The Icelandic Breed Standard
Icelandic Sheep Breeders of Noth America
Icelandic Sheep are a true 4 purpose sheep:
When Norwegian Viking settlers first arrived in Iceland in AD 874 they brought with them three types of animals namely sheep, horses, and dogs. Because of Iceland's harsh volcanic environment and physical isolation these animals did not breed with other breeds of sheep, horse, and dog and developed into the some the purest examples of their original breed in the world. The Icelandic Sheep is the oldest and purest domesticated breed of sheep in the world today. Todays Icelandic sheep are thought to be descended from the Norwegian mountain sheep.
In Iceland, Icelandic sheep are bred almost exclusively for meat. More than 80% of an Icelandic shepherds' income comes from meat. Icelandic lamb meat has a mild delicate taste that makes it the choice of lamb for the finest gourmet restaurants worldwide. While Icelandic lambs are born small (which makes for easy lambing), they grow fairly fast. On good pasture alone (no grain needed), they should reach 90-100 lbs. in four to five months which is the ideal market weight. Because the ram lambs reach market weight before the breeding season starts (which would give an off flavor to the meat), they need not be castrated. By leaving the ram lambs intact, their growth rate is maximized and the shepherd's workload is decreased by eliminating the task of catching and castrating through banding. In Iceland most ram lambs are slaughtered before October 1st as it is a law that all rams should be separated and housed by October 1st so that breeding records can be assured.
In the past, the wool was of tremendous importance being the basis of much of Iceland's export but in the last 100 years the breed in Iceland has been bred for meat production. In the latter part of this century, over 80% of the income from this breed in Iceland has been from meat. The market demand for lamb is for muscular lean carcasses. That fits the Icelandic breed very well since it is a mountain breed. Through history the mountain breeds have usually been considered to have milder less gamey meat and less fat than the lowland breeds. On good pasture, the lambs thrive well often gaining 3/4 to 1 lb. per day or more.
Even though the wool the secondary income product from these sheep in Iceland, it is the wool that they have been best known for around the world. The wool is of dual coat consisting of a fine soft undercoat (called thel) and a longer coarser outer coat (called tog). The long outer fiber is strong and wear resistant, like a finer mohair, and sheds rain and dirt well. It is not subject to much damage from rain or sun. The soft downy undercoat provides loft for the outer coat and keeps the animal warm and dry. The tog comes from the primary hair follicles and the thel from secondary follicles. All breeds of sheep have both primary and secondary follicles, but in most breeds there is no difference between the fiber coming from the two types. The fiber coming from the primary follicles of Icelandic sheep is not kemp, but a true wool. The fleeces are open and less greasy than other breeds of sheep. The Icelandic fleece has only a 25% shrink compared to 50% in modern breeds. The number of wool follicles per square millimeter in Icelandic sheep is only 12 whereas, the Merino sheep have 53-87 follicles per square millimeter. The average fleece weighs 4-7 lbs. in the grease.
The lustrous wool of Icelandic Sheep is wonderful to hand spin. The two coats can be separated fairly easily The thel is down like, very soft and irregularly crimped. The tog is similar to mohair, wavy or corkscrewy rather than crimped and is wonderful in worsted spinning. The two coats can also be spun without separating. The versatility of the wool, ease of spinning and the incredible color variations make this wool a favorite for hand spinners. The wool is also one of the best wools for felting, a craft that is fast becoming popular worldwide.
Up until 50 years ago Icelandic sheep were used extensively for milk and cheese production for human consumption. The advent of modern air transportation has eliminated much of the demand for sheep milk but there is a resurgence of interest in Iceland for Icelandic Sheep milk cheese and yogurt.
There is currently one Icelandic sheep breeder in the US with the goal of being a large scale sheep dairy and is already getting a lot of attention from the quality and output of the milk that they are producing. That farm is True North Farm.
The pelt of the Icelandic sheep is excellent. That is in part due to how relatively few hair follicles they have which makes the pelt quite flexible. For a long time, fashion clothing (mostly coats) have been made from the pelt which usually gets a high price on the world market. The pelts are also sold worldwide as sheepskin rugs that look and feel like lustrous fox fur.
Icelandic Sheep Breed Standards and Guidelines
The Icelandic Sheep
The Icelandic sheep is of the North European short-tailed race of sheep and hence has a naturally short tail. The tail can be up to around 15 cm (6 inches), with the bones tapering off at the end. The tip of the tail and often the whole tail is covered in hairs. The face and legs are hairy with wool extending slightly onto the lower jaw. Horned rams have a thick lump of stored fat behind the horns when in good condition.
