Iceland’s Annual Tradition of Counting Sheep Is Far From Sleepy

I must have looked a little sheepish while attempting to maneuver a ram from one side of a holding pen to the other, because a young Icelandic boy approached me with some advice. “Try squeezing it harder between your legs,” he said in English, referring to the animal that I was straddling, “and lift its front off the ground by picking it up with its horns. It will make moving him easier.”

The whole thing felt unnatural, but the boy was right: With the sheep’s own front legs in the air and my thighs working at full capacity, I was essentially able to wiggle our way to the appropriate farmer, identifiable by the mix of numbers and letters hanging above the farmer’s paddock that matched those on the sheep’s own identification tag.

This is Iceland’s annual rettir, a roundup of sheep that takes place across Iceland each September. The centuries-old tradition involves sorting these woolly creatures after a summer of free-grazing on mountain grasses and berries in the highlands, where natural predators are nonexistent. These days, the rettir has morphed from its roots as a necessity among farmers into a multigenerational celebration that includes family and friends, with many (including lots of children) taking part in the activity, while others watch from the sidelines snapping photos and enjoying steaming cups of coffee.

sheep sorting
The rettir has morphed into a multigenerational celebration that includes family and friends. Laura Kiniry

“It is important to keep traditions for future generations,” said Aðalheiður Margrét Gunnarsdóttir, a teacher in classical singing and local opera performer who lives in Fljótshlíð, the south coast farming community where this particular rettir took place. “But this is also a great way to sort the sheep.”

All of Iceland’s rettirs occur in September, though each area has its own set date. For example, in Fljótshlíð, the rettir always happens during the third weekend of September on a Sunday. Much of the labor is done beforehand during the annual gongur, which is the initial herding of sheep back in the highlands. Together, farmers and members of their local community head out on horseback with sheepdogs in tow, gathering their livestock up for the winter. It’s a process that can take anywhere from a few days to an entire week—since the sheep can wander wherever they like. “It does happen that they go to a different zone and mix with sheep from other areas,” said Eyrún Aníta Gylfadóttir, Gunnarsdóttir’s friend and the marketing manager at Hotel Rangá, the nearby property where I was staying. “In this case, the farmers will recognize the earmark and let the neighboring farmer know. Still, they typically stay in the area they are released in.”

rettir
The whole event is about getting the sheep to the appropriate farmer. Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo/Getty Images

Once the sheep are all gathered, the farmers then have to sort out which ewes and rams belong to whom. On the day of the rettir, hundreds of sheep are released into a central wooden sheepfold that’s surrounded by marked compartments—one belonging to each local farmer—that jut out from the inner circle like rays of the sun. Here, the sheep run haphazardly from one side to another, often pressing together for safety as they try to avoid getting caught. This latter part is a sport in itself—it often requires grabbing one of their horns first, then straddling the sheep as quickly as possible to keep it steady. Once you’ve identified its earmark, it’s about getting that sheep to the appropriate farmer, who then keeps it within their marked compartment with other sheep until the entire flock is ready to head back to the farm.

Gunnarsdóttir and her husband, Brynjólfur Gíslason, an airline pilot, keep about 160 sheep on their Fljótshlíð property. While they don’t make much income tending to the sheep themselves, “it’s a way to keep my husband’s ancestral land going,” said Gunnarsdóttir.

Feeling a little worse for the wear following the rettir, I headed back to the couple’s home, which they share with their three children, a German housekeeper and their collie-Icelandic sheepdog mix, Kósí, for another part of the day’s celebration: a traditional meal of kjotsupa. This Icelandic meat soup is a delicious blend of smoked lamb, carrots and rutabaga, which Gunnarsdóttir and her mother served alongside homemade bread and an apple almond cake for dessert. When I asked Gunnarsdóttir about the soup’s ingredients, she described the lamb meat as “happy sheep” because it came straight from the farm’s own stock.

