Sheep and horse roundups in Iceland
From early September to mid-October, the ‘most Icelandic event ever’ takes place all over the country: réttir sheep round-up. Sheep, and sometimes free-roaming horses, are gathered home for the winter. This century-old tradition brings together family, friends, and spectators from all over the world. Parties and hearty food make the celebrations complete.
Where and when can I watch the "réttir"?
The réttir are open for everyone and are a fun way to learn how to catch a sheep and maneuver it into the right corral. This is also a great opportunity for kids to actively take part in Icelandic farm life and actually help!
If you are in Iceland in September, you should definitely check it out!
Where are all the sheep?
If you travel around Iceland between October and May you might wonder: “Where are all the sheep everybody is talking about“? During the wintertime, most of them are inside the stables or close to the farms. When the new lambs are born in May, stable doors are opened and the sheep and their young let out. They graze in the Icelandic countryside during the entire summer, only feeding on fresh grass, herbs and berries, which gives the Icelandic lamb meat its exceptionally good taste.
How are the sheep rounded up?
Réttir start with the so-called göngur where search parties ride horses and quad-bikes into the grazeland in search of roaming sheep, the trip spanning a few days to a week. Cold and rainy autumn weather can turn this event into an exhausting endeavor but comraderies, adventure, and fun on the way make it a special experience for those taking part. Luckily, sheep usually stay in the wider area where they were put for grazing, while some get lost. A second search takes place a few weeks later.
How to catch an Icelandic sheep – technique and fun
When the collected flock reaches the valley, they are herded into special sheep and horse sorting pens, that consist of one central pen and many spokes that belong to certain farms. The wooly and very excited crowd in the central pen is now a mix of sheep from different farms and has to be sorted. The preferred technique is to grab a sheep by the horns, hold its body with the thighs, and lift its forefeet slightly up. Their earmarks are tagged.
The horse round-ups („Stóðréttir) are a tradition mostly exclusive to the North of Iceland and usually take place by the end of September, beginning of October.. Herding a huge flock of young stallions home from the mountains on a horse galloping through Icelandic nature might be the cowboy experience of a lifetime, that you are searching for!
The most famous horse roundup is the Laufskálarétt in the Hjaltadal Valley in Skagafjorð. Hundreds of horses are gathered and corralled over many days and then brought to the Laufskálarétt pen next to Hólar í Hjaltadal.
Now, let's dance
Equally traditional to the réttir are the festivities afterwards: Réttarball is the name of the party you are looking for, with live music and a lot of drinking being the essential ingredients. The celebration of the sheep and horses returning home can get very wild and everybody is invited. Should you stumble upon one, don´t miss out!
Sheep farming today
Sheep farming in Iceland has become less and less profitable during the decades. In 1981, almost 800 000 sheep populated Iceland – far more than inhabitants! Now, more people than sheep populate the island, but those 368 647 remaining (status Jan. 2023) have to be brought home from their summer grazing spots before winter hits. Heavy snowfall and torrential rivers pose a potential danger to the four-legged woolballs.
During the time of the réttir in September, it is more important than ever to pay attention to sheep running around, herders on horses, and other curious tourists who might photograph a flock of sheep or horses.