Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Icelandic Sheep and Barren Land

Tough critters, I can say that positively about the Icelandic sheep. In a harsh land where the only significant native mammal is the Arctic Fox, you have to wonder how a proper domestic European beast could survive the severe weather on this island just outside the Arctic Circle. But survive it did - for 1100 years these stocky short-tailed sheep thrived, eating the once lush greenery nearly into a rock-strewn desert. No kidding.

Coming from North Florida, the first thing we noticed about Iceland was the lack of trees. And of course, without trees, one can see a long way across the landscape, a beautiful openness - across vast moss-cushioned lava fields, rocky rolling hills with sculpted rocks protruding, and dramatic escarpments rising from the coastal flatlands - without so much as seeing a single tree, building, or person... but we saw sheep dotted all about.
Skittish sheep... they all tended to run away at the sight of us.
Maybe they didn’t like tourists, especially tourists with cameras riding in red Corollas?... maybe all humans made them nervous, since they didn’t see too many (except the cowboys - er, sheepboys?, not enough machismo - cowboys who rounded them up once a year). We could go miles and miles without encountering another car... even during a trip to an indoor public swimming pool which Crystal spotted on our map. On that cold rainy day, our first day in Iceland, Crystal was drawn to the map icon like a moth to a flame. With growing doubt, we followed the long and winding road until, to our surprise, we found a big indoor pool complex at the very end... out in the middle of nowhere, no other buildings in sight, and no people anywhere... closed, and seemingly abandoned, except for a nice pair of swim goggles someone had recently dropped...oh, and a few sheep watching us suspiciously from outside the fence.
The sheep seem to wander far and wide just about everywhere, as did the fences. We saw fences crisscrossing the landscape in the strangest places, often fading off into very remote and rugged terrain. These fences are a modern addition and are meant to restrain the sheep to prevent over-grazing and further erosion, but it was difficult to perceive any real containment.
It was Sheep vs. Fences, and the sheep appeared to be the hands-down winners...must be more to it than what we could see. Towns and other habitations all had fences and road grates around them to keep the sheep out, but otherwise sheep appeared to be part of the landscape. We were told that, once a year, the farmers don their orange raincoats and mount their Icelandic horses - another special breed - to collectively gather the sheep from the hinterlands for the worst part of winter. Once gathered, they are sorted out by their eartag IDs.

As for the barren land, one can’t blame the sheep for cutting down the trees (which once covered as much as 60% of the island)... the humans did that for building materials and fuel, but much later people came to realize the heavy grazing of the sheep kept anything from re-growing. Can’t blame them for that either... just being sheep (with especially big appetites in a harsh land). Besides, without them, humans could never have survived in Iceland. By successfully eking out a lifestyle in the wilds of Iceland, these hardy animals, now a unique coveted breed, provided meat, milk, cheese, and warm clothes for the Vikings and all the people who followed. Skyr, an Icelandic food - sort of a cross between yogurt and cottage cheese - was traditionally made from sheep’s milk and instantly became our favorite local treat. We even brought some home to use as a culture to make more. Here’s the recipe: (click here).

So why not plant trees now that the problem is evident? Well, Icelanders have been doing just that for 100 years now. However, this is a slow process at best. The loss of the cover has resulted in extensive erosion of the wind-vulnerable volcanic soil, making it hard for anything to get a foothold. Nearly a third of the island has become a black-sand desert. As the green-wise proprietress of Hotel Hellnar, Gudrun Bergmann, told us, young trees don’t have much of a chance against the winds, sands, and winter storms that literally strip them of their bark.
But ways to improve the survival of plantings have been devised and all Icelanders are working at it. Airplanes are even being used to drop seed and fertilizer in the remote parts of the island. One hundred years ago Iceland established the first-in-the-world Soil Conservation Service to help educate the people about erosion control and planting. Ours was a snapshot view through Florida-colored glasses, and so, to us Iceland looked stark and other-worldly, but in some parts, after 100 years of effort, new forests are beginning to grow... slowly. Reykjavik has a decent showing of trees and we saw occasional stands of trees in towns and farms as well.

Like the isolated swimming pool, churches seemed to fit the middle-of-nowhere description as well. We saw several churches that, upon close inspection, appeared to be clean and well-tended, with sheep-guards and fences intact, but no other sign of human development (and of course, no trees) anywhere near. One had a raven standing guard atop it’s steeple.. He obliged me for a photo, and then flew right toward me for another shot, flying low over my head, chortling in his unique Ravenese of metallic syllables and hollow clicks. An exception to the stand-alone locations was the lovely grass-roofed church in Hof which had both trees and human habitation around it... and plenty of sheep eyeing that luscious grass roof too.

We stayed on a farm in Hof, a village consisting of several farms, one inn that had closed, and the church. The sheep of Hof were “formally” penned into green grassy fields much like they might be on a small American farm. Our lovely little farm guesthouse - Litlahof - was off by itself in the midst of the sheep fields. Seemed the perfect opportunity to photograph some sheep, but try as I might - casually meandering through the field, or sneaking a peek from behind a rock, or shooting from the hip - they were on to me, and headed pronto in the opposite direction. I didn’t have a telephoto lens, but was forced to resort to shooting through the window of our cottage. The wind was blowing so hard that day that it blew the sheep’s wool skirt askew. Jeff and I had trouble staying on our feet when we tried to walk up the road, but those low slung warm-dressed sheep stood firmly chewing their cuds (although their skinny legs looked cold).

The coastal area near Hof was rich farmland. Each farm appeared more idyllic than the last, with it’s own Yosemite-quality waterfall (foss) tumbling from the high scarp, green pastures, surviving trees (protected by the huge stone wall), and, of course, sheep, with their own barn to retreat to when the weather ain’t nice.

Earlier in the trip on the north shore of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, I did encounter one friendly sheep, at least willing to pose regally for a through-the-car-window shot. This roadside ram must have been a “Leadersheep” - because he appeared so cool and self-confident. I didn’t make that up.
A small percentage of the Icelandic sheep make up a sub-breed of smart sheep, called leadersheep. They are aware of danger, weather changes, better pastures, and all manner of things important to sheep survival, and will lead the flock accordingly. In earlier days, the sheep farmers depended on them and there are many stories of leadersheep saving the flock from an approaching (unexpected) winter storm. Anyway, this fellow looked over at us in our muddy red car, gawking out the window, and, correctly, sensed no danger. He simply sat down, posing like the sheep in Jamie Wyeth’s 1975 painting called The Islander. (click here for a look... quite a resemblance... then click back button to return here.)
And in Icelandic, ‘Iceland’ is spelled ‘Island’, so I'm venturing a guess that my leadersheep directly descended from Jamie’s, and struck the same pose in nearly the same place. In keeping with the guidance of their leader, the small flock likewise stayed put. One one-horned gal with beautiful curly wool even smiled at me. Sweet!
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