Réttir - Sheep Round-Up

Culture and Culinary Tours

What to expect when going to Réttir – annual sheep round-up in Iceland

Iceland’s annual sheep round-up is one of the country’s oldest traditions and it takes place in the fall of each year. It’s the time when farmers herd their sheep from the highlands back to the shelter of their farm for the winter season. The first round-ups this year started in early September and will continue to take place across the country until early October. 

Anyone that’s interested in participating in a sheep round-up is more than welcome to just show up and lend a helping hand. A week before the round-up starts, volunteers herd sheep down from the highlands, they do so by either walking or riding horses. Since the volunteers need to look for the sheep in all the unusual places they tend to hide in - they really find the most remote areas—up and down mountains, into valleys or fjords – the search can be quite exhausting! After all the sheep are retrieved from their hiding places, then a second set of  volunteers show up on the day of the sheep round-up and help sort the sheep and get them to their rightful owners. 

Réttir - sheep round up

Last week, I was encouraged by my team to participate in a round-up. When I decided to take on this assignment, I had absolutely no idea what to expect and to be honest, I had no clue what was expected of me as I arrived at the round-up. I knew that it would take few hours depending on the size of the herd and how many people would volunteer but somehow my gut told me that I was about to have a fantastic experience.

When it came to choosing a round-up (I found a list in the ever-so-fun “Bændablaðið” or Farmers Newspaper), I decided on one that was close enough to where I live and  was quite big and popular – you know, so I would be able to get the full experience! The excitement of the round-ups have everything to do with atmosphere – it’s the clothes people wear, their high spirits, the songs they sing…

So what should you expect and how would you prepare for a sheep round-up?

First, I highly recommend you dress according to the weather. Wear a rain jacket and of course the famous Icelandic wool sweater, if you have one, to stay warm. It’s a fantastic idea to put on rain or windproof pants as well because you are about to get really dirty. Wear clothes underneath that are comfortable and let your skin breathe, because believe me when I tell you that chasing and wrestling the usually rambunctious sheep really gets your cardio going! 

Réttir - sheep round up

The real party begins when the farmers and volunteers gather the sheep in to the main sheep pen, where they get sorted into smaller pens belonging to each farmer in the area. Now, you should expect a lot of crazy and confused sheep running around, not knowing what on earth is happening. This is when your part begins: find a farmer and get to know what the earmark belongs to them and start looking for their sheep! I found it easier just to stick to one farmer so I only had to learn to recognize one marking.  While my method, however convenient, was somewhat flawed because all the tags look almost identical so it can be very difficult to spot out the sheep you are looking for. After a minute or two, I got the hang of it and I actually got pretty good at picking out the right ones. 

Réttir - sheep round up

Now for some extra insider tips:  WEAR GLOVES, the sheep are covered in dirt and they run for their lives when you try to catch them, so holding on to them means you have to grab their wool quickly and with force otherwise else they will struggle and fight to get away. And warning, they can be very strong! After you have caught a sheep, throw one of your legs over it and stand above it, DO NOT SIT on them. Hold on to their horns close enough to their head so you won’t break the horns off (unfortunately this is actually quite common). Check their tag and herd them to their rightful owners and get on with the next one! After a while your hands will tire, so take it easy and have fun and let the games begin.

If you plan on staying the whole day or through the evening, remember to bring snacks and beverages. Alcohol is allowed - and even encouraged - and YES, some people do party after a long day’s work. Some places even throw a ball that night, which we call a “Réttaball.”

And if you were wondering, my intuition was spot on – it was SO much fun!

Réttir - sheep round up

If you would like to participate in a sheep round-up you can look up online where you can go close to where you are staying. Here is a list of the sheep round-up in Iceland for this year: http://www.bbl.is/frettir/frettir/fjar--og-stodrettir-2017/18130/