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Travel Diary: A Summer on an Icelandic Sheep Farm

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The following account details the experience of a graduate student living and working for a summer on a sheep farm in the north of Iceland. Join us as we learn about life on the land, and the sensation of total immersion in the land of the midnight sun.

The Journey North

iceland map

I still recall that early afternoon when, sitting on a stone pillar to the side of Hallgrímskirkja, that clean bleak cathedral inspired by Iceland’s landscape, I was picked up by Einar and Þóra (pronounced Thora). I threw the few bags I had into the trunk and we began the long drive north from Reykjavík. They both spoke English. It was with Þóra I had first come into contact when, on behalf of her brother Árni, she reached out to me in response to an ad I had placed in the paper. 

After the initial introductions, the car descended into silence; broken only by the occasional conversation in quiet lilting Icelandic, or the odd remark in English to me. I stared out the window and said goodbye to Reykjavík, my home of one year. Mountains, fjords, ice, snow, rivers, moss and crag: Iceland’s landscape has a haunting atmosphere most times of the year. This day – the first of May – was no different.

Apart from a stop in Borgarnes, an almost unavoidable town on any drive up the west coast, it was a straight shot north and east, until just shy of Þingeyrar we pulled into a drive and up to a house. This was not the farm of Árni, I was told, but rather the site of a birthday party. Þóra and Einar were just stopping in to check on their children. I stretched my legs and admired the mountains in the distance while Þóra and Einar stepped inside. After some minutes they came out, and we got back in the car and drove on.

The Arrival

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The view down valley

Another 20 minutes or so along the Ring Road, we turned right onto a country road and entered Vatnsdalur. I was impressed by the rock formations that formed the eastern wall of the valley but, in the brown and grey of early May, I felt as though I had entered some wasteland – a feeling that only increased as we drove on for what seemed like hours (in reality only another forty minutes or so). Nothing could have prepared me for the transformation that would take place in this valley in the weeks to come.

Anxiety and regret were building up inside my breast as we pulled up to the farm complex. The barn and stables, like so many other structures in Iceland, could also have been inspired by the landscape: a rugged and austere concrete. The road and driveway were mud, and my boots sank into it as I got out of the car. We dropped my bags inside the entryway of the house, and I was told to get back in the car. We drove another kilometre or so up the road to the farm of Þóra and Einar. There, coffee was prepared (a most important Icelandic ritual) and we were joined by Árni.

Introductions

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The farmhouse and stables

The man was about 50. His hair was greying and kept short. His eyes were a deep blue, and his gaze intense and piercing – farseeing, but quite the opposite of absent. There would often be times that summer when he would look at me and I couldn’t be sure if I had done right or wrong, not until he smiled or stated one way or the other – something he did not always do. He was shorter than I, and stocky; with perhaps the largest hands I have ever seen on a man.

Þóra and Einar served then as translators, asking if I had any questions for Árni. I wondered what his expectations were, the hours I would be expected to work, and so on – all the formal details that had not been discussed by email. The answers given were all quite reasonable but, as I would discover before too long and despite what was agreed, it’s a hard thing to call it a day and rest while another man keeps on working.

At the end of the coffee, we drove back together to the farm, taking leave of Þóra and Einar. All was in Icelandic now. He showed me to the bedroom that would be mine, on the upper floor with a fine view down the valley overlooking the road and river. He then found me a couple pairs of coveralls and a pair of boots that would fit, and told me that he was heading up to the barn. I indicated that I would like to join him, so I threw on my newly-acquired boots and we strode out the door.

Lay of the Land

He fetched Sporri, his young dog still-in-training, out of the garage, and the three of us together walked past the stables and up the muddy track. The barn was situated further up the hillside, just north of the house. The barn’s exterior was corrugated iron covered in a coat of red paint, with the odd section of plain steel that gave the building a weathered quality. The roof was the same, but painted green. Inside the main structure were long stalls divided by wooden mangers; four mangers total in the main room, with a number of smaller stalls and troughs spaced throughout the remainder of the building.

