Réttir – The Annual Round-Up Of The Icelandic Sheep


The land of fire and ice, Iceland, is also the land of interesting rituals and traditions. Many of these events happen once a year, adding rejuvenation to the lives of Icelandic citizens. Réttir – the annual round-up of the Sheep in Iceland, is one such vibrant event. The round-up happens in the month of September all around the country. Every year the farmer community in Iceland begins the journey of scaling majestic mountains to collect their sheep. Réttir is considered one of the most significant events in the countryside of Iceland. Explorers from around the world visit different parts of the country to witness the counting of sheep. An estimated idea is that around 500,000 sheep roam freely in the country, during the summertime. You will be astounded to know that this figure is more than the population of the country. Iceland is only inhabited by approximately 330,000 people.

Icelandic Sheep - Réttir - Annual Sheep Gathering in Iceland

Know All About Icelandic Sheep

The sheep in Iceland as we see them in the present day and age are descendants of the settlement sheep. Intriguingly, the origins of sheep in Iceland date back to the 9th and 10th centuries. The animals came with the Viking settlers in the country. Visitors may notice that these sheep lack the mindset of the horde. They are obstinate and like to be on their own. If you will drive through the country before the annual round-up, you will see the sheep all through the areas. Whether it is the mountain highland or the valleys covered with grass, sheep roam freely. They can even be found in the areas full of hot springs, in designated protected regions, and on the roads.

Throughout the wintertime, the sheep stay inside. During the spring they get to go back outside and roam around. The sheep bask in the long sun-filled days in summer. They fatten themselves with lush lichen, moss, and grass of the country. Another notable thing is that there is always a group of three roaming together. It may get you curious about the animal. Mostly, it is a mature lamb with her two young ones. By the time summer ends, the lambs get significantly bigger. Most of the time, you will not be able to tell the difference between the mother and her lambs.

Icelandic Sheep - Réttir - Annual Sheep Gathering in Iceland

Significance of Sheep

Through the centuries, the people of this arctic country have survived solely on the useful things they have received from sheep. Iceland would be inhabitable if there were no sheep in the country. The meat and the tallow have survived people for a long time and continues to do so. While the wool has been a perennial and source of survival. Every part of the sheep is important for use. People use the head that is singed and eaten. Even the eyes of sheep are eaten, in the form of the delicacy called svið.

How Festivities Take Place

Every year in September, the sheep are fetched and taken along, as it were. On horseback, the farmers go look for them and get them back with the aid of their sheepdogs. When this happens, visitors can see long rows of sheep in some places. It takes a few days for them.

Some sheep are always left behind and this can be due to various reasons. One common reason is that they are difficult to catch. In these cases, a special trip comes to fetch them. ‘kind’  is the Icelandic name for a sheep and the ones which stay back on the first trip are called eftirlegukindur. In many places in the country, you can see round-up huts which are a shelter for the men who round up the sheep. Afterward, Rettir, the round-up process, is conducted in sheepcotes, which you can see in Iceland. The sheepcotes have a shared area in a circle shape, called Almenningur in the Icelandic language. There are triangularly shaped stalls from the traditional field – dilkar.

The farmers look for their sheep and segregate them into the stalls. One cannot deny that this is a hefty task but it is filled with the spirit of fun and pleasure. This is why this round-up is celebrated as a festival by the locals. After all, the farmers get their sheep back after a long while, grown and healthy. The people are welcomed to help or they can simply watch from a distance and click photos. In many places, the Icelandic Brennivín or aqua vitae is offered to onlookers at round-ups. This is a sign of friendship and comradeship. The winters are welcomed with fun and frolic vibes by the people in Iceland.

Icelandic Sheep - Réttir - Annual Sheep Gathering in Iceland

Forystufé - the Leader-wethers

There is a special breed of Icelandic sheep, which can only be found in Iceland. It is known as forystufé or the leader-wether. These sheep behave more like dogs than sheep. They can be easily differentiated from the rest of the horde as these sheep have higher feet than others. Being courageous, intelligent, and different, they turn up as leaders for the horde and take care of it. This explains their name.

These sheep are also known for their ability to predict the weather. There are so many tales of this unique type of sheep leading the horde and men through all kinds of bad weather. They are a little difficult to spot but if you do, you will instantly recognize them because of their distinct appearance.

Round-Up Before Winters

Icelanders must collect the sheep and round them up into safety before the winter starts. There is a reason for it. The winter arrived early in September 2012 and consequently, heavy snowfall in North-Iceland. A large number of sheep got lost in the snow. In many areas, people were not finished with the rounding-up of sheep. Things went out of hand when search parties were sent out to look for sheep. The animals were found buried under the heaps of snow. To avoid this unfortunate situation, sheep are now collected before winters.

Icelandic Sheep on the road - Réttir - Annual Sheep Gathering in Iceland

Some Significant Things to Remember

As you drive in Iceland, you will notice signboards in multiple places cautioning the visitors about sheep. The boards are to make you aware that the sheep might jump up or start running on the road suddenly. This may catch you off guard so you have to be careful while driving.

Please refrain from honking. The animals tend to get shocked when honked at. The sheep are no different and they can get startled with the honking. They may start running in all directions, posing further problems for you. It is advised not to go near the sheep as there are chances that they might get scared.

It is established as an unspoken rule that if you see a lamb on one side of the road and its mother is on the other side, the lamb will go in the direction of the mother. You need to be patient while noticing their movements. In case if you ever hit a sheep in Iceland, you need to check the earmark on the sheep. This earmark leads to the farmer who owns the sheep. You need to call emergency number 112 so that the farmer can be alerted about the sheep. It is considered rude in the country to leave the sheep injured if you hit any by mistake.

Icelandic Sheep on the road - Réttir - Annual Sheep Gathering in Iceland
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