The wool is dual coated. The hairs growing from the primary follicles are long, fairly coarse, wavy and often lustrous. The hairs from the secondary follicles are much finer, springy, irregularity crimped and very soft. The name used for the longer hairs is TOG while the finer are called THEL. The length of the TOG varies considerably over the body of the sheep, reaching up to 40 cm (16 inches), or longer on the shoulders. The rams have heavier "mane" than the ewes. In the spring the breed sheds naturally to such extend that they can be "rooed" or "plucked" by hand. The time it takes the breed to shed varies, depending on nutrition and stress factors. The rams usually start shedding earlier than the ewes, often starting in late February while the ewes start around lambing time.
The breed has both polled and horned individuals, in both males and females. If polled and horned individuals are mated, various types of scurs and thickness of horns occurs. It is desirable that each flock be kept primarily horned or polled, but it is not a disqualifying feature if the horns are poorly shaped since that is not a genetic fault that gets passed on. The breed also carries genes for four horned individuals.
In Iceland the majority of the sheep are white but the different pattern/color combinations have always been maintained and treasured. In Iceland the white wool is preferred because the wool is sold to the woolen mills which mostly use white wool. Here in North America the wool has its greatest value as material for handspinner and artisans who pay as much, if not more, for the colored wool as the white wool.
The breed carries six patterns on the A-loci, two colors on the B-loci and also carries genes for spotting on the S-loci. The six patterns on the A-loci are: White, Grey Mouflon, Grey, Badgerface, Mouflon and Solid Color. On the B-loci it carries both black and moorit (brown). On S-loci it carries both non spotting and spotting.
The average live weight of mature rams is 90-100 kg (200-225 lbs), and mature ewes 60-65 kg (130-145 lbs), however, heavier weights are normal. In 1983 one of the heavier rams weighed In Iceland was 138 kg (300 lbs). That is not common but there is no question that this ram is purebred and true to the breed. Ewes in good condition often weight around 75 kg (165 lbs).
Prolificacy is naturally 150 - 200%. Lambs are sexually mature around 7-8 months of age. They are seasonal breeders with the ewes coming into heat usually starting in October.
Serious defects would include: Over or undershot jaw, badly twisted legs and breed to shed varies, depending on nutrition and stress factors. The rams usually start shedding earlier than the ewes, often starting in late February while the ewes start around lambing time.
-A medium sized sheep
-Fine boned with an open face and legs
-Mature body weights, Rams 90-100 kgs., Ewes 60-65 kgs.
-Short with a broad forehead to the nostrils
-Nostrils should be well open, lips thick and jaw strong looking
-Eyes should be bright and alert
-Horned and polled acceptable in both sexes
-Horns growing too close to the face is undesirable
-Short, round and broadening at shoulders so that where neck and shoulders meet is not noticeable
-Rams should have a much thicker neck area than ewes
-Broad, blending smoothly into body
-Rounded and meaty
Chest and Ribs:
-Broad and reach well in front of legs
-Wide chest cavity
-Ribs should stand well out and be well rounded
Back, Loin, and Rump:
-Long, thick back muscle with firm flesh
-Loin is broad, roundish, strong
-Rump is broad well muscled, fairly long but can taper back a bit
Feet and Legs:
-Legs are well muscled and thick, muscle reaching far down towards the hock
-Feet are short, thick, straight and squarely placed
-Pasterns are strong, angling about 45 degrees to the ground
-There should be a lot of wool
-Fleece comes in wide range of natural colors
-Wool is dual coated; fine. wavy undercoat called thel and long, coarse corkscrewy outer coat called tog.
-Kemp in wool is undesirable
-Color variable, depending on color of wool.
-Tail is naturally short, fluke shaped, mostly covered with hair, 15-20 cm long on a full-grown sheep. Docking of tail disqualifies Icelandic sheep from registration.
An example of a serious defects that would disqualify registration:
-Badly twisted legs
Nordicsheep.com is part of an association called the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America. Because Icelandic Sheep have only been in the United States since 1990 (and in Canada since 1982) it is important at this early stage to maintain the quality and breed characteristics of this unique breed of sheep. On the ISBONA website you will find a listing of other quality breeders of Icelandic Sheep listed by state (US) and province (Canada). In starting your flock it is important to try to get as much genetic diversity as possible in your first generation. IF you are interested in furthering the quality of the breed and are looking to exchanging information with other Icelandic breeders, I would recommend joining the ISBONA association.