Autumn Sheep Round Up

Finally after many years of wanting to visit the land of the midnight sun, the island of ice and fire I finally made it in September when incidentally it gets dark by 10pm! The south west of Iceland really reminded me of Scotland, a place I’m very fond of. The weather was a bit reminiscent of the highlands too. I arrived for the sheep round up to drizzling rain, then the weather changed day by day from bracing winds to harsh winter sun sunshine, a night time downpour waking up to air as soft as velvet the next day. Just the stuff to blow the cobwebs away.

Views of Iceland from horseback

When I got to Reykjavik on a frighteningly efficient Iceland Express flight I was picked up with a full information pack and schedule for the day which ran exactly to the letter, this is most definitely Northern Europe make no mistake! The story of the island is fascinating from many angles, as countries go it’s very young, appearing out of the ocean around 20 million years ago. I remember collecting fossils on a local school trip in Wales that were 400 million years old, and that wasn’t considered REALLY old. It was discovered pretty late too- the Vikings arrived in the 900s, hardly an ancient civilisation while the rest of the globe was trading world wide.

Since it’s a bit ‘out of the way’ much of the original bloodlines remained uncrossed, these are the real Viking farmers and speaking a language also unadulterated, with their pure Viking stock. Only Icelandic cattle, Icelandic sheep and Icelandic horses are on the island, no other breeds. Our host told us an amusing story about the original settlers bringing the selected few livestock by ship when they arrived: ‘You don’t want an angry cow or a panicked horse in a storm at sea’ so this he attributed to the loved calm nature of the native horses. They have plenty of character, reminiscent of Thelwell ponies, and look wonderfully happy in their herds. They are safe but fun – that and the ‘Thelwell’ glint in their eyes gives you back a sense of childhood fun. It’s no problem to bustle along together in and out of the others, you don’t have to stay in a formal line with rules when these horses are so little trouble.

Icelandic ponies

They are wonderfully willing so just sit to that tolt and float over the rough terrain, through rivers, busy dashing up little tracks. You really move at a pace and it’s so fascinating how much ground you cover you quite forget to look at he scenery-how could I? But I was having FUN.

Now this tolt, it’s a bit like walking but very fast, very very fast indeed – so no elevation like trot (less work on your muscles essentially) and you aren’t standing like canter (less work on muscles means more miles) – altogether less trouble, why don’t all horses do it? Icelandics also do ‘pace’, this is when the legs on the left move forward together then the right move forward together- sort of trot but not with diagonals. At ‘pace’ they really can shift, traditionally in Iceland the races aren’t at gallop, that apparently would be boring, they are at ‘pace’- and my word they can motor at pace. I saw the demo but us mere normal horse riders were still mastering tolt.

Horse riding in Iceland

We were here to take part in the annual Sheep Round Up and stayed in a farm which was central to round up activity. I have to say the whole experience was not at all as expected. I had envisaged something like a cattle round up, but this was much more interesting. The whole event was bathed in tradition with the ‘King of the Mountains’ leading thousands of sheep which had been up on the mountains for the summer to the place where they would be sorted by their owners back into farm flocks for the winter. This journey took days, first they and to be found and rounded up in to a central collecting field, then for 2 days the sheep walked along the road in what looked like a snake of wool over a mile long. This line was led by the King of the Mountains, a chief farmer elected by the others to be in charge. Next year apparently there is to be the first Queen of the Mountains who has ever been elected, very progressive for a nation whose language has barely changed in a thousand years.

Local farmers at the sheep round up

We caught up with events when they set out from the collecting field and joined them for the first day of this long walk. Keeping the sheep from wandering off were the other farmers…and us. The farmers all rode one horse and led 2 others, riders here change horses regularly as did we on each day. Your horse is always fresh that way and you can carry on racking up the miles at speed. Our herd of sheep over-nighted at the farm we stayed at along with another herd travelling from another direction- it was an amazing sight to see 7000 sheep in one place, and a bit noisy that night too.

Sorting sheep at the round up

The next day I watched, sitting transfixed on a wall built so many hundreds of years ago and covered in grass as is the traditional Viking way. The farmers were at the party, each was finding his sheep by hand in this melee along with all his family- 4 generations all helped and partied- beers and smoked lamb were all being consumed along with many warm greetings and much laughter. This was a truly fantastic atmosphere- and somehow the job was being done too. Small children were sitting on the sheep and helping check whose was whose; old men were reacquainted with farmers of their generation – fun for absolutely everyone there. As the sun went down everyone sang songs into the night, at our farm we received visitors of extended family, and my head was indeed a little sore the next day.

Herding sheep on horseback

The week flew by as it often does when you are having such a good time. The highlights are hard to condense- Horses, Gaits, Scenery, Tradition and Hospitality all really rated for me. It was an adventure close to home, a bit of a ‘Famous Five’ week, albeit there were 16 of us. I genuinely hope I can visit Iceland again soon and it really isn’t that often I want to repeat my footsteps so that’s a bit of an honour in my book.

For more information and to book:
Webpage: Autumn Sheep Round Up
Telephone: 01767 600606 (UK); 1-437-371-2822 (Canada); 1-888-420-0964 (USA); +46 (0)8-58176336 (Scandinavia)
Account by Sue Maling

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