Icelandic sheep are the ultimate survival livestock for anyone living in USDA climate zone 6 or colder. Why?
Because unlike other small livestock they are triple purpose: meat, milk, and fiber. They were bred by the vikings who settled in Iceland for 1,000 years. The viking husbandry practices only favored the hardiest and smartest sheep. In Iceland the sheep are turned loose to forage for themselves as soon as the snow melts and not rounded up again until late Fall when no forage remains. Typically the oldest daughters spend the summer at pasture with the sheep milking them and making cheese. The sheep are expected to raise twins and have excess milk for cheese and butter by foraging alone. They are never feed grain. This makes them ideal for a self-sufficient farmstead. Other Icelandic owners we know have a business making gourmet cheese. At one month old they separate the lambs each evening from the ewes then in the morning they milk the ewes in the morning. Then the lambs and ewes are turned out together for the day and the lambs can nurse freely all day.
Unlike nearly all other breeds of sheep Icelandics are browsers as well as grazers. They will make use of all the forage on your property. Our property which had nearly 20 different species of noxious weed when we bought it has been improved dramatically since grazing our Icelandic sheep. We used cross fencing to divide up the pastures. Our Icelandics eat it all down including all the noxious weeds to four inches and then we move them onto the next pasture. Furthermore, because the Icelandics browse bushes and shrubs and trees of all sorts the wildfire danger to our property has been dramatically reduced.
I can’t say enough about how tasty Icelandic lamb is. Even our friends who thought they didn’t like lamb enjoy Icelandic lamb chops. Most Icelandic ewes easily raise twins to market weight in four months. Of course another byproduct at butcher is a gorgeous pelt.
They are excellent mothers. They are very protective and aware of their lambs. They lamb easily and rarely require and help. Most all of mine lamb so easily I miss nearly all the lambing even though I was going out to the pasture multiple times in hopes of seeing the births. They are super attentive to their newborn lambs cleaning them off vigorously. And urging their lambs to nurse promptly. And unlike other breeds of sheep Icelandic sheep can count to three meaning they can and will raise triplets. The lambs are vigorous quick to stand and search for the teat. Just because I think it is so interesting I really want to be there for the birth. But I always end up missing the whole thing and I find the new mama ewe and lambs are already dry and nursing vigorously.
Icelandic sheep also are recognized for their intelligence. Aside for some being especially intelligent, in each lamb crop, we have had some that are especially tame and interested in people. These lambs come to see us to be scratched and petted. As adult ewes they are great to have in the flock because they come whenever they are called and the rest of the flock follows them where ever I lead. These ewes are also very easily milked. Also Icelandic rams in general have exceptionally docile temperaments. Our rams are best friends and graze side by side and occasionally amble over to us if they want to be scratched.
Then there is the fiber!!! Icelandics are unique among all breeds of sheep in that they are dual wool coated. Each animal produces an extremely soft underdown wool that rivals the finest Merino and a top wool which is strong and especially suited for hard wearing articles such as rugs and socks. The I use a dog brush to brush the soft underdown out of the long guard wool. The underdown I spin up into baby soft yarn that makes gorgeous next to skin soft articles. [By the way many people who think they are allergic to wool are actually allergic to the harsh chemicals used in the modern processing.] The long wool I spin worsted into sock yarns and warp yarn for my loom among other uses. Though usually we hire a sheep shearer to shear our flock all on one day. Though I have used scissors to hand shear my sheep. Icelandics naturally shed their wool. The vikings gathered the sheep around the vernal equinox when the shedding was underway. The viking selected a sheep, tied their feet together and used a dull knife to scrape off the fleece. Icelandics come in colors!The outer wool comes in white, black, or chocolate brown. The under down wool can be white, black, brown, cream or gray. So simplest terms you can get Icelandics that are white white, black black, black gray, brown brown, brown gray, or brown cream. We have some white sheep because I enjoy dying wool different colors just for fun. But my very favorite are my black blacks. Their wool great for making tactical watch caps and sweaters without the need for dyes. Another fun thing we do with the fleece which comes off in one piece is felt it into a pelt. This is a really fun project the kids and I enjoy. We take the whole fleece and lay if on top of a vinyl table cloth. Then I poor hot soapy water over the whole fleece the the kids and I side step round and round the fleece singing. The underdown turns into felt and the guard hair remains in loose locks and does not felt. except at the base into the underdown. It really is quite amazing! When we are done we have created a gorgeous “pelt”
In conclusion I believe the Icelandics intelligence, dairy potential, and dual wool coat make them superior to all other sheep breeds for survival purposes for anyone living in the northern US.
The Memsahib Adds: It is advisable to buy livestock that is appropriate for your particular climate. Readers on the Gulf Coast might consider Black-bellied Barbados sheep, while those living in rainy western Washington might consider some of the British breeds.