I live in Montgomery County, Maryland. Over a million people live in our county, distributed around in just over 500 square miles. By contrast, the island nation of Iceland covers some 40,000 square miles but has a population one third the size of Montgomery County – some 360,000. Our county averages about 2,000 people per square mile, but Iceland averages one person for every 10 square miles.
Then there’s the matter of sheep. There are 2,280 sheep farms in Iceland. That means there is a sheep farm for every 150 people in the country. There are more sheep than people in Iceland by a long shot.
The sheep population jumps up every year in May when the new lambs are born. Soon afterward, most sheep are released to roam the wild hills and valleys and high mountains. All summer they feed and fatten and grow their wool. The lands they roam are public, so the grazing is free food for all.
In the summertime, the farmers work their fields gathering up hay for the coming winter. Then in September, all the farmers in various communities work to gather the sheep into one place where they have a sorting facility built. This process is called Réttir (corral) and can take up to a week, since the sheep are scattered all over. The sheep are fast on their feet and widely disbursed. They are rounded up by people riding horses and assisted by sheepdogs, with others on foot where the terrain doesn’t allow riding.
Finally gathered down from the hills, you have them all in one place: fat happy lambs, ewes and rams. In the sorting corral, they’re identified by their earmarks and sorted to their owners’ pens off to the side. The owner then decides, which sheep are going to be sold and which are going back to the stables for the winter.
It’s a hard but happy time in Iceland. A time of meeting and kidding and dogs and music and drinking and children playing and young men competing and young women working hard but looking good at the same time. It’s a community event, everyone helping, no one slacking or cheating.
I was fortunate enough to witness one of these events in one small Icelandic community in 2019. The following are some of the sights and sounds I recorded.