Preface: The sheep roundups we saw were highlights of my time in Iceland, and also emotionally difficult for me. As much as we textile folk hear about Icelandic wool, the primary market is meat, principally lamb. Most of the four-month-old lambs born last spring leave the roundup area on trucks headed for the slaughterhouse, or abattoir. There was an abattoir tour as part of the North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference this year, as there was last year. The management of this aspect of sheep raising plays a critical role in the overall economic and welfare picture. Every farmer and shepherd I have met cares a great deal about the welfare of the animals, up to and including the slaughter. (Some don’t, of course, but I haven’t met them.) Part of me thinks that in order to have a comprehensive view of the world that I research I should fully understand this part of the cultural picture as well, and should not shy away from direct contact with the meat processing, but I have not been able to bring myself to do so. (I did visit the tannery, although I didn’t take the tour or stay as long as others.) I don’t eat meat, for many reasons, and that choice has worked for me for decades. I do want to see increased use and valuing of wool—which I think is appropriate from multiple perspectives, including the ecological, long-term economic, aesthetic, and ethical. I suspect that if I forced myself to personally witness the meat-processing aspects of sheep farming I would not be able to continue my work, which I think is important—or I wouldn’t be doing it. I don’t judge the existing situation. I would like to see a shift in priorities and values in the larger economy. I’m perfectly aware that this is like somebody in a kayak wanting to change the course of a cruise ship (and I’ve paddled a kayak around an anchored cruise ship, so I know exactly what sort of size disparity I’m suggesting). What I can do is paddle my kayak, admire the sheep and the humans who care for them, and hold the hope that some of my actions may make a difference in the long run. But I need to leave the meat-related parts of this story to those who are involved with them. And so, other than to mention my personal challenges here, I will simply note—and not elaborate on—some aspects as we go through the roundup.
Most Icelandic sheep spend the months from approximately May to September on their own in the common grazing areas. Flocks have assigned areas, and return to the same location annually. The types of landscape and quality of grazing vary, but all are remote. Familiarity with the environment likely helps members of the flock retain an understanding of weather patterns, sheltering areas, vegetation, and other aspects that help ensure the animals’ survival over the summer.