Iceland’s Annual Tradition of Counting Sheep

 I must have looked a little sheepish while attempting to maneuver a ram from one side of a holding pen to the other, because a young Icelandic boy approached me with some advice. “Try squeezing it harder between your legs,” he said in English, referring to the animal that I was straddling, “and lift its front off the ground by picking it up with its horns. It will make moving him easier.”

The whole thing felt unnatural, but the boy was right: With the sheep’s own front legs in the air and my thighs working at full capacity, I was essentially able to wiggle our way to the appropriate farmer, identifiable by the mix of numbers and letters hanging above the farmer’s paddock that matched those on the sheep’s own identification tag.

This is Iceland’s annual rettir, a roundup of sheep that takes place across Iceland each September. The centuries-old tradition involves sorting these woolly creatures after a summer of free-grazing on mountain grasses and berries in the highlands, where natural predators are nonexistent. These days, the rettir has morphed from its roots as a necessity among farmers into a multigenerational celebration that includes family and friends, with many (including lots of children) taking part in the activity, while others watch from the sidelines snapping photos and enjoying steaming cups of coffee.

sheep sorting

“It is important to keep traditions for future generations,” said Aðalheiður Margrét Gunnarsdóttir, a teacher in classical singing and local opera performer who lives in Fljótshlíð, the south coast farming community where this particular rettir took place. “But this is also a great way to sort the sheep.”

All of Iceland’s rettirs occur in September, though each area has its own set date. For example, in Fljótshlíð, the rettir always happens during the third weekend of September on a Sunday. Much of the labor is done beforehand during the annual gongur, which is the initial herding of sheep back in the highlands. Together, farmers and members of their local community head out on horseback with sheepdogs in tow, gathering their livestock up for the winter. It’s a process that can take anywhere from a few days to an entire week—since the sheep can wander wherever they like. “It does happen that they go to a different zone and mix with sheep from other areas,” said Eyrún Aníta Gylfadóttir, Gunnarsdóttir’s friend and the marketing manager at Hotel Rangá, the nearby property where I was staying. “In this case, the farmers will recognize the earmark and let the neighboring farmer know. Still, they typically stay in the area they are released in.”

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