How to Raise and Breed Icelandic Sheep
Icelandic sheep are a small to medium breed of wool sheep that come from Iceland. The Icelandic sheep have naturally short tails which are usually not docked. Some are polled (have no horns) and others are non-polled (have horns), and horns can occur in both genders. Icelandic sheep come in many colors, with black, and patterned, sheep being very common.
Icelandic sheep are very prolific, often having twins or triplets, although generally producers prefer ewes to only have a single for their first year.
Breeding Icelandic Sheep
If you are only breeding for meat, or wool, production you do not need a registered flock. If you are breeding to sell breeding rams, and/or ewes, you will want to start off with top quality registered (purebred) Icelandic sheep.
Icelandic ewes are ready to breed at 6 months of age, but typically producers like to wait until they are at least 8 months of age. They are seasonal breeders coming into estrus in the fall. The rams are often kept separate from the ewes until this time.
One ram is usually put with a group of 40 – 50 ewes for the purpose of breeding. If more than one ram is put with too few ewes they will spend time fighting and not breeding, and you will not know which ram is the sire if you are keeping breeding records. When a ram is put with too many ewes he will become exhausted.
Rams are old enough to breed at five months, but should not be put with more than 10 ewes at this early age.
Ewes have a 5 month gestation, so most breeding is done in plans for early spring lambs.
Lambing can be done in the pasture or barn. In the barn is best if temperatures are cold or if predators are a concern.
The barn should be bedded in straw, ewes should be checked for signs of lambing regularly, they will bag up usually weeks in advance, and just before lambing may go off their feed. If a producer has a good eye they will notice that the way the ewe is carrying her lambs will change just before she gives birth – the lambs will appear to “drop” and she gets a sunk in appearance by her hips. This is hard to notice under their woolly coats.
Sometimes a producer will leave all the expectant ewes together loose in the barn, or may put the ones that show signs of imminent lambing into a small stall. Ewes should always be kept so they can see other sheep, but separating some can make it easier to know who has had lambs in the case of a new mother who might be confused and wandered off.
Lambs are often born at night, and unless the ewe was bred to a larger sheep, problems are area. It is still a good idea to keep a veterinarians phone number handy in case of problems. If a ewe is straining for more than 6 hours a veterinarian should be called.
After lambing the ewe will typically have a bloody behind, and will shed the placenta (she may even eat this), if the placenta is not shed after a day, the vet should be called. After lambing the ewe will want a drink of water, and may want some hay, but should not be given oats for another 12 hours.
The newborn lambs will get up and drink – the first milk is colostrum which contains antibodies and is very important for them. They should remain penned with their mother for at least 2 days to allow bonding. Watch to make sure they are thriving, if not you may have to bottle feed a lamb. Also watch the ewes for mastitis.
Lambs are generally weaned around 3 – 4 months of age. Ram lambs must be weaned before five months of age or may try to breed the ewes.
*Note: Typically breeders of Icelandic sheep only breed polled sheep to polled sheep, or non-polled to non-polled.
Feeding and Care of Icelandic Sheep
Icelandic sheep are fairly cold hardy but should have some shelter in areas where temperatures go below freezing for long periods of time, and will need shade for hot summer days.
The are hardy and do well on pasture, but will need hay in the winter. Pregnant and lactating ewes should be given a special ration, or oat supplement. They should have fresh water at all times.
Sheep require a salt block, and sheep mineral block – they cannot have copper.
Vaccinations are something a producer should discuss with their area veterinarian, as well as a proper worming schedule.
Shearing is usually done in the early spring to harvest the fleece and prevent the sheep from getting too hot in the summer.
Uses of Icelandic Sheep
Lambs are often slaughtered for meat at around five months of age. Their hides are used for sheepskin rugs.
Icelandic sheep are also used for wool, and occasionally for milk.