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Life on an Icelandic sheep farm - subarctic temperatures and community spirit

Ag in my Land is an online series at FGInsight.com which celebrates farming globally, providing an insight in to what life is like on-farm around the world. Here Icelandic farmer Pálina Axelsdóttir Njarovík tells us about her farming life.

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Life on an Icelandic sheep farm #AgInMyLand

Pálína Axelsdóttir Njarovík helps out on her family farm in Iceland and runs a successful
Instagram account – @farmlifeiceland – that documents her passion for the lifestyle.

 

Her family have lived on the farm for six generations and she is involved with daily activities alongside her uncles.

 

Where and what do you farm?

 

Our farm is in the south of Iceland, close to a town called Flúðir. Our city is called Skeiða og Gnúpverjahreppur and the population is a little more than 600. It’s a farming community with many farms, including my family’s 475-hectare (1,173-acre) enterprise.

 

We have around 300 Icelandic sheep, 25 Icelandic milking cows, eight horses, four hens and a Border Collie called Kvísl. She’s supposed to be a working dog, but she’s still young and has much more to learn. Animal welfare is a priority. We take as good care of our animals as possible and give them the best life they can have.

 

There are many hills, heaths, wetland and fields, with little streams and one river on our land. We have a great view of some of our most famous volcanoes and glaciers, such as Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull.

 

The most common soil type in Iceland is andosol – rich in volcanic ash, as volcanic eruptions are frequent in Iceland. It is found both in dry and wet land. Soil erosion has been a problem for centuries and we have lost almost half of the vegetation since settlement around 1,150 years ago.

 

A lot of work has been done to halt erosion, prevent further damage of the ecosystem and to restore destroyed soil, vegetation and ecosystems. The Soil Conservation Institute of Iceland is the oldest organisation of that kind in the world having been established since 1907.

What made you choose a native breed of sheep?


There is no other option. Importing sheep and other livestock is illegal. Our cows are Northern-European and a short-tailed breed. They have been developing here since the settlement in 874, so are well adapted to the Icelandic environment.

 

As it has been isolated since settlement, it’s one of the purest breeds of sheep in the world. There are about 500,000 sheep in the country and most have horns, but some of them are polled. Most of the sheep are white, but their colours include a range of black, brown and grey. They display more variety in colour and pattern than most other breeds. Their fleece is dual-coated, with the longer outer coat more hardy and waterproof and the inner coat more delicate and soft, providing great protection against the cold.

 

What is the farming community like in Iceland?


It is a close-knit community and we all help each other out, especially in September when gathering the sheep back from the highlands. Our area in the highlands is a common grazing area for all the farms in our area, so we need to work together to bring the sheep back. It’s a very old tradition and ends with réttir, where everybody has to find their sheep.

 

In early September, the mountain trip begins. Each farm has to send one to three mountain men, depending on how many sheep they have. They head off to gather the sheep, which takes around nine days. They ride horses and my uncle drives his tractor with two big trailers full of food and luggage. The area the workers need to cover is about 383 square miles, reaching all the way to Hofsjökull, a glacier in the middle of the country.

 

After days of gathering the sheep, they bring them to réttir. All the sheep are put into a circle where farmers can look for their animals. They have a tag in the ear and a mark, which is an old method where the ears are cut and each farmer has their own pattern. Each farm has an area where they put their sheep once they’ve found them.

What is the climate like and how does it affect you?


The climate in Iceland is subartic and the weather, of course, affects us in every way possible. Winters are long and dark, but probably not always as cold as you may expect.

 

The temperature fluctuates around 0degC, but can go down to -20degC. Summers are very bright and much warmer. We do, however, always have to be ready to change our plans
according to the weather – and trust me, it changes very quickly. For example, last week we had such
a bad snow storm that my uncles couldn’t get to the sheep house in the morning, so the sheep were not fed until later that day. They also had to walk there because there was no way to drive.

 

There was too much snow to see the road.

 

The darkest days are in December when we get around four hours of sunlight. But in June the sun never goes down, so we have daylight all day and all night. I love that.

 

I like having different seasons, but the winter is long, cold and dark. I prefer the summer with long warmer days. You get more done and have more energy.

typical day

What does a typical day consist of?

 

It depends very much on the season, so there really is no typical day. The cows are milked twice a day, morning and evening. They stay inside for winter, but during summer they spend their days outside (and night if the weather allows). They spend around five months a year outside in total. Other than that, they’re outside grazing and exploring.

 

From December until April the days are more routine, feeding the animals and doing any work that needs to be done. In April, we prepare for lambing which takes up all our time in May. Hay season begins in June, if the weather allows.

 

In early July we drive most of our sheep to the highlands where they roam free during summer. In July and August, the most important thing is hay making. My uncles take care of the hay making, and my brother and I help out when we’re home. We make hay purely for the our animals. We grow potatoes and some vegetable, such as lettuce, kale, carrots, beetroots and parsnip for own consumption.

 

The sheep come back from the highlands in September. They stay outside as long as the weather allows, but we always take them inside in November. Our stock goes to slaughter in October. The abattoir is half an hour away, in a town called Selfoss.

 

What do you love most about farming?

 

My favourite time of year is lambing season. It’s a difficult time and you’re almost working 24 hours a day, but it is all worthwhile when you see the lambs. My favourite part of farming is the relationship you develop with the animals, specifically the sheep. When you raise a bottle-fed lamb, you gain a friend for a lifetime.

how is farming seen

How is farming seen in your country?

 

Mostly positive, although there is always debate about whether the Government should support farming or not.

 

Another long-standing debate is about land use and overgrazing. I believe the Government should support farming as the industry here is very much family-based with small farms – not big factory farms. And I believe we must keep it that way.

 

How important is farming to your economy?

 

It is of high importance. It is not only for making food, but also to keep the county populated. It is now the base for tourism.

 

Another fact is that Icelandic agricultural products are very pure and healthy. We have strict regulations about use of drugs, pesticides and hormones.

What are your goals for the future?

 

I want to travel more around the world. It would be perfect if I could combine travelling and farming and do both. I will always remain a part of the farm, I don’t want to sell it, I want to be able to come there when I want and help out.

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