At the head of each of these mangers was a door leading through to a smaller space that housed a section devoted to the special cases (mothers who bore more than two lambs) off to the right, a small wooden-framed room walled in plastic that Árni called the kaffistofnun (inside could be found a cot, a chair, desk, space heater and kettle), and off to the left an open space with big doors through which to receive and break open the bales of hay. Another smaller door in the wall beyond led to two more rooms of stalls.

The barn was dark and musty, with that earthy odorous smell of manure and livestock. Árni ran some 550 sheep on his farm, and about 50 horses – though I wouldn’t see much of the latter until some weeks later. We weren’t long at the barn that first night. He left me in the main space and checked on each of his beasts before he switched off the lights and we walked back down to the house.

Lambing Season

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Sheep in the makeshift stalls

We may not have spent a lot of time there that first night, but much of the following month would pass within and just outside of the barn walls. May is the month for lambing in Iceland and, while some were born earlier and some later, the bulk of the births took place in those first four weeks. What that looked like in reality was a game of ovine tetris. As lambs were born, they were placed with their mother in a stall of their own, to prevent them from being crushed.  After four days to a week, the lambs were full enough grown to be moved outside to the home pasture just off the barn.

Even with the steady exodus outside, there were soon so many lambs being born that there weren’t enough of the small stalls to hold them, and we had to manufacture our own – hauling out from storage wooden slats ready-made for the purpose and hammering or tying them into place in the main enclosures, which gradually became smaller and smaller as more and more of these make-shift folds went up.

Here the job got more tedious, as most of these temporary enclosures had no access to water and buckets had to be fetched, filled and hauled into place, then later carried out, refilled and returned. The buckets further complicated the reality that whenever the lambs in one of these folds were enough grown, each of the slats had to be dismantled and the lambs and mother brought out. At which point, the other sheep and lambs would be driven back in and the temporary walls went up once more.

Droving

sheep lambs pasture iceland

Sheep in the home pasture – www.frasermilphotography.com

Outside, the game continued. The more mature lambs would be driven with their mothers from the home pasture to further outlying fields in order to make room for younger creatures. When these filled up, they’d be loaded into a wooden enclosure attached to the tractor and driven down the road to the farther-lying pastures.

Droving is an imperfect science. The sheep could generally be expected to go where you directed them to, but every now and then one would get wise and break away from the pattern. It was great sport. We were joined some days in this by Árni’s father Bragi; a man with a sense of humour whom I took an instant liking to. Up on those valley slopes, walking beside Bragi and Árni, staffs in hand, both chatting away, I felt taken back in time – as if we were some prehistoric herders on some Alpine slope, when Proto-Indo-European was the rage.

Joie de Vivre

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Lambs taking a break from the play – www.frasermilphotography.com

Inside the barn, we were not the only ones to be playing games. In the latter weeks of May the main wing of the barn was full of the small individual makeshift sheepfolds. While these enclosures restricted to some degree the movements of the sheep, the lambs found a way to circumvent these sanctions. Much like human children, for lambs there was a time for sleep and a time to play; and one followed the other at steady intervals throughout the day.

I still remember the pleasure I experienced the first time, and admittedly every time thereafter, when I witnessed the lambs engaged in play. Up and down the manger they would run – racing each other – with one, and then another, giving a wild jump straight up in the air. The joy for life, the energy, the freedom, expressed in these moments, never ceased to move me; though these youth certainly made more work for us. We were constantly sorting lambs, returning ones who had strayed too far back to their mothers.

Such vivid expressions of life were made all the more powerful by another aspect of life on the farm. While my first week there had been all life and creation, by the end of the second week death was becoming ever more prevalent. Most sheep gave birth without trouble, but in a stock of that size, there were a fair number who required assistance – and some cases that ended in tragedy.

