Icelandic sheep grazing in open fields

Icelandic Sheep Breed: Information, Behavior, and Care

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The Icelandic sheep breed remains one of the purest and oldest sheep breeds worldwide, with a history lasting over 1,000 years. These sheep are renowned for their versatility and ability to produce substantial quantities of meat, milk, and wool.

Icelandic sheep are among the rarest domestic animals. However, due to the harsh climates in their native region, these animals are naturally hardy and can withstand the most brutal winters. Rams are sexually active throughout the year, and ewes usually lamb twins.

Icelandic sheep breed

The History of the Icelandic Sheep Breed

Modern Icelandic sheep are descendants of the sheep introduced to Iceland by Viking settlers between the 9th and 10th centuries.

They are native to northern Europe, have short tails, and are closely related to Finnsheep, Romanov, Spelsau, and the Swedish Landrace. Of these, they’re the largest, despite being medium-sized sheep.

Only a few scientists have attempted crossing Icelandic sheep with other breeds. Unfortunately, most of these failed, and disastrous attempts often result in weak, disease-prone offspring.

This prompted the banning of sheep imports to Iceland, and you can only make improvements through selective breeding. It’s why Icelandic sheep remain the oldest and purest sheep breed worldwide.

Quick Facts About the Icelandic Sheep Breed

Country of origin Iceland
Breed name Icelandic Sheep
Breed purpose Milk, meat, and wool
Mature body weight Rams- 180 to 220 lbs.

Ewes – 150 to 170 lbs.

Average fiber diameter Outer coat – 28.5 microns

Inner coat – 20.5 microns

Grease fleece weight 4 to 7 lbs.
Fleece staple length Outer coat – 6 to 8 inches

Inner coat – 2 to 4 inches

Care Level High
Temperature Cold climates
Temperament Mixed

The Characteristics of the Icelandic Sheep Breed

Icelandic sheep are medium-sized, with rams ranging between 180 and 220 lbs. and ewes between 130 and 160 lbs. The animals are stocky and short-legged, with wool-less faces and legs.

The breed is primarily horned, but you can find a few polled animals. Horned rams have splendid full double-curled horns, while ewes develop a pretty backward sweeping half circle.

They’re seasonal breeders, and ewes come into heat between November and April. Rams develop a distinct smell in October that stimulates mating among the sheep.

This odor persists throughout the breeding season and hurts meat quality if rams are slaughtered within that period.

Mature rams are excellent breeders, and ewes have good prolificacy. The lambing rate averages 180%, which can be higher if you give proper care. Icelandic sheep have a long life expectancy, with ewes giving birth until they’re 14.

The Icelandic sheep breed produces premium-quality wool. The fleece is dual-coated, with a coarse outer coat called tog and a soft inner coat called thel.

Tog has a spinning count ranging from 56 to 60 and an average diameter of 28.5 microns. It grows between six and eight inches long.

On the other hand, thel has a spinning count ranging between 64 and 70, a diameter of 20.5 microns, and a length ranging from two to four inches.

Icelandic sheep grazing in open fields

Typical Behavior of the Icelandic Sheep Breed

Icelandic sheep exhibit mixed temperaments. Rams can be friendly and docile or aggressive and protective of their flock.

An adult ram can have as many as 60 ewes in his flock and will attack anyone who trespasses his territory, especially during the breeding season.

Conversely, ewes are calm and friendly. They are easy to pet, although they can also be flighty. However, they can’t jump over large obstacles.

Despite being recognized as a non-flocking breed, shepherds graze Icelandic sheep in winter. When free ranging in summer, ewes spread out to seek high-quality forage. Instead of walking side by side, they follow each other.

Advantages of the Icelandic Sheep Breed

The primary reason for keeping Icelandic sheep is meat production. Although lambs are small at birth, they grow fast, achieving 90 lbs. in 5 months. Their mothers wean them at this age.

Weaned lambs are ready for slaughtering and produce fine-quality meat with a fantastic flavor. However, as mentioned earlier, it isn’t advisable to slaughter breeding rams because of the unpleasant sheepy smell that affects meat quality.

Besides meat, Icelandic sheep are famous for their wool. It has a coarse outer coat called tog and a fine undercoat called thel.

The fleeces are open and contain little grease, making them ideal for hand spinning. The thel is soft and down-like and helps make luxury pillows and comforters.

Milk production is also above average, as the animal averages 150 litres annually.

Moreover, Icelandic sheep have pelt skin with very few hair follicles. So it’s perfect for making high-end clothing, mostly designer coats that command high prices.

Disadvantages of the Icelandic Sheep Breed

The most notable disadvantage of the Icelandic sheep breed is its inability to cross with other sheep breeds. This makes it impossible to transfer its desirable characteristics to other sheep.

Also, horned rams can be aggressive and hurt other animals on your farm.

Taking Care of Icelandic Sheep

Icelandic sheep require little maintenance because of their natural hardiness. Being native to the cold climate of Iceland, these animals are resistant to ovine progressive pneumonia and scrapie. They’re also immune to foot rot.

You can raise and fatten Icelandic sheep on grass alone. However, it’s worth noting that these sheep are aggressive grazers with large rumens. Therefore, you must provide enough pastures to ensure healthy growth and development.

Farmers usually shear Icelandic sheep twice yearly. Therefore, the best time to groom your animal is in late winter for rams and early spring for ewes.

You can also trim the fleece in fall, a few weeks before winter. This allows you to make the most of the wool, which has a lucrative market price.

READ ALSO: How To Shear A Sheep With Hand Shears? (Practical Guide!)


You should consider keeping the Icelandic sheep breed if you’re a purist. It’s one of the oldest and purest sheep breeds in existence. Regardless, it’s easy to maintain, as it can survive on grass alone and resists many diseases.

A well-fed lamb becomes ready for slaughtering within 5 months after birth. Alternatively, you can let it live to grow your flock and get income from selling wool and pelt skin, which are premium-priced products.


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