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Bringing in the Sheep

One of the big events of the fall in the Westfjords, and indeed all of Iceland, takes place in September, when the farmers herd their sheep from the mountains back to the farm. For all intents and purposes, the sheep in the Westfjords enjoy most of the summer grazing in open range.  Before the winter sets in, however, they have to be brought in and eventually accommodated in the farm buildings, where they are fed and kept warm throughout the winter. 


The herding of sheep in the fall is something of a monumental task, involving significant manypower, as the sheep tend to range far and wide over terrain that is often steep and rocky, in places dangerously so.  As one person said to me, "It takes them all summer to spread out, and we bring them in one day." It is also a rather social task in which members of the communities, families, volunteers (whether farmers or not) get together and lend a hand. Particularly for those farmers who live outside of the towns, the aid of helpers is essential and somewhat more difficult to come by.  Often friends and family will come from long distances to help out with the task.


The herding of sheep in an area can take several days, with a Saturday or Sunday when much help is available dedicated to a single valley or area where the most sheep are located, and other days when assistance is not so readily available taken to collect small scattered herd with just a few hands.


The project typically begins early in morning, around 6 or 7 a.m. or so when the helpers gather together at one or more farms, a plan is developed, and groups are shuttled out to the heads of the valleys where the sheep are located.  Walkers are often assisted by riders on horseback and a sheep dog or two. 


The job is, in description, rather simple: groups of people form lines across the valley, try to stay uphill of the sheep, and in effect herd them downhill to the farm or farms located at the mouth of the valley. It gets more complicated, however, when the desires of the sheep are factored into the equation. One would think, for instance, that once a sheep hits a road it is going to stay on the road and continue walking along it until it gets home.  That is what you or I would do. On the contrary, sheep apparently don't see things this way, and they will often stray from the road, head uphill into unpleasant terrain, or take other courses of action that are not consistent with the desires of those herding them.


For the volunteers, the day can be long and arduous, involving walking up one side of a valley to channel the sheep down and then up the other side to do the same, running to stay ahead of small herd out on their own mission, tramping through streams and across steep, rocky and hummocked hillsides, too steep for horses to traverse.  But it is generally a pleasant event, and as the herds get channeled down to the end of the valley, people can walk together with friends and chat.


Come afternoon, when the sheep are back in the farms, the farmers provide a nice meal for those who have leant a hand over the course of the day, typically of a lamb or sheep stew.  The sheep have to be sorted according to whomever they belong, a process which is aided by earmarks that are placed on the lambs right after they are born.