Who owns the sheep and horses or are they wild?

The question is something that tour operators and drivers are asked every time they travel with foreigners in Iceland. And we, the guides and drivers, always find the question odd. We´ve never thought of wild animals in Iceland, besides the reindeers living mainly on the east coast of the island. And when we start answering the question we have to go back to the start point, the year the first settlers came to Iceland from Norway in the 9th century.

Icelandic sheep roundup

There are a few, not conflicting thoug, theories that explain why the Norwegians decided to leave Norway and sail to Iceland. One is that those who travelled didn´t want to obey to the authority of King Harald who had conquered the whole of Norway and made it to one kingdom. Another theory is they emigrated because of shortage of land In Norway. The third can easyli be curiosity: Imagine a viking, standing on the west coast of Norway on a bright summer night, looking at the  endless sea where it meets with the sky, and he wonders what is there on the other side of the horizon? And he convinces his relatives and friends to take their ships and go find out.

The ships the Norwegians made and used to sail to Russia and Europe were big enough to carry the mammals they needed in the new home. They brought sheep, cattle, horses, chicken, dogs and pigs to Iceland, needed to start a new life on this unhabited island.

Travellers in Iceland see mainly two types of animals: sheep and horses. The horses are kept inside fences, except for a heard of horses on the north side, and sheep roam around almost everywhere they want during summer time. That´s why tourists see them crossing the roads and wonder if they´re wild. It´s a traditon in Iceland to let them go everywhere after the lambs are being born in the month of May. In that way the lambs eat while growing what nature has to offer and we who have been eating lamb meet all our life are conviced that this is the reason for lamb tasting so good.

Sheep mother with two lambs outside the road

As explained in another blog drivers have to take special care when driving in Iceland in summer. The cheep and the lambs can run and cross the road when least expected and quite a few lambs are killed in road accidents every year. One good rule is to always slow down when you see sheep ahead of you, and especially when you notice that the lamb(s) is on one side of the road and the mother on the other side: it is almost 100% certain that one of them will run to the other side when they see the car approaching.

There are no wild sheep or horses in Iceland. They are all owned by farmers and when they´re rounded up in the fall they have tags in the ears that indicate who is their owner.

Needless to say that the best way to see the horses and sheep in Iceland is by travelling to the island, best on a private tour in Iceland, and experience the beautiful nature with your own eyes.

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Farmers riding on their horses to round up the sheep


Kjartan Valgardsson