It has taken all morning, but I am finally straddling an Icelandic sheep. One of its curly horns has been ripped off during the day’s events, and streaks of blood stain the wool red. As instructed, I grip the skin above its neck and prepare to wrangle it to the muddy ground. The sheep has other ideas. It lurches forward and rears onto its hind legs. It can stand like that, with my hands still clutching its shoulders, so it begins a series of unwieldy biped jumps. I hold on. In an abrupt change of tactic, it drops to all fours and wiggles backward between my legs. As I step back to regain my balance, it rips forward and escapes, leaving some wool behind.
“You’re doing great!” shouts a nearby farmer unconvincingly.
It’s 2:00 in the afternoon, and the farmers have been working since sunrise. Herding the sheep down from the mountains is a two-week process every September that culminates in the réttir, or sorting. It goes like this: farmers take shifts on horseback to find the sheep, which have roamed freely all summer. The 3,000-some animals are first gathered and then driven to flat land, and eventually into a large concrete ring. The ring has adjacent pens spanning outward along its circumference – such that from the air, it would look like a child’s drawing of the sun.
Farmers, friends and volunteers wander through the ring, straddling sheep and pinning them to the ground to check their ear tags, which have a number to denote their owner. If the sheep belongs to the farmer who’s checking it, he drags it to his pen. If not, rather than deliver the sheep to his neighbor’s pen some few meters away, he lets it go for someone else to wrangle and check. And so on, until all the sheep are sorted.
“They’ve got fat and happy and lazy in the mountains,” says Francois, a Dutch ex-Special Forces soldier turned Icelandic sheep farmer, as he wades between the tightly-packed animals in the ring. The air is filled with agitated bleats. “Sometimes they have heart attacks from trying to run away from us.”
Two days earlier: a small group sets off into the mountains, as they’ve done every morning for the past twelve days. They cover a region at the base of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, about 30 kilometers north of Borgarnes, and comb the mountains with binoculars in tow. A red-roofed cabin makes their home for the fortnight. Inside the corrugated tin building, cots and sleeping bags—maybe 20—are packed around a tiny stove; the scene is dotted with beer cans. A guitar leans against a wall in the corner. The horses sleep in the stable next door.
I am waiting outside the hut with Francois and his two sons, Oliver and Bastian, for his wife and daughter to arrive with the other herders and the final haul of sheep. They are late, but Francois isn’t bothered. He crouches down and pops some wild blueberries into his mouth. The leaves have turned red at the season’s end, and they’re easy to find. The boys, who are wearing orange high-vis jackets that almost reach their ankles, race each other up the rocky mountainside. “I let them play,” Francois says. “They’ll learn better that way than if I tell them.”
When the clouds break, Francois says the view will be nice now, so he follows them up. From the top, Iceland’s landscape spreads like a sun-soaked tapestry. The scene is vast and austere: greenery in the lowland gives way to craggy heather and then moss-covered rocks higher up. Here and there, tiny yellow flowers pop through. The moss looks bright, almost fluorescent in the sunlight. It grows unevenly over the grey rocks, and navigating the terrain is like walking over lumpy carpet. Below, the valley is split by Lagavatn, a wide lake that glistens with a metallic sheen.
The boys run by, like sheep dogs.
Although he wears only a sweatshirt and a neck scarf to guard against the biting wind, Francois shows no sign of being cold. The trick, he says, is not to shiver. He speaks of true climactic hostility: Svalbard and Greenland, places he travelled during his artic survival training, where momentary contact with air could turn a man’s face black. This is nothing like that. This is in your mind. If you release the tension, relax into your surroundings, then you will not feel it, he says. I nod and can manage for a minute, but soon I’m shivering again.
Icelanders are known for their grit, and although Francois is a transplant, he has meshed well and naturally. Fjóla, his wife, is strong and kind. She grew up in southwest Iceland, just a few kilometers away from where their house stands now. Their children miss school when necessary to help with the chores – especially during lambing season in April and réttir in the autumn.
Francois’ bulky two-way radio beeps. Fjóla and their daughter, Delia, have found a sheep on a remote section of mountain. It’s too tired from running to make it down on foot. It doesn’t matter that it’s not their sheep: the community works together during the roundup. Francois calls to the boys – despite his relaxed paternal strategy, they are the reason I have learned my single word of Icelandic: nr, said like ‘en-err’ and meaning ‘no’ – and we load into the dust-coated truck. Fjóla has described her location and we start driving to find her, but the surrounding geography looks indistinguishable. (Google isn’t much help: ‘unnamed road’ and ‘western region’ are the extent of its insight.)
