Some people may argue that sheep are not intelligent and clever. However,
it is well known that sheep have their own intelligence although not
comparable with that of people. We should not underestimate the wisdom
of domestic animals anyway.
The only breed of sheep in Iceland is the native North European Short
Tailed sheep brought by the settlers, the Vikings, 1100-1200 years ago
Without them Icelanders would not have survived throughout centuries of
hardship on an isolated island just south of the Arctic Circle. Even grazing
in winter had to be utilized to the utmost and somehow a unique, small
population of sheep developed which displayed outstanding abilities to help
the farmers and shepherds to manage the flock on pasture, namely
leadersheep. Although farming practices have changed and thus the role of
these highly intelligent sheep with special alertness and leadership
characteristics in their genes. There is still a population of 1000-1200 sheep
within the national population of just under 500,000.
Most of the leadersheep are coloured and horned, even four-horned in a few cases. They have a slender body
conformation, long legs and bones generally, yet of lighter weight than other sheep in the flock because they
have been selected for intelligence, not for meat traits. Leadersheep are graceful and prominent in the flock,
with alertness in the eyes, normally going first out of the sheep-house, looking around in all directions,
watching if there are any dangers in sight and then walking in front of the flock when driven to or from
pasture. They may even guard the flock against predators. There are many stories on record about their ability
to sense or forecast changes in the weather even, refusing to leave the sheep-house before a major snowstorm.
One wonders how better use could be made of such genes in the future.
We certainly want to preserve the Icelandic leadersheep. Interested individuals founded the Leader-Sheep
Society of Iceland in April 2000. Amongst the priorities is to improve the individual recording of these sheep
throughout the country and plan their breeding more effectively. We know that the best leadersheep are found
in flocks in NE Iceland but farmers in all parts of the country are interested in their conservation. Support is
also coming from individuals who are not keeping sheep. Icelandic sheep, not least leadersheep, have clearly a
special role in our culture. - Olafur R. Dyrmundsson
These images of Icelandic leadersheep are
reprinted here with permission from Dr.
Olafur R. Dyrmundsson. The photographer
is Jon Eriksson.
Why have leadersheep in your flock? I was initially attracted to leadersheep
because of their intelligence. But now that we have had leaders in our flock, we have realized they are valuable
animals for other reasons. The leaderewes are often my best lambers - never needing assistance; their lambs
are extremely vigorous right from birth. Often the ewes have retained the more primitive udder and "milking"
teats, often havifour teats. Often they are heavy milkders. One Ari daughter, Victoria, raised natural triplets that
were the size of other ewes' single lambs (I weighed them regularly throughout their first two months and at
peak milk production, the 3 ewe lambs were gaining 2 1/4 lbs. of weight combined per day!). The leaders seem
to be healthier and hardier. They seem to be less affected by the extremes of weather - hot or cold - which
sometimes causes others in the flock to be stressed. OR -- perhaps more importantly, they know their limits.
For instance, our Ari daughter, Patsy Montana (who is going to be 12 in 2012) is the first to leave the fields in
the hot weather and seek shade and water to wait out the heat of the day before grazing again. Also, if storms
approach, she is the first to seek shelter from wind and rain or ice storms. We've occasionally had leader ewes
that were harder to "corral" for routine deworming and therefore they have not been dewormed as often as
others in the flock. Yet they are healthy and hardy and seem to be more parasite and disease resistant. We value
our leadersheep for all of these primitive traits and believe that the hardiness of other bloodlines can be
improved with an infusion of leader genetics.