Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Icelandic settlers of the ruminant persuasion making inroads here

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Handsome, hardy and exotic -- words that have been used to describe the Icelandic settlers who came to Manitoba.

They've also been used to describe Icelandic sheep, a breed that's catching on in Manitoba.

"They look like something from a fairy tale," said Inwood sheep farmer Wendy Kunzelman. She and her husband Clayton have 160 sheep of different breeds -- and the Icelandic are their favourite.

Kunzelman crafts the fleece and wool into sweaters, slippers and mitts. The Interlake woman stresses how tough the animals are, able to withstand all kinds of weather and health challenges.

"They're very hardy." Kunzelman saw that in the aftermath of the 2011 flooding in Manitoba.

"With our other breeds, we had a terrible problem with worms." Not with the Icelandics, though.

Their ancestors, the Northern European Short Tail breed, were taken to Iceland by the Norse settlers about 1,200 years ago, the Icelandic Sheep Breeders Association of North America says. Without them, Icelanders would not have survived through centuries of hardship on an isolated island just south of the Arctic Circle.

But the Icelandic sheep are newcomers to Canada, first imported here in 1985.

They arrived sporting a variety of textures, colours and patterns, short tails and curly horns.

"I was always intrigued by them," said Clayton Kunzelman, who grew up on the Interlake farm where he and Wendy live.

Clayton said they bought their first Icelandics five years ago while visiting a farm to buy other livestock.

"We didn't go to buy sheep," he said. "I went to buy a bull. After, we went in for coffee and we were just talking to the family... We came home with a bull and five sheep."

The long-distance trucker said the Icelandics are a gentle breed, and he can hit the road without worrying about leaving his wife and stepdaughter to look after them.

"You can make pets out of them," said Clayton. One of their ewes comes for a chin rub when she sees her people.

"The males look like mountain sheep, with two, big, full curls in their horns."

Wendy likes the Icelandics for their wool. A neighbour shears the animals, and she washes and cards the fleece.

"The Icelandic fleece is needle felting she puts in the bottom of slippers," Clayton said. "It's like walking on a cloud."

The sheep they sell don't go to market but to people looking for Icelandics to add to their farm, he said.

"There are more and more places you can get Icelandics," he said. "They're getting more plentiful all the time... It seems to be that they are catching on."

They have, for sure, at the Kunzelman farm, where they have nine ewes and two rams.

The breed's biggest admirer, though, is ìlafur R. Dýrmundsson with the Farmers Association of Iceland. He's especially fond of the select group of Icelandic sheep who are in no way followers.

"They actually like to lead, to walk in front of the flock," said Dýrmundsson, who has a PhD in sheep reproduction science and is the association's national adviser on organic land use in Iceland.

"No such sheep are found elsewhere in the world," he said in an email interview.

"They have been bred over the centuries as a strain of the Iceland breed of sheep, only for their intelligence," said the hobby farmer who's actively involved in the conservation of livestock breeds.

Since arriving on Iceland's icy, rocky terrain, the sheep had challenges grazing in the winter.

Somehow a unique, small population of sheep developed that were able to help the farmers and shepherds manage the flock on pasture, he said. While farming practices have changed, these highly intelligent "leader-sheep" have retained their special alertness and leadership characteristics, said Dýrmundsson, who owns a few leader-sheep.

"One of the attributes is their ability to 'forecast' changes in the weather," said Dýrmundsson, whose uncle Ásgeir Jónsson wrote a book of stories about leader-sheep in 1950.

"In those days, it was common to winter-graze sheep because fodder was in limited supply. Every morning the farmer/shepherd would drive the sheep from the sheep house to the pasture. In good weather, the leaders would go eagerly out ahead of any other sheep but sometimes they would stay behind, even refuse to go out in apparently nice weather. They might be forced to go with the sheep.

However, by midday a sudden snowstorm broke out, showing their forecasting ability."

In Manitoba, the Kunzelmans say their Icelandic sheep are definitely not leaders. They're more likely to sit through a snowstorm than head for the barn.

"When it snows, they'll lay out there in a snowbank and be happy," said Clayton.

Wendy said foul weather doesn't seem to bother them. "They are the last ones in the barn when it is storming or raining." And in nice weather, too.

"They all come up to the barn at night, and the Icelandic are usually still out there eating, slowly making their way to the barn, the last ones in."

Clayton said he knows some folks of Icelandic heritage and doesn't see any parallels with the sheep.

In Iceland, Dýrmundsson does.

"When I think of it, perhaps we, the Icelandic people, have some of the leader-sheep characteristics -- rather hardy, robust, adapted to a harsh and fluctuating climate and in many ways in close contact with nature in a sparsely populated country."

At the Kunzelmans' sheep farm in Manitoba, the Icelandics keep to themselves.

"We have a few different breeds of sheep and they do tend to mingle, but the Icelandic seem to stick together with their own breed," Wendy observed.

It's what they've gotten used to over hundreds of years, said Dýrmundsson.

"Self-reliance is quite common."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J5


Updated on Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 9:41 AM CST: corrects spellings, adds fact box

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What's so special about Icelandic sheep?

  • Triple-purpose breed: fibre/meat/milk;
  • Soft, lustrous, dual-coated fleece;
  • Mild-flavoured lean meat;
  • Farmstead milk and cheese;
  • Luxurious soft pelts;
  • Many colour and pattern combinations;
  • Medium-sized, early maturing, known for their longevity;
  • Excellent mothers and vigourous lambs;
  • Suitable for pasture lambing;
  • Highly prolific, reliable "twinners;"
  • Thrive on good pasture and hay.

Source: Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America

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