Illustration by Erin Wallace
BREED: Icelandic Sheep
SPECIES: Ovis aries
COLOR/PATTERN: White, brown, or gray wool; often patterned
HEIGHT: 25 to 34 inches
WEIGHT: 130 to 220 pounds
REGION OF ORIGIN: Northern Europe
Widely considered the oldest, purest sheep breed in the world, Icelandic sheep are prized for their hardiness, dual coat, and ability to survive on pasture grazing. These unique traits derive from over a thousand years of natural and selective breeding in Iceland’s subarctic climate, where the animals have remained the island’s exclusive ovine breed since Vikings first arrived with their Northern European Short Tail relatives. Sheep prevailed as Iceland’s primary source of dairy until the mid-20th century, when mechanized haying made cow-rearing more feasible.
What Icelandic sheep lack in milk yield, they make up for in rich, naturally sweet milk, perfect for all things cultured, such as Icelandic skyr, butter, and cheese. In addition to milk, Icelandic sheep are also profitable sources of meat and wool. The latter has earned them a following within the crafting community: their dual-coated wool—a soft, fine, insulating undercoat combined with a tough, glossy, water repellant outer coat—fetches premium prices.