The pelt of the Icelandic sheep is beautiful, lustrous, soft and luxurious, in a delightful range of colors and patterns. The relatively low number of follicles per square millimeter, a count of 12 rather than the 53-87 of the Merino sheep, for example, makes the pelt soft and flexible. These pelts command a high price in that niche market.
In North America, Icelandic sheep are only registered through the Canadian Livestock Records Corporation, known as the CLRC. Registrations can be done via surface mail, or electronically, and requires tattooing the sheep in a manner accepted by the CLRC. The Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America (ISBONA) organization formed in 1996 for the education of the public and for the education and fellowship of the Icelandic Sheep breeders. As defined by the by-laws of ISBONA, the breed association recognizes the registry of Icelandic sheep only through the CLRC.
"Some people may argue that sheep are not intelligent and clever. However, it is well known that sheep have their own intelligence although not comparable with that of people. We should not underestimate the wisdom of domestic animals anyway.The only breed of sheep in Iceland is the native North European Short Tailed sheep brought there by the settlers, the Vikings, 1100-1200 years ago. Without them Icelanders would not have survived throughout centuries of hardship on an isolated island just south of the Arctic Circle. Even grazing in winter had to be utilized to the utmost and somehow a unique, small population of sheep developed which displayed outstanding abilities to help the farmers and shepherds to manage the flock on pasture, namely leadersheep. Although farming practices have changed and thus the role of these highly intelligent sheep with special alertness and leadership characteristics in their genes, there is still a population of 1000-1200 sheep within the national population of just under 500,000.
Most of the leadersheep are coloured and horned, even four-horned in a few cases. They have a slender body conformation, long legs and bones generally, yet of lighter weight than other sheep in the flock because they have been selected for intelligence, not for meat traits. Leadersheep are graceful and prominent in the flock, with alertness in the eyes, normally going first out of the sheep-house, looking around in all directions, watching if there are any dangers in sight and then walking in front of the flock when driven to or from pasture. They may even guard the flock against predators. There are many stories on record about their ability to sense or forecast changes in the weather even, refusing to leave the sheep-house before a major snowstorm. One wonders how better use could be made of such genes in the future.
We certainly want to preserve the Icelandic leadersheep. Interested individuals founded the Leader-Sheep Society of Iceland in April 2000. Amongst the priorities is to improve the individual recording of these sheep throughout the country and plan their breeding more effectively. We know that the best leadersheep are found in flocks in NE Iceland but farmers in all parts of the country are interested in their conservation. Support is also coming from individuals who are not keeping sheep. Icelandic sheep, not least leadersheep, have clearly a special role in our culture."
Written by Dr. Olafur R. Dyrmundsson, The Farmers Association of Iceland
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