In today’s edition of questions I get asked a lot, it’s this one: Why do we raise Icelandic sheep at Little Creek?
Our sheep flock is distinctive in Townsend, Montana. The few sheep farms around here (this is cattle country, after all) raise more traditional breeds of sheep like Suffolk and Rambouillet. Our multicolored, horned, small framed flock certainly stands out to the point that when our sheep have escaped their pasture (gone on the lam, if you will) everyone knows exactly who they belong to.
Though the population of Icelandic Sheep is on the rise, they've only been introduced into the US in the last couple decades. As the name suggest, the breed was imported from Iceland through Canada. They've gained popularity as a homestead breed due to being "triple purpose," you can raise them for sheep milk, for their fleece, or for meat.
I like to think it was fate that brought Icelandic sheep into my life.
Little Creek was born when I saw a Facebook post advertising four free Icelandic sheep nearby. Something along the lines of "these obnoxious sheep keep escaping my fence, someone come take them away." Justin and I had been planning to get into the cattle business somehow, but expenses and infrastructure prevented that. These sheep piqued my interest.
I didn’t know anything about them at the time but a quick Google search gave me a strong feeling that this breed was something special so we went and picked them up the next day. Within weeks of bringing them home the ewes started lambing (which came as a complete surprise to me). And so my education into sheep and this fascinating, fun breed began. Icelandic sheep won me over with their independence, thriftiness (they'll eat anything, even thistles), great mothering ability and their beautiful fleeces. After our first butcher day we realized the rumors about the meat were true: it was unbelievably good, with a tenderness and mild flavor that was unlike anything we had tasted, and we were instantly hooked on the breed.
Since then, we’ve grown our flock (and Little Creek!) far beyond the original four ewes. Now we raise a large flock, and ship Icelandic lamb all over the country for our customers to enjoy. We also offer breeding stock for sale so you can start your own flock - more details below. Throughout the years, my love for this breed has grown and grown. I hope that this blog post will help explain why we’ve chosen to focus so much of our business around Icelandic sheep!
As a quick jumping off point, all modern sheep breeds are thought to be descended from the wild mouflon, who were domesticated around 10,500 years ago in what’s sometimes referred to as the Fertile Crescent (what’s now considered southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and sections of Turkey and Iran). They were later brought to Europe and the Americas through trade.
And though they’re called Icelandic sheep, they’re not originally from Iceland! It’s believed that Nordic settlers (aka the Vikings) brought Icelandic sheep over to Iceland around the ninth or tenth century where they quickly acclimated to the harsh climate and thrived on a grass-fed diet. This hardiness and resilience are traits we of course treasure to this day both in their ease of care (we never feed our sheep grain, and don’t need to!) and in the quality of their meat.
Icelandic sheep are considered to be a “primitive” breed because crossbreeding was largely eliminated very early on in the breed’s history. Whereas over the centuries many other sheep breeds were selectively bred for specific fleece and carcass traits (these breeds are called "improved"), Icelandic sheep remained much as they were. In fact, today it’s illegal to import any sheep into Iceland to prevent any diseases that could come from crossbreeding and to keep the breed as it is. It’s safe to say that genetics wise, our sheeple have much of the same makeup today as their ancestors did 1100 years ago!
When you first look at an Icelandic sheep, you notice their fleece! While wool produced has vastly decreased around the world today, it was central to global trade in millennia past. Evidence suggests that selective breeding of sheep for wool started around 6000 BC, with the beginnings of shearing coinciding with the spinning of wool around 3500 BC. The first known articles of woolen clothing appear around 400-500 BC. The impact of sheep and their fleece is still widespread in our idioms, such as "dyed in the wool," "gathering wool," "pulling the wool over your eyes."
While many modern fleece breeds have uniform, white fleece, Icelandic sheep fleece is somewhat unique in its wide variety of natural color patterns and the fact that it is dual coated! The inner coat is called the “Þel'' ("thel") and has a finer consistency. The outer coat is called the “Tog” and is generally coarser and longer. When the two types of fleece are spun together, they are called "lopi" and make the warmest outerwear.
Icelandic fleece is particularly prized by handspinners. It felts wonderfully and has so many color variations. Because of how unique it is, it does not have a traditional, built-in market the way that commercial sheep wool does. We hope in future to do more with our fleece, but as of right now we sell most of it to handspinners (and the dirty fleece gets composted). Above all and important to note here though: We shear for the sheep, and not for our ultimate monetary gain. It costs us more to shear off than we make from it. You can read a lot more about shearing and why it’s important in our deep dive into shearing blog post and this video explains why we lose money on our sheep’s wool.
You may have wondered what the difference is between sheared fleece and a sheepskin. Fleece is shorn off the sheep annually. Intact fleeces can even be felted together to create a "vegetarian sheepskins," but for the most part the wool is cleaned, combed, and processed from its raw state into other products. Sheepskins come from the butchering process, when the hide is removed. While many sheepskins end up in landfills, we work hard to honor the animal by saving everything we can. We salt and cure our sheepskins and then work with natural tanneries to turn them into heirlooms.
You’ve probably heard me say it a thousand and one times, but it’s hard to beat Icelandic lamb when it comes to flavor. Deliciously tender and mild, its converted many who claim they “don’t like lamb.” But what makes it so special?
So much of it comes again from the Icelandic sheep’s ability to thrive on a grass-only diet, as well as in the makeup of the meat itself. Icelandic lamb is naturally rich in Omega-3 and iron, which contributes to its well-rounded flavor, and a high count of red muscle fibers means the texture of the meat is delicate and not tough or chewy.
In the case of our flock, they get a varied diet of grasses and legumes as they would in the wild and are continually rotated to fresh pasture as part of our rotational grazing program. We are always working to improve our grazing practices and add diversity to our pastures. This contributes to healthier soil, which in turn means healthier sheep and more nutrient dense meat! A win-win-win!
Today, our flock of Icelandic breeding ewes is over 50 strong! And our flock has become the centerpiece of our agritourism retreats for women: Shepherd Camp and Cowgirl Camp. While I got my start in ranching working around cattle and they will always have a special place in my heart, it's working with the sheep where I find the most fulfillment. And I love being able to share this unique breed and all of the products we derive from sheep with our customers (grass-fed lamb, breeding stock, dryer balls, sheep milk soap, sheepskins, ram horns, and more).
In addition to selling lamb and sheepskins, we are now in the position to offer some of our lambs and ewes for sale! You can learn more about the sheep we have available via our online catalog (updated throughout the summer). We have ram lambs, ewe lambs, starter flocks, and some proven ewes available. If you have any questions, email email@example.com for information.