How more than half a million sheep are gathered and sorted

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These days, hundreds of thousands of sheep that for months have grazed freely on the highlands of Iceland must be recovered, sorted and brought back to their farmers’ stables, in view of winter. The complex operations to do this are called réttir, sorting, and are a very popular and characteristic traditional social event of island life. In recent years they have also become an opportunity for tourism promotion: there are organized tours that plan to attend the sorting and the previous phase of the gathering.

The réttir they are a tradition that is at least 300 years old, although some trace them back to the first settlers of the 12th century. They are one of the most important moments in Icelandic countryside life, but they also involve Icelanders living in cities because they require the cooperation of many people.

Sheep farming has been a major source of livelihood in Iceland for centuries and today there are around 400,000 sheep on the island in winter, and even double from May onwards, after each female has given birth on average a couple of lambs. For comparison: in 2020 the human inhabitants of the entire country were only 366 thousand.

In summer the sheep are left completely free to roam and graze on the highlands, because there they can find all the food they need and because of the absence of predators: in Iceland there are no wolves, and the only carnivorous land mammals, foxes. arctic, are not large enough to attack sheep. During the summer months, encountering sheep is a constant in almost every corner of Iceland, often in groups of three (a mother and two lambs, considered as such until the age of one year).

In the winter months the harsh climate and the absence of food would not allow the animals to survive, so the farmers proceed to the recovery and sorting: on fixed days the sheep are conveyed to collection points traditionally made up of two concentric circular fences, with the outer ring divided into wedges. This is where the sorting takes place physically, based on the tags attached to the sheep’s ears.

One of the enclosures of two concentric circles in which the sorting takes place (photo unitalianoinislanda.com)

A medium-sized farm may have to manage as many as a thousand animals and is often family-run. Friends, relatives and volunteers are then involved in the réttir, real peasant ceremonies that include moments of socialization and a final party. There are about 150 events of this type, depending on the areas of the island. The calendar listing them can be found at local authorities or in newspapers such as Bændablaðið“The peasants’ sheet”: in its paper edition it takes the form of a highly sought-after double page, as witnessed on Twitter by Leonardo Piccione, an Italian journalist and writer who lives part of the year in Iceland.

The réttir they are preceded by the long and complex phase of the gathering, the so-called smölun: it is a question of recovering and conveying to the collection areas a large number of sheep, which have often strayed far and on rough terrain. The operation is carried out by shepherds with the help of entire communities and the fundamental work of dogs: on foot, or more often aboard quads, off-road vehicles or Icelandic horses, the breeders scour the highlands for a few days, up to the glaciers. , and direct the sheep to the areas where the sorting will take place. These operations are directed by the fjallkóngurthe “king of the mountain”, who must have extensive knowledge of the area and a certain recognized authority within the local community.

A moment of the grouping phase. (photo unitalianoinislanda.com)

On the appointed day then the sheep that have been grouped are led to the corridor leading to the enclosure (rétt in Icelandic). Operations in this case are directed by the réttarstjóri“Sorting manager”.

Roberto Luigi Pagani, writer and researcher in Icelandic linguistics and paleography at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, has participated in various editions of réttir and told them on his website “An Italian in Iceland”. He explains that to herd the sheep to the central corral, said almenningur, “General”, we proceed as follows: «We wave our arms and make noises, hisses, screams, to make them run away in the direction of the opening. When thealmenningur is full, the gate closes and expects to have sorted the sheep already entered, before letting others pass. To sort them you have to go through them and read the codes on the labels, then you grab them by the horns and lift them to lead them into one of the side dividers, called dilkar, each of which belongs to a particular farm. A person will take care to open and close the gate. Once your pen is full, the sheep are driven on a trailer pulled by a tractor. ‘

The whole operation, the Icelanders assure, is painless for the animals but can be dangerous (or at least painful) for breeders and helpers: the sheep kick and can hit with the horns, common among Icelandic sheep. At the end of the works, the réttir often provide for a party, called réttaballwhich also marks the end of summer.

From mid-October the sheep are then kept in stables and fed with hay stored in the previous summer. They stay indoors until May, when the grass needed to feed them grows back on the highlands. A few weeks before the return to the open, the lambs are born and the mothers are separated from the rest of the flock to take care of the young, and then taken to the fields for weaning.

Icelandic sheep are numerically down compared to the past because their breeding is less and less profitable, due to the competition of meat and wool obtained at lower costs abroad. Breeding is mainly concentrated in the western and north-western areas, while in other areas cattle breeding is more common. The sheep are shorn twice a year and their wool is particularly valuable and insulating. However, 80 percent of livestock revenues come from the sale of meat, very common in local cuisine, while milk has not been used since the 1940s due to low profitability.

– Read also: Iceland versus Iceland

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About Banner Leon

Videogames entered his life in the late '80s, at the time of the first meeting with Super Mario Bros, and even today they make it a permanent part, after almost 30 years. Pros and defects: he manages to finish Super Mario Bros in less than 5 minutes but he has never finished Final Fight with a credit ... he's still trying.

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