26 Jan Farm News: Icelandic Leadersheep and Spring Shearing
Our Spring shearing is coming up! As our flock grows into their full wool coats, we see them settling into distinct personalities. These differences have put us in mind of an amazing story of sheep breeding: The Icelandic leadersheep. (Yes, that is a real word!)
The Icelandic sheep, brought to Iceland with the Vikings in 1100AD, made extensive human settlement of Iceland possible. These sheep (a close relative of the Shetland sheep) were extremely hardy animals that grew fat on sparse Icelandic vegetation. The sheep were so tough they required little maintenance for an excellent return of wool and meat. They would often forage independently in the long dark Icelandic winter. In the spring, the Icelanders would gather the flocks for shearing, milking and eventual butchering.
The leadersheep were a special breed of Icelandic sheep. They were bred for their intelligence, charisma, and independence to guide and protect the sheep flocks. There are many stories about the leadersheep- all attesting to their amazing instincts and sense of direction.
The most common stories involve a leadersheep returning with a lost flock (or a lost shepherd) through a winter blizzard. There are also several of leadersheep deterring predators or refusing to leave a sheep-house because they sensed a winter storm. The trusty leadersheep have three essential qualities; memory and instinct for directions, a vigilance for potential threats, and the charisma to lead other sheep.
A recent study confirmed the directional ability of leadersheep: the leadersheep were significantly ahead of normal Icelandics in their ability to find the way home. They also always put themselves at the head of a flock when moving in any direction.
The ifarm Shetlands
While we certainly don’t have Icelandic leadersheep at ifarm, we can say that our flock has drastic individual differences. By observing and breeding such individual traits (like intelligence, vigilance, and charisma), the Icelanders were able to create their leadersheep (x).
Our four Shetlands are remarkably diverse among just four animals. Sean, our white and black Shetland, is on one end of the spectrum, being highly vigilant and cautious with anything new. Chip, our black sheep (in more than name) is the opposite, highly inquisitive and trusting of people and new situations. His boldness often leads the other sheep to new curiosities.
The difference certainly has to do with their breeding and upbringing: Chip hails from a different farm and a different bloodline than the other three sheep (read more here.) Even among the three sheep from Painted Knoll farm (Sean, Eli, and Franklin) there is a significant difference in their vigilance and comfort with the unknown.
It is possible that if we were to select for intelligence, vigilance, and charisma, we could come up with something similar to the Icelandic leadersheep over many generations.
That said, our only sheep plans are to provide a good home and to shear some beautiful Shetland wool. The spring shearing is fast approaching! Early spring is the time to shear- it gives the Shetlands time to grow another full coat and stay cool as the temperatures begin to rise. We will keep you updated!
Happy foraging, until next time-
Gerrard, N. (1986). The Icelandic heritage. Arborg, Man.: Saga Publications & Research.