheepskins get sent to tanneries which come back as beautiful rugs or throws. And I also make my signature sheepskin home decor ( a traditional art form known as Skinfell) with them.
Lambs which are suitable for meat, I trade to another Icelandic shepherd in exchange for more premium Icelandic wool. I also sell 20 or so lambs as breeding stock to other shepherds throughout the northern USA.
Q: How did you learn about Skinnfell?
A: My signature craft is traditional and modern Skinnfell home decor. I make sheepskin pillows, coverlets and wall art.
I learned traditional Skinnfell for a Skinnfell master from Norway with decades of experience. I enjoy making both the very traditional Skinnfell pieces as well as my own, more modern version of the folk art.
This year 2021, I’m teaching modern Skinnfell in Montana July 18th art Copper K Fiber Festival, and in Idaho October 8th at Trailing of the Sheep.
I loved talking with Amika about her wonderful sheep. We are very exited to share with you that she will be here in the shop on Saturday, April 10 from 11-4 with many of her Icelandic sheep-based products, home decor, and works of art. Please stop in to meet her and admire her work. She will have products for sale; we are sure you will find something you have to take home with you! Please join us, you won't want to miss out!
(all photos in this post are courtesy of Amika)