Bringing in the Sheep

A chill in the air and northern lights filling the night skies once again means that autumn has come to Iceland and it’s time to round up the sheep in what is called réttir. But it’s no easy task gathering up sheep that have spent the summer running wild in the highlands. As the saying goes, it takes a village, or in this case, a nation.

All in the Family

Farmers, their family, friends and even some tourists all take part. Experienced adults and teens do most of the highland gathering. It can take days of searching, going up into the highlands to round up the sheep. It may seem like an impossible task but many of the sheep return to the same areas every summer so the farmers know where to look.
When most of the sheep are gathered families with young children and those less experienced at sheep handling, gather in the lowlands, wearing lopapeysur (traditional Icelandic sweaters, made with Icelandic wool of course), and sipping hot chocolate or coffee. It’s great chance to see friends and family that only see each other on special occasions, reinforce the bonds of community and help out the local farmers, the stewards of sheep husbandry.

Guiding the flock to the lowlands

After the sheep have been gathered into pens in the highlands, they are herded down to the lowlands where everyone gathers to lend a hand. Kids that have spent what must feel like hours to their parents, running around the sheep pens, screaming in delight and getting as filthy as possible, suddenly go quiet for a moment hearing the distant barks of Icelandic sheep dogs followed by a chorus of baaing sheep. “They’re here! The sheep are coming!” they yell.

The Sorting Wheel

Hamarsrétt Vatnsnesi North West Iceland

It is a scene that plays out in various locales across the countryside. A flood of sheep flow down a hillside, some leaping and jumping over one another as they’re herded into holding pens that look a lot like giant wagon wheels. At the center, where the wheel’s hub would be, is a round pen. And just like with a wagon wheel, spokes or in this case fences, come out from the central pen to create surrounding pie-shaped ones. Each farmer takes a pen and the sorting begins.

1100 Years of Lamb Farming Tradition

The sheepdogs help herd the sheep into the central hub where the farmers await, checking the earmarks of each in search of their own. Once a sheep is identified it is shunted to the correct pen. For the inexperienced, it may turn into more of a wrestling match with a particularly feisty sheep, but those with years of réttir under their belt, make it look easy, gently picking them up or guiding them by their horns.
It’s usually a bit of a muddy business but a good time is had by all through the joy of helping each other out and triumphing together in the endurance sport that is réttir. The sheep have come home once more ensuring that Icelandic lamb will continue to grace dinner tables across Iceland and beyond.

Check out for recipes and more to help you create your own Icelandic lamb dish.