There is a crispness in the September air that signals the end of summer in Iceland. Day and night are equal for a short time before the winter darkness settles in. Across Iceland, September also signals the annual and traditional réttir (pronounced, rhett-tur) sheep roundup. Réttir is a collective effort of farmers, landowners, and communities to locate and herd the sheep back to large pens to sort them back to their farms before the snow flies.
About 800,000 sheep roam Iceland—more than twice as many sheep as people!
Lambing season generally begins in May, when farmers are frantically busy helping ewes with the little lambs. To give them a head start, farmers shelter ewes and lambs in the barns to protect them from the often harsh Icelandic spring weather and any predators. As soon as the grass turns green and the lambs are ready, they are herded away to free-range graze across the countryside. Anyone who has been to Iceland will undoubtedly recall seeing sheep perilously close to roadways. Many sheep disappear into the highlands to feed on any greenery revealed after melting snow.
While réttir is more of a celebratory occasion these days, its original intent was an important event that meant surviving the winter. The first settlers of Iceland brought over sheep around the year 874, and the breed has changed little since then.
To say the least, these sheep are hardy, able to survive, and thrive in the Icelandic conditions. However, they still need to be rounded up before winter. In settlement times, finding your flock at the end of the summer meant food and warmth for the winter. To this day, almost every part of a lamb is used. Wool, meat, bones, and even sheep dung were all crucial to enduring the long winters.
Réttir starts first in the northern parts of Iceland and moves further south throughout September. Settlers of Iceland would have gathered the flocks on horseback and foot from the highlands, perhaps with some canine assistance. A process that may have taken weeks. Today, horses and people on foot still play an essential role in réttir traversing the rough and often muddy ground. Even with support from ATVs, tractors, and enormous American-made trucks with livestock trailers, réttir can still take days.
Historically, the pens—or rétt—were made of stone or turf. From above, they look like a giant wheel with spokes radiating out. (Keep your eyes open, and you can still spot old réttir sites across Iceland) Today, rétts made of metal rails are more common. The sheep are herded into the large central pen and sorted by farm into the "spokes."
It is a sight to behold. The lambs, now plump and strong from summer grazing, scurry about in quick confusion. People of all ages—including surprisingly young children—wade into the sea of wool. Each animal is sorted according to a mark or tag on their ear to which farm they belong. It is frantic work but comes together as people cooperate and find their flow with the animals. Towards the end of the day, when most of the lambs are sorted, there is plenty of celebration. Cake, coffee, and twisted kleinur doughnuts are passed around in great quantity. Impromptu singing often breaks out, and wool-clad farmers enjoy a well-deserved drink—or two. All rejoice on a job well done—and that there will be enough to eat through the next winter!
We highly recommend seeing, or even participating in, a réttir. It is a fascinating mix of tradition, controlled rowdiness, and a window into Icelandic history., the Farmer's Newspaper, annually published the dates of réttirs around the country. Many tour companies offer trips to participate in the roundup for those looking for some saddle time.