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Happiness, Iceland-style

There’s real romance to the history of Icelandic horses and sheep, and maybe real opportunity for these Canadian farmers

One vista of Iceland.

Over a thousand years ago, in the year 874, when the Vikings first landed on Iceland, they came with their sheep and horses, and the animals proved essential for the survival of those early Icelanders as they settled the rugged North Atlantic island. The horses served as transport and labour; the sheep provided meat, milk and wool for clothing.

On this island, the horses and sheep have been respected ever since, and they still are today.

Ancient laws still make it illegal to import either species from off the island, or even to return any that have left. Dual citizenship is not an option. And no sheep or horse heading south for winter, in hopes of returning when the weather warms up, will be allowed re-entry.

It’s how the breeds have remained pure, adapting, over the centuries, to their demanding environment.

Today, some 80,000 horses live alongside a population of 323,000 Icelanders. That’s roughly one horse for every four people, or 10 times the rate in Canada, and Icelanders are devoted to them. Horses are kept for riding, for competition and simply for the pleasure of their company.

They contribute to the economy too, providing a trusty, enjoyable way for tourists to explore the country’s rough terrain. They are small, adorable, gentle, affectionate nuzzlers with expressive eyes, short legs, long manes and tails that almost sweep the ground. Thanks to their fifth gait, called the tölt, they treat riders to such a smooth ride, you can enjoy a glass of a favourite tipple while moving. (I didn’t spill a drop!)

The breed was brought to Canada by Robyn Hood and Phil Pretty in 1976 at the time of the Great American Horse Race. Hood and Pretty are owners of the Icelandic Horse Farm in Vernon, B.C. In fact, there are some 3,500 registered Icelandic horses in Canada today, mainly in B.C. and Ontario, where their appeal is for pleasure riding and as a family horse.

And then there are the Icelandic sheep, also with ancient Northern European roots. They are slightly smaller than modern breeds, and their double-layered coat is uniquely suited to the country’s cold and wet conditions.

“They convey a sense of contentment in a frenetic world,” says Ontario’s Merel Verduyn. “At my age, it’s a lifestyle choice.” photo: Supplied

Set low and stocky, the breed has maintained one of the purest bloodlines in all of agriculture. Vigour and hardiness made them a foundation of the Viking settlement, and they are probably the oldest domesticated sheep breed in the world.

These days the sheep are raised primarily for their meat, which produces an estimated 80 per cent of a sheep farmer’s income, but their wool is a valuable byproduct. The inner layer (thel) is insulating, superlight and very airy, while the outer layer (tog) is long, strong and water repellent.

Carded together, these two layers make lopi, a versatile yarn used to knit lopapeysa, the distinctive, traditional Icelandic sweater. (Lopi refers to the yarn, while peysa is sweater in Icelandic.) “Having a lopapeysa is like wearing knitted Iceland,” Ragnheiöur Eiríksdóttir (a.k.a. Ragga), a knitting guru and entrepreneur, told me over coffee in a Reykjavik café. The room was full of men and women, of all ages. Ragga wasn’t the only one knitting. I seemed to be the only one not wearing a lopapeysa. I made a mental note: don’t leave for home without one.

In the 17th century, when German merchants introduced the skill to Icelanders, the ability to knit strictly utilitarian garments became a vital part of survival, both to keep warm during long, harsh winters and also to sell to merchant sailors from Europe.

Both men and women knitted. Gender nonsense didn’t come into play until after the 1970s, according to Ragga. In many homes, children as young as eight were expected to knit a pair of mitts in a week. Learning to knit is still part of the grade school curriculum here. For boys and girls.

By the mid-1900s, lopapeysas began to dot the landscape. Their exact origin is a bit uncertain — some say Greenland, others, Norway — but the time was right for enterprising knitters to begin experimenting with various designs, creating something that was uniquely Icelandic.

It didn’t last forever, though. By the end of the 20th century, knitting was considered an outdated and old-fashioned hobby. But when the banking collapse crippled the economy in 2008, Icelanders became more nationalistic, wanting to return to traditional values — to go home, hug their family and knit. Knitting became trendy and hip, and yarn sales tripled.

At the peak of summer, sheep outnumber the human population by almost three to one. On this little island, in the middle of nowhere, sheep have no predators. Allowed to roam in the summer, they are everywhere across the island’s barren, rocky landscape where they scale giant mountains in search of edible moss and herbs. Alongside roadways, they have the right of way.

In order to survive in Iceland, the Icelandic sheep developed their own leader-sheep that, through the centuries, have proven to have a strong genetically based intelligence, developed to help the sheep survive.

RéHir, the annual sheep roundup, happens in September. Farmers, their families, friends and even tourists head to the countryside to bring the sheep in for the winter.

