"The sheep of this frozen climate are of two kinds; a
small, and probably a native breed, in colour varying
from dun to almost black; and a larger white breed,
probably imported from a more southerly region. The
coat is that which nature would give to the inhabitants
of such a clime. It consists of long coarse hair
externally, and a close layer of wool within, which no
wet or cold can penetrate. This wool, however, when
freed from the hair, is of little value for manufacturing
purposes, and is fit only for horse and collar cloths, and
common rugs and blankets. Many of the last are
exported to South America.
  Even in so cold a country they are rarely sheltered
from the winter's storm, nor is any provision made for
the winter's food; their only refuge is the jutting rock or
the mountain cavern. In their haste to reach those
places when overtaken by a storm, and the snow
driving against them and confusing their vision, many
are precipitated by the cliffs, and drowned in the sea
beneath. If they are surprised by a snow storm before
they can reach the coast, they turn their heads towards
each other, and huddle together in a round close body,
the united heat of which raises a dense vapour, that
penetrates through the snow, and directs the shepherd
to the place where his flock is buried, although not
always till the sheep are nearly starved, and have begun
to feed on each other's wool in order to preserve life.
Kerguelin affirms that when the sheep have once been
driven to this sad extremity, they will afterwards, even
on the most plentiful food that Iceland affords,
frequently nibble and tear the fleece of their
companions; the habit becomes so inveterate, and the
appetite for this strange nutrient so strong, that it seems
a kind of mania, and the farmer is compelled to destroy
these sheep. Livingston adds, that in cold nights,
without snow, and when the bleak wind pinches them,
they keep each other warm by pressing close together,
and those in the centre relieve in turns those which are
in the outer of the circle,and exposed to the greater
severity of the blast; thus necessity sharpens the
invention of beasts as well as men. The only kindness
these animals receive from their keepers in winter, is
being fed on fish bones or frozen offal, when their
natural food is buried too deep even for their ingenuity
and patience to reach it. Yet they repay all this neglect
with a supply of wool, which to the Icelander is
valuable, and also a quantity of milk, far superior to that
which is yielded by any southern flock. If Von Traill is
to be believed, an Iceland ewe will yield from two to
six quarts per day.
  The principal peculiarity about these sheep is the
number of their horns, the greater part both of the small
and large breed having more than two, and a few of
them carrying eight horns; they commonly have three or
four or five; most of them of a spiral form, yet often but
little developed; the side horns are curved in various
directions."
(from William Youatt's "Sheep: Their Breeds,
Management, and Diseases"
1837, p.168)
The Icelandic Sheep -
        An early perspective...