So what is this “sheep-roundup” thing they have in Iceland?
If driving around Iceland in September or October you may have noticed, or perhaps actually been delayed, by herds and herds of sheep being chased by farmers on foot, horses or in vehicles. This is effectively what is known as the yearly sheep-roundup and is fast becoming a major draw for tourist.
In the Iceland language this is called “að smala” or rounding up and it can literally take days for farmers in some parts of the country. You see, in early springtime, after the lambs have been born, sheep is let out of the barns where they have been sheltered from the cruel Iceland winter. Not only let out but left free to roam wherever. Surely one of the benefits of few people in a large land where dangers are non-existent.
Needless to say the sheep love freedom as much as any Guantanamo inmate and over the next three to five months they roam where their hearts take them. Mostly the sheep seek higher ground and often way up into the highland.
Which means when the time comes to turn the cuddly little animals into food the owners often need serious time and assistance to round the sheep up again and bring to the farm. In most cases this takes a whole day but in extreme cases farmers have to search and make chase for up to three or four days.
Because this “roundup” takes huge effort and manpower farmers decided centuries ago to team up for the event. Farmers from the same area would all go rounding together and they would bring the sheep to special corrals erected for the occasion. Once there, each farmer could then easily pick his sheep out from the crowd and take to his farm. The corrals in question are called réttir in the local language.
Needless to say in a sparsely populated place as Iceland is and was, this yearly event quickly became the bona fide event for many a farmer and their families since it often meant the only opportunity to meet all the other farmers over a whole year. Naturally, it grew into much more than simply claiming your sheep. It became the biggest thing on the calendar. Not least because celebrations called for drinks and even dances after the hard day´s work. Hence, special balls in each county the same week as whence the roundup was completed.
The balls have nowadays mostly disappeared into history but everything else is here and most foreigners find this spectacle eerily fascinating. Not least the commotion in the réttir corral when each farmer needs to find his own sheep and most often move them by force. Mind you, this is not just done with sheep. Some of the more famous roundups in Iceland are roundups of horses.