Buster and Flash pose for the camera. photo: Supplied

Icelandic sheep in Canada

In 1985, the late Stefania Sveinbjarnardottir-Dignum, an Iceland native, became the first person to import Icelandic sheep into North America. Some of her fondest memories were of summers spent on the sheep and dairy farms of family and friends.

After she emigrated to Ontario, she eventually settled on a farm in Parham, an hour north of Kingston, where she dreamed of raising the sheep of her childhood. Initially, she imported 12 — carefully chosen during a visit to her homeland.

It’s doubtful she could have imagined that 35 years later Canada would have become home to more than 25,000 purebred, registered Icelandic sheep.

Justin Audet and Natalie Cartier, owners of Ferme Le Biscornu in Rimouski, Que., reached out to Stefania 16 years ago, when they decided to raise grass-fed sheep. They were drawn to the breed because of the quality of the meat.

“It is different from regular lamb,” Audet says. “It is sweeter, with very little heavy fat.”

Their initial purchase of 25 sheep was followed a year later with 15 more. Their goal to develop the herd to 120 was based on available grassland and to provide full-time employment for one person. Initially Cartier was that person, while Audet continued his work as a college guidance counsellor.

In 2006, Cartier took a course in vaginal artificial insemination with frozen semen, and Le Biscornu became the first Canadian farm to practice VAI with semen imported from Iceland. Taking the course meant eliminating the involvement of a vet. “AI gives us access to a wide variety of proven superior rams,” says Audet. “This supply of ‘new blood’ is a great benefit for a breed whose Canadian herd is relatively small and dispersed.”

Drought in the Rimouski region four years ago resulted in the couple cutting the herd back to 50 ewes with Cartier supplementing the family income with a secretarial job. Their current goal is to once again develop a herd of 120, providing full-time work for either Cartier or a hired hand.

Le Biscornu sells meat directly to area consumers, breeding stock nationwide, and raw fleece to hand spinners through FaceBook.

Audet began by selling “to local chefs at good restaurants.” Word of mouth, the farm’s web page and FaceBook were the only advertising necessary. He sells breeding stock across the country, having earned a reputation for exceptional genetics, and he relies on social media to sell the fleece to hand spinners.

Sized for 120 ewes and artificial insemination, Le Biscornu’s sales are 55 per cent from meat, five per cent from wool, and a full 40 per cent from stock sales to other Canadians eager for Icelandic sheep of their own. photo: Supplied

Having gained a reputation for excellent quality fleece, he sells out within two days of advertising on FaceBook, and he reports 55 per cent of their sheep income comes from meat, 40 per cent from breeding stock and five per cent from fleece.

The breed has enticed farmers looking to diversify as well as wannabe, hobby farmers. For anyone who falls in love with these sheep, Audet’s advice is, “forget about how pretty they are. Focus on the market and adapt the venture to the breed.”

For 35 years, Cheryle and Byron Zbirun have raised purebred Simmental cattle on their farm in Little Creek, Man. Looking for something to call her own 15 years ago, Cheryle chose sheep and decided, after online research, that Icelandics were the way to go because they would provide milk, meat and wool. “Never,” she says, “did I imagine that I would fall in love with them.”

Today her flock numbers 70 ewes. She considers this size of herd to be somewhere between a business and a hobby. “It doesn’t support us, but it does pay the taxes. And it is a manageable size for me.” She is, however, always looking for better genetics. “The gourmet reputation of the meat makes it an easy sell.”

Coyotes were a problem until the couple got two Great Pyrenees dogs. “They work all night, one on patrol and one staying with the herd,” Cheryle says, “The coyotes are no longer a problem.”

On a 45-acre farm near Cavan, Ont., meanwhile, Merel Verduyn at age 75, is living her dream. “I have always loved animals, and after a career in business, I wanted a small farm of my own,” she says. In 2003, the opportunity arose. “All my money went into repairing two barns, installing fencing and purchasing three llamas.”

By the time the herd had grown to 67, Verduyn’s costs were “way up there.” The market dropped and, in 2010, she opted to sell off the herd, replacing them with two Icelandic ewes and a ram. She chose this breed because they hadn’t been genetically tinkered with; the ewes have a five-month gestation period versus 12 months for alpacas, and she knew there was a market in her community for the high-quality meat.

Verduyn recently downsized her flock. “At my age, it’s a lifestyle choice. Five breeding ewes basically cover my costs and are just the right number for me to care for. I love the responsibility of going out to feed and clean them each day because they convey a sense of contentment in a frenetic world.”

According to the annual World Happiness Report, Iceland consistently rates as one of the happiest countries of the world. They don’t get all the credit, of course, but you can’t help wondering if it’s partly because the island’s horses and sheep continue to work their own particular breed of magic.

These scattered Canadian farms seem so happy too. Hmmm, I wonder…

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