Kjotsupa
Kotsupa is an Icelandic meat soup that is a delicious blend of smoked lamb, carrots and rutabaga. Brett Stevens/Getty Images

Although kjotsupa originated as a Christmas delicacy, it also became part of the country’s annual rettir celebration likely around the start of the 20th century. “Iceland can quite often be cold, windy and rainy during rettir,” said Gunnarsdóttir, “so you need something hot and hearty to come back to after the hard work of sorting the sheep. It is also a good way of emptying the freezer to make space for fresh lamb meat.”

In fact, the rettir itself ensures food and warmth for the long, cold winter ahead. In Iceland, every part of the sheep is used, from the lamb trimmings that go into the country’s famed Icelandic hot dogs to the sheep’s head that’s cut in half, gutted and boiled, then served with a side of mashed turnips or potatoes, in the traditional meal known as svid. The latter is typically part of the festivities at Iceland’s annual Þorrablót—a midwinter festival celebrating Icelandic culture and heritage that dates back to Viking days. Then there is the sheep’s dual-coated fleece, with its insulated inner fibers and longer and tougher outer fibers, which can be used for everything including chunky knit blankets and sweaters. Icelandic wool sweaters called lopapeysas are recognizable by their patterned yoke and considered a symbol of national identity. Once, residents of Iceland’s traditional Hobbit-like turf houses even kept warm by using stacked sheep droppings as fuel for their fires.

“The history of Icelanders and sheep has been intertwined for centuries,” said Gylfadóttir.

It’s true: Vikings are believed to have brought Iceland its sheep in the late ninth or early tenth century, and they’ve been bred in isolation ever since—making them one of the oldest and purest breeds on the planet. They’re also extremely hardy. Centuries of enduring the country’s subarctic climate has made these short-legged, stockily built sheep extremely cold-resistant.

Iceland is known for its large numbers of sheep, too. Travel anywhere in the country during summer months and you’ll see them dotting the highlands, their mostly white coats interspersed with colors of black, gray and brown. In fact, Iceland had close to 828,000 of the woolly creatures around 1980. However, the population has been dwindling ever since, down to around 416,000 in 2020. According to the Association of Icelandic Sheep Farmers, this is in large part due to the imbalance between higher production costs and lower pay for wool and meat. More Icelanders are also consuming poultry and pork in lieu of lamb. “There used to be a lot more sheep in the past,” said Gylfadóttir. “But nowadays it seems there are more people than sheep.”

To make ends meet, some Fljótshlíð farmers have turned to tourism, mainly in the form of lodgings like Airbnbs and guesthouses. Others have subdivided their properties, taking work in the capital city of Reykjavík approximately 75 miles northwest and returning each summer to spend time in their countryside cabins. But while rettirs remain largely local, a number of companies such as Núpshestar, a family-run business specializing in horseback-riding tours, and Reykjavík-based Traveo Iceland have begun offering multiday trips centered on and around the event. “It’s open to everyone,” said Gylfadóttir, “so anyone visiting Iceland in September should ask their hotel or host if there’s a rettir happening in the area during their stay.”

Laura Kiniry
The author at the rettir in Fljótshlíð Laura Kiniry

The rettir is just one part of a yearlong cycle that changes with the seasons. After the gathering of sheep, each farmer sorts out which ones they’ll keep for the winter and which ones they’ll use for food. The former will then stay on the farm, feeding on hay that their farmer has cut during the summer months, until the end of lambing season—an approximately six-week-long period from the end of April to early June when the majority of lambs are born. Afterwards, the farmers will bring their sheep back up to the highlands to graze and wander until September, when the cycle begins again.

After a visit to a local mini-mill—a small family-run mill that produces yarn from sheared wool—and feeling achy and bruised from the rettir, I nourished myself with a traditional Viking meal at Hotel Rangá, one that included small samplings of hakarl (pungent fermented shark) and rugbraud (rye bread), and the main entree, hangikjot (slices of lamb meat smoked with dried sheep dung and boiled). Although not a dish I would have necessarily chosen, it was the perfect cap-off to an unforgettable day.

“Our culture is something we are extremely proud of,” said Gylfadóttir, “and I think it’s important for visitors to see and experience it. If we lose our traditions, we’ll lose our identity.”

It’s a risk Icelanders rightfully aren’t willing to take.