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Icelandic sheep

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Conservation status
  • FAO (2007): not at risk[1]: 57 
  • DAD-IS (2021): not at risk[2]
  • Leadersheep: endangered maintained[3]
Country of originIceland
Wool colorvariable
Horn statususually horned; there is a polled strain

The Icelandic[a] is the Icelandic breed of domestic sheep. It belongs to the Northern European Short-tailed group of sheep, and is larger than most breeds in that group.

It is generally short-legged and stocky, slender and light-boned, and usually horned, although polled and polycerate animals can occur; there is a polled strain, the Kleifa. The fleece is double-coated and may be white or a variety of other colors; the face and legs are without wool. The sheep are highly resistant to cold, and are generally left unshorn for the winter. Icelandic ewes are highly prolific, with a lambing percentage of 175–220%. The Þoka (Thoka) gene is carried by some ewes, which may give birth to large litters of lambs. A unique strain within the population is the Leader sheep, which carries a hereditary ability or predisposition to lead other sheep safely over dangerous ground.[4]: 827 


It is thought that the sheep were introduced to Iceland by Vikings in the late ninth or early tenth century.[4]: 826 

Breed numbers reached a peak in 1978, when there were approximately 891 000, or about four sheep for every inhabitant of Iceland. By 2007 the total number had fallen to about 450 000.[5] In 2018 a population of just over 432 000 was reported to DAD-IS.[2]


The colors of Icelandic sheep are inherited in a similar way to those of other sheep, but they display more variety in color and pattern than most other breeds, and some variations are seen which are not seen in other sheep. Each sheep carries three genes that affect the color of the sheep, and each gene has dominant and recessive alleles.[citation needed]


Until the 1940s the Icelandic sheep was the predominant milk-producing animal in Iceland.[6]: 32  In the twenty-first century this sheep is reared principally for meat, which accounts for more than 80% of the total income derived from sheep farming.[5]

Icelandic sheep

The fleece is double-coated, with a long outer coat (tog) which gives protection from snow and rain, and a fine inner coat (þel) which insulates the animal against the cold.[4]: 827  The wool of the outer coat has a diameter of about 28–40 microns or sometimes more, and a staple length of some 150–200 mm; the inner coat has a diameter of 19–22 μm or sometimes less, with a staple length in the range 50–100 mm. The two types may be used separately, or spun into a single yarn, lopi, a soft wool which provides good insulation.[4]: 827 


  1. ^ Icelandic: íslenska sauðkindin, pronounced [ˈistlɛnska ˈsœyðˌcʰɪntɪn], Islenska Saudkindin


  1. ^ Barbara Rischkowsky, Dafydd Pilling (editors) (2007). List of breeds documented in the Global Databank for Animal Genetic Resources, annex to The State of the World's Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Rome: Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ISBN 9789251057629. Archived 23 June 2020.
  2. ^ a b Breed data sheet: Icelandic Sheep / Iceland (Sheep). Domestic Animal Diversity Information System of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed June 2021.
  3. ^ Breed data sheet: Icelandic Leadersheep / Iceland (Sheep). Domestic Animal Diversity Information System of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed June 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d Valerie Porter, Lawrence Alderson, Stephen J.G. Hall, D. Phillip Sponenberg (2016). Mason's World Encyclopedia of Livestock Breeds and Breeding (sixth edition). Wallingford: CABI. ISBN 9781780647944.
  5. ^ a b [s.n.] (17 February 2007). Íslenska sauðkindin (in Icelandic). Morgunblaðið. Accessed July 2021.
  6. ^ Tim Tyne (2009). The Sheep Book for Smallholders. Preston, Lancashire: Good Life Press. ISBN 9781904871644.

Further reading[edit]