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A Flock of Your Own Icelandic Sheep
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Icelandic Sheep on our Vermont Sheep Farm, why Icelandic Sheep are easy to keep!

Once the decision is made to keep sheep you'll quickly discover that sheep come in a dizzying variety of breeds. Sheep for fiber, sheep for meat, sheep for milking (if you want to get into that). And each has its good points. The more refined the breed, the more specific its purpose, in general, the more difficult it is going to be to work with. The more primitive the breed, the less specific it is, the easier it is to work with. With one caveat... primitive breeds can be more difficult to herd, by hand or with dogs, because they haven't lost their feral natures through selective breeding. The primitive breeds remain, however, the most versatile, and robust, of the sheep breeds for the small farmer. Why? Because in our drive to breed for desirable traits, we humans often sacrifice other traits which have helped the animals survive for thousands of years. Having said this... obviously some sheep are perfectly willing to take a nap with you in the spring sunshine! So much for the "feral" nature of the Icelandic sheep!

Sheep breeds do have trade-offs. For example we've created meat breeds of sheep that produce very heavy lambs. But a heavy lamb is a large lamb, and ewes often need help to bring them into this world. Heavy wool breeds need to be cleaned on an almost daily basis, lest flies hatch their eggs in the moist damp folds of their skin. Primitive breeds  like the Icelandic may not end as a heavy, well marbled, carcass, nor produce a heavy, lanolin rich, fleece... but they also don't require the care and maintaince of their more refined cousins.

It us unusual for us but one of the factors that weighed heavily in favor of Icelandic sheep was that they are not rare. Usually, we prefer the unusual or rare breed of livestock, simply because farms like ours are what keep these breeds alive. But when it came down to a choice between two breeds in the same "class" of sheep, we decided to go with the better known, and more readily available Icelandic, instead of the smaller Shetland. There are more farms to buy stock from, and more farmers who can lend a hand if you find yourself puzzling over a problem.

As a Small Farm Sheep Icelandics would be hard to beat.

  • Icelandic Sheep are thrifty keepers which means, on our Vermont farm, they can gain weight on grass alone, and gain it quickly. In fact, it isn't advisable to feed an Icelandic sheep more than a handful or two of grain, their systems aren't built for it. Not only are they thrifty (efficient) users of feed, but they won't overgraze a pasture. This is the result of thousands of generations of Icelandic sheep being kept on the thin pastures of Iceland. Before they ruin the grass, they'll stop grazing and live off their own stored fat.

  • Icelandic Sheep breed later than other breeds, and they lamb, on average, 5 days earlier...which means smaller lambs and less likelihood of lambing complications. "They bounce when they hit the ground!" one shepherd told us. Lambs are up, and eating, with enthusiasm right after birth.

  • A goodly percentage of Icelandic ewes carry the twinning gene. And there's nothing to speed along building a flock than having all the ewes in your starter flock pop twins!

  • Icelandic Ewes produce copious amounts of milk. Enough to keep twins happy, even enough to milk if you want to get into the sheep's milk cheese or yogurt market.

  • Icelandic sheep have a double coated fleece. Long guard hairs on the top called the Tog and a downy undercoat called Thel. The fibers can either be spun together, or easily pulled apart to make a rug yarn from the coarser fibers, and a soft light yarn from the undercoat. In short, you don't get one fiber from the sheep... but three possibilities.

  • Icelandic sheep will naturally shed their fleece. The truth of it is... the market is saturated with wool right now. It often costs more to have your sheep sheared than the fleece is worth. And if you process the wool into yarn at one of the micro-mills, you'll need to get a good price for that yarn just to break even. When you're just starting out, this can be an added expense and headache you don't need. No problem. In the spring, Icelandic fleece "breaks" and the sheep rub their long winter coats off. Icelanders used to pick the fiber off trees and bushes before they discovered it might be easier to collect it all at once... off the sheep!  I should note that even though the sheep will, eventually, shed their fleece, you'll want to shear your ewes either just before, or just after, they lamb, so the lambs can find the udder under all that wool!  We sheer the winter coats off by hand.  It takes me about an hour to get a fleece off while the ewe and her new lamb are in the lambing pen. She isn't happy about my "messing around" with her, but the fleece comes off easily and the lamb can find what it is looking for afterwards. You're also cutting off anything left over from the birth, plant material in the fleece, etc... things you don't need around your new lamb.

  • Icelandic sheep are durable. Or as one shepherd put it ruefully "when we were starting out, we did everything wrong... and nobody died!" For generations, Icelanders drove their sheep to summer pastures, and left them. Those that didn't survive, didn't contribute their genes to the next generation. Some of these sheep are so clever, they're called Leader Sheep, because they'll take charge of the flock in an emergency. All of them are durable, and given even rudimentary shelter will thrive in icy winters. Does it sound like the perfect Vermont sheep yet?

  • Icelandic sheep produce a lean, moderately sized, carcass. While you may be keeping yours for fleece and mowing, this was one of our considerations. Lean, clean, meat, grown on our own pastures.

  • And, in the same vein, a flexible, desirable, pelt. Sheepskins used to be very popular, and still are especially for people who have circulation problems. They cushion and breath naturally.

  • Icelandic sheep naturally come "polled" and "horned." Polled, or hornless, is the way for new shepherds to go, we've been told. But we love the look of a fully horned ram. And horns give you handles to grab, when you need to move a sheep around. Horns can hook you by accident, but if a ram is determined to drive you out of his space, the comes at you with the bony plate in his forehead, like a battering ram (hence the name of..). Like any testosterone charged male, rams can be unpredictable, so you'll exercise caution around them.

Go to The List: What You Need To Keep Icelandic Sheep

Buying Sheep: a quick primer

Go to our Resources and Links section

 Want to visit? We're in Mansfield, VT outside of Stowe.


VISIT A VERMONT SHEEP FARM | LIFE WITH ICELANDIC SHEEP | WEAVING STUDIO FIBER SALEABOUT US | NEW ENGLAND ICELANDIC SHEEP BREEDERS ASSOCIATION | CONTACT US

Raising Icelandic Sheep in New England is how we keep our Vermont hill farm open and... entertaining! Keeping a hobby or spinning flock of sheep is easy when you choose a breed like the robust and hearty Icelandic sheep. Icelandic sheep breeders in New England not only offer breeding stock, soft wool yarn, fleece and roving.... they offer onfarm clinics for beginners, hands on demonstrations at Vermont Farm Shows, and online stores where you can buy Icelandic fleece, roving, and wool yarn.

Just starting out? Read our article You CAN Farm to get yourself going... keeping Icelandic sheep may not be the way to riches and glory, but for the part time small farmer the Icelandic sheep are "thrifty keepers" requiring little or no graining, hearty in New England's winter weather, and lamb readily and easily, frequently throwing twins.  Icelandics come in 3 colors and an astonishing variety of patterns... enough to keep the hand spinner happy for years to come.

Welcome to The Farm at Morrison Corner, the last hill farm in Mansfield, VT. 


The Farm at Morrison Corner raises Icelandic Sheep on the last hill farm in Mansfield, VT.  Learn about Raising Icelandic Sheep, Raising Chickens, Moving to Vermont and Living in Vermont on this and our other sites.

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