Francois pulls over when we finally spot Fjóla, Delia and the three horses in the distance (they’re both riding, and Fjóla pulls a spare). We walk off-road for a few hundred meters to meet them down in a valley, where the sheep is lying on the ground, shaking. Its breath comes fast and shallow. Francois scoops the exhausted animal up in his arms and turns to me. “Can you drive?” he asks.
“I can drive!” says Oliver, who is eight. “Nr,” says Francois.
The hike back up to the truck is steep. The boys take it at a run. Francois arranges the panting sheep on the back of the spare horse. He will lead it to a point on the dirt road that’s easier to access, where he’ll load the sheep into the backseat of the truck. The horses’ hooves slip over the uneven terrain as he and the girls head down.
This corralling process has been repeated many times over the past two weeks, including these final scans for stragglers. Though almost all of the sheep are found, some are lost to neighboring farms or hidden crevices; the ones that are left in the mountains will not survive the winter.
It will be important to keep the sheep conscious on the drive. Seeming used to the drill, the boys pet it and talk to it as the truck lumbers downhill. The sheep will not survive, but there is no emotion surrounding this outcome, when it comes – only clear-eyed logistics. “The kids consider some of our animals like pets,” Francois says later. “They give them names. But they understand the process. Then we have a dinner and they say, “Oh, this is Berta”. They are pragmatic.”
The next morning, a Sunday, the farmers are at it again. This is the final day of herding this season, and they will move all of the sheep they’ve collected to the concrete ring in preparation for the sorting tomorrow. It’s a several-mile trek downhill, and the group forms a caravan of sorts. Riders and walkers fan out behind the mass of sheep, and a long line of trucks and trailers roll down the road behind them.
When the sheep stay on track, it’s a fine affair – as though the community has simply collectively decided to take a stroll. Warm voices rise, and conversations condense into puffs of steam overhead. But every few minutes, especially as the land smooths out, a sheep goes rogue. When one goes, others go too, jolting off to the side all at once. The farmers jump into action.
The Icelandic herd sheep with their whole bodies. There seems to be a universal agreement that lateral star-jumps are the most effective corralling strategy, and the people on foot bound sideways to curb the escape. They clap their hands over their heads and erupt with lively sounds: “Eyyyeehh!” “Aiiiy!” “Hup hup!” The sheep dogs take their cue – some farmers’ dogs are better than others, it’s remarked – and the kids tackle the more strategic getaways, clambering into scrub bushes and up steep rock face to tackle sheep and pull them back. Some sheep make it down into a gorge off the road, and it takes five people to drive them back through the undergrowth. Those on horseback round out the periphery. It’s a moment of veritable but inconvenient excitement.
Delia is 16. She has been working with her mother in the mountains every morning, sleeping in the cabin with the adults, and she’s almost as exhausted as the sheep they found yesterday. She rides up beside me on her horse. It’s her own, and she’s very proud of it. She is shy but frank, and she never complains about the work. Fjóla, riding beside her and still pulling their spare horse, asks if I’d like a turn. “Can you ride bareback?” she asks. I say “Yes” in a way that is apparently unconvincing, so she nods at Delia, who hops off her saddled horse and onto the bareback spare. Francois hands me the reins and a helmet. Trial by fire, this country.
The horse is small and wide. Its coat shines – it’s chestnut-colored, with a thick, tidy auburn mane that blows over its eyes. I pat its neck and wonder out loud how to tell the difference between a horse and a pony. “Don’t call them ponies,” calls Francois. “People have died for less than that!”
From horseback, the sheep look like a wide river of white spilling down the mountainside. They’re all shaggy – scraggly, even, with long wool that hangs heavy like dreadlocks. Sometimes they run so fast that both of their back legs leave the ground at the same time, and the wool on their backs lifts with each leap, like fanning out a sheet. The unbroken reel of their bleating forms the soundtrack of these days. Some calls are nasal and thin, some are low and strident, and an occasional higher one can sound almost human.
After a couple of hours, the procession has moved onto flat land. There’s an almost imperceptible release of pressure: like opening a valve. The sheepdogs run around, sensing that they’re finished with work but still indefatigable. Someone proffers a flask of whiskey. Someone plays a harmonica.
Francois and Fjóla have lived on their farm in southwest Iceland, outside Borgarnes, for 15 years. Their house sits at the end of a three-mile dirt road, along a little inlet of the Atlantic and a lighthouse. They raise sheep, horses, cattle, chickens, and a few clever sheepdogs, one of which just had puppies. At eight weeks, Francois can already tell from the dogs’ behaviors which ones will be suitable for sheep herding. They will not keep the ones that are not.
