September is a particular month due to one of the oldest cultural traditions in Iceland: Réttir, the annual sheep round-up. If you have been to Iceland during the summertime, you most likely saw sheep roaming around the country, sometimes on the road. However, when the wintertime is about to begin, in September, the annual sheep round up takes place to gather all the sheep across the country and bring them back to their farms to survive the harsh winter.
This event is the occasion for families, friends and locals to gather and help each other out to round-up all the sheep from their grazing period across the Icelandic nature. Since the sheep can be stubborn to round-up and to guide across the mountains and valleys, this event lasts from early September to early October and many activities involving singing, dancing, and other celebrations are taking place during this period.
The Icelandic weather being what it is, it is quite cold during the winter and the sheep are not able to survive it. This is why it is that important to gather them after their summer holidays of freedom. To do so, the locals need to travel through the mountains and guide the sheep back to the farms. The sheep herding is called “smalamennskur” in Icelandic. The Icelanders organised themselves with the Fjallakóngur or mountain king, leading and organising the sheep herding with talkies-walkies, lining up across the territory and walking to guide the sheep from the top of the mountains to the bottom. Every time a sheep is spotted, it is communicated through the talkies. It can happen that the sheep are adventurous and ending up on very high heights, where only well advanced locals are going to reach them and guide them.
The sheeps are guided with the farmers and locals but also with sheepdogs and noises made to keep them moving. Bit by bit, more and more sheep are gathered, starting to follow each other towards the farm. Once down the mountains, the helpers also are on horseback or quad bikes or use cars to bring the sheep to the farming communities where the réttir process will start.
When traveling around, you might have seen some circular wooden structures in some fields. Well, those structures are part of the ancient tradition. Those circular pens with an inner and outer circle with compartments for each farmer are used to separate their herds.
An interesting fact about Iceland, is that the country counts more than 800.000 sheeps which is more than twice the population of the whole country. It is pretty common to reunite after a long day of sheep herding around a traditional homemade lamb meat soup.
Sheep are an important part of the Icelandic culture. It is in Iceland that you will find one of the purest breeds. We use sheep wool to keep us warm during the harsh winter and the meat to keep us strong. The lamb meat soup is by the way one of the traditional dishes you should definitely try when visiting and the lopapeysa is the traditional woolen hand-knitted sweater that is extremely popular in Iceland and that you should consider acquiring while you are here!