An American's Guide to Iceland: Hamarsrétt Sheep Roundup
Driving north from the tiny village of Hvammstangi Iceland Route 72 becomes Route 711. 711 quickly deteriorates and turns to gravel. The road is undulating, with steep blind hills. By blind hills I mean gut-wrenching, steep hills where you cannot see what is coming up the other side of the narrow road.
This is rural sheep country. After visiting the Ánastaðastapi Sea Stack continue north on Route 711 and you cannot miss the Hamarsrétt Sheep Roundup. The Roundup is on the west side of the road as you come over one of those butt-clenching hills.
There is a large promontory with this sign (above). Beneath the rock outcropping is the Roundup. You can walk out on the promontory for a better view but it is very loose rock and its a long way down if you fall, with no assistance anywhere nearby. In the distance is the Westfjords. The sign "Strandir" names all the beaches that you can see from this spot on a clear day.
Above: The view from atop the promontory of the Hamarsrétt Sheep Roundup.
What Happens to Iceland's Sheep in Winter?
In summer, Iceland's farmers work their fields gathering hay for the winter to feed the sheep that are saved from slaughter. Yes, many of those lovely sheep you see all over Iceland will be for sale in the local supermarket come late September.
The sheep are gathered in September at the onset of fall. Gathering the sheep together is called the "Réttir" (corral) and takes a few days to a week as the sheep are scattered all over the countryside. Sheep are fast and understandably are not fond of humans. They also have little flocking instinct so they spread out and can be found anywhere but on glaciers. The sheep are rounded up by farmers on horseback and with the help of sheepdogs.
In the Roundup you see above, the sheep are identified by their earmarks and sorted to their owner's pens. The owner then decides which sheep are slaughtered and which sheep go to the stables for winter.
Réttir is a popular festival throughout Iceland in fall. Réttir also provides some insight into Icelandic culture. All parts of the animal are "honored" during réttir, with traditional dishes such as liver sausage (slátur) and singed lamb heads (svið) served at the post-herding celebration. And the wool gathered from the sheep is famed for its purity, due to centuries of genetic isolation. The tough exterior and soft inner fibers create sweaters that are lightweight, warm, and water repellent.
Once all the sheep are enclosed in the Roundup, socializing between farmers and villagers begins as they join in a communal singing known as réttasöngur, and feast on. . . yeah, you guessed it, lamb.
Lambs are born in May; the Sauðburður (lambing). Farmers watch over the sheep and help with the birthing when necessary. The sheep stay inside stables until they are freed to graze the hills and mountain pastures of Iceland where they run free until the next September.
Again, poor lambs. Did I mention I'm vegetarian?
The west side of the Vatnsnes Peninsula is desolate. Driving north the only signs of humans are these fence ladders and the occasional farm. On this trip we decided to make the full circuit of the Vatnsnes Peninsula so we could visit Hvítserkur Sea Stack on the east side of the peninsula. The sea stack is also known as "The Troll of the Northwest."
The drive is only 47 kilometers but it is a slow roll with huge potholes, rough roads, the aforementioned blind hills, sheep in the middle of the road, and stopping every once in a while to take some photos. So instead of 57 minutes that we thought, it took a couple of hours. The shorter route (about 43 km but on much better roads) would be to take Route 72 south from Hvammstangi to Route 711 and drive up the east side of Vatnsnes, but you'd miss the spectacular view of the Westfjords if you went that route.