The farm makes a good vantage point, they say: when the days are long, the midnight sun shines blood red on Hafnarfjall Mountain before it sinks for a couple hours. When the days are short, the northern lights play like piano keys overhead. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula has been called a microcosm of Iceland, and this is part of the reason why: in 170 square kilometers, it has everything from hot mineral springs to underground caves, from volcanos and waterfalls to whales and puffins, from rhyolite mountains to lava fields to black-sand beaches and a shipwreck.
Although Fjóla and Delia have been staying at the cabin in the mountains, Francois and the boys drive the hour home each night to look after the other animals, pick up food and supplies, and rest.
The next day: the main event. The group has reconvened in the ring for the sorting. Icelandic farmers and families characteristically look forward to this as a social event, despite the fact that it’s technically an annual chore.
The sheep’s ears are all cut in different shapes, or earmarks, to help with identification. Francois and Fjóla’s sheep have triangular cuts in the top of the left ear. Others have thin slits, arcs or clips off the end – some on one ear, some on both. Fjóla can often identify hers from a distance, as she breeds them for black spots on their faces. The children sometimes recognize the ones they favored during lambing season. Although many of the sheep have big, curled horns, Francois and Fjóla try to avoid this genetic trait, as it can make birthing more difficult. The downside is that they cannot pull sheep by their horns, which allow a better grip.
Francois squints against the sun as he distributes scraps of paper with the family’s code: this number can be found on the plastic tags on their sheep’s ears. These numbers are meant as a final check, since many of the earmarks look similar.
Nearly 100 locals – most in woolen jumpers – have gathered to lend a hand. By now, midmorning, everyone is busy at work in the ring. Children help too, even though they’re not much bigger than the sheep. They are used to it, Fjóla says, as she demonstrates how to straddle a sheep and pin it to the ground. She moves with grace and confidence: the panache that’s only possible when you’re not thinking about panache.
In recent years, visitors to Iceland have gotten involved with this process, with some travel companies and independent farms offering réttir tours of various lengths. Some upcharge for the event – it is, after all, an up-close encounter with a deep Icelandic tradition – but others favor a more pastoral arrangement. Farmers may charge a fee to cover expenses like extra petrol and food, but some may reciprocate with fresh farm eggs or homemade bread in addition to facilitating the experience. Many recognize that while tourists find the event interesting (and, inevitably, require a bit of extra attention), they are ultimately offering more hands on deck, and the work is tiring.
The ring is so jammed that walking – even, at times, maintenance of balance – is nearly impossible. The sheep push roughly, frantically, barreling into knees and shins and gates and each other. Some are black, a couple are brown, and a few have spots, like Fjóla’s, but most are white – a dirty white, but white. A few of them decide this is a prime last-minute coupling opportunity. When enough sheep have been corralled – maybe half – and the momentum in the ring dies, sharp blasts on a whistle call everyone to the perimeter. The main gate is opened and more sheep are let in. Sheep enter the ring at a run, bounding in erratic leaps as they cross the threshold.
The sorting process takes hours and is not, perhaps, the most efficient strategy – but it’s the way it’s been done for more than 300 years in Iceland, even in farm communities much larger than this one. The government mandates a réttir date each year for the more than 150 farming regions in Iceland. Questions like “Why do the farmers stop working together during the sorting?” and “Why don’t you mark the sheep with paint?” are met with the same answer: “It’s tradition.”
Because the sheep have roamed freely since May, some from neighboring communities have made it into this ring – and some of these farmers’ will have made it across borders, too. Getting the wayward sheep that are not claimed at the réttir back to their own farms is another stage of the process.
The men from the slaughterhouse have arrived, and some negotiations are being made. They’re offering 40% less money this year. Many farmers’ instinctive reaction is to refuse to sell, but it’s not so simple: even if everyone agrees to strike, farmers will end up with too many sheep to accommodate and feed. Normally they only keep the strongest sheep: the ones they will breed for next year.
The farmers stage an impromptu meeting off to the side. After a bit of deliberation, they send the men away with no sheep – and a pledge that they won’t sell without a better offer. It’s a show of solidarity, and it lends a little extra spirit to the sorting process. There are logistics to confront, but that will be done later. Not today, not now.
By evening, the central ring is empty. Bits of wool and the odd horn lie on the ground, casualties of a strange battle. The air feels sacred, almost eerie, in the abrupt stillness. The farmers finish loading their sheep into trailers; they will make several trips back and forth to drive them home. Sheepdogs lie on the ground, finally spent. Even the sheep are resigned and tired, and only an odd bleat escapes their wooden crates. Later tonight, still covered in mud, blood and wool, these farmers will convene for stew – lamb stew, that is – and companionship. Fjóla has baked homemade bread. “It’s a celebration,” she says.
The sun sinks golden in a wide Icelandic sky. I realize I have stopped feeling the cold.