Gruesome Realities

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Death on the hills – www.frasermilphotography.com

One early afternoon, Árni approached me and asked me to grab a ewe (female sheep) in the pen. I didn’t question him, and it wasn’t until I was in the pen that I saw the one he meant. I froze. The ewe had given birth, it seemed. But in coming out, the lamb had brought some of the ewe out with it – the evidence of which, a prolapsed uterus, was now all too clearly hanging from the sheep’s hind end. In that moment, I very much wanted to leave. But Árni gave a bark and I went after her.

My heart wasn’t in this chase, and the man was none too pleased with me when he had to step in and help. Still, before too long I had the ewe by her horns and he was doing what he could for her around the back. A first attempt to hold it back in with a plastic device and some twine failed, as did two ensuing attempts in which he sewed her shut. By late afternoon we were loading her into the trailer and he was off to see the vet in Hvammstangi – leaving Bragi and I behind to manage affairs in his absence.

He returned a few hours later, and the sheep seemed in better shape. The opening was still sewn shut, though with a better stitch-job then Árni had done. We left her in a stall by the northeast door with her lamb, and my mind was soon occupied by other tasks. However, the next morning as I walked through that wing on another assignment, any question I had had regarding her fate was answered. I opened the door to exit the barn, and there to my left lay the sheep – a plastic sheet covering its head (the propriety of which I still find puzzling – perhaps only to keep the ravens from her eyes?).

Orphans & Fosters

But there remained a loose-end: the orphan lamb now without a mother. This orphan was by no means a phenomenon; whether it was a lamb without a mother or a mother without her lamb, there were a few cases of heartbroken, desperate animals that summer. Fortunately more common, was the occurrence of ewes giving birth  – the usual was two, but sometimes 3 or, more typically with younger mothers, just one.

These families, I discovered, presented a solution to the former problem, although these solutions were by no means easy or even guaranteed. What effectively ensued, was a type of domestic juggling: transplanting a lamb from a family of four, to a family where the mother had only borne one lamb.  These mothers did not simply accept the new additions, however, nor forget what had been taken from them. Scent is a powerful thing: a ewe knows its young, so the sheep farmer has to get creative.

Creative Solutions

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Lambs astray

I witnessed an extreme example of this creativity one night, when I walked in on Árni skinning a dead lamb. I confess that in my ignorance I found myself questioning whether this might not be our supper. My curiosity was soon satiated, however, when Árni left and came back with a live lamb, and proceeded to sew it into the fleece (a morbid twist on the proverb to spend a day in another’s shoes). This was our orphan. The one whose mother had met such a traumatic end.

Despite his ingenuity, the new mother seemed reluctant to fall for Árni’s trick. We had to tie the beast’s head to a post so that the orphan could feed from its unwilling new mother, giving up on the sheep in sheep’s clothing charade. I am sure that Árni hoped with time the ewe would come to accept the lamb as its own, and while after some days the beast no longer physically protested the lamb’s presence, her feelings remained lukewarm at best.

It was another heartbreaking moment when it came time to put them in the outer pasture, and the orphan lamb was left behind as the foster mother ran off with her own young. Árni climbed back into the tractor, there was nothing else to be done. In the weeks that followed, I came across the carcasses of several lambs in that pasture. Each time, wondering whether it belonged to that one I had known.

But it wasn’t always so bleak. We enjoyed some successes as well. A method that seemed to work nearly every time was to cover the transplanted lamb in the placenta of a newborn right as the ewe had given birth. So long as you pushed the foster-lamb on the mother prior to her own lamb, she didn’t seem to notice the difference. No doubt we would have employed this approach every time, but the timing didn’t always work out.

Bottle-Feeding

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Mother and lamb – www.frasermilphotography.com

Regardless of whether the lamb was the natural offspring or fostered, when it came to feeding, some of the little ones could be ruthless. There were a few cases of utters so torn up from the feeding mouths that we had to take the lambs away from the ewe while she healed. But the lambs needed to eat, and those few days of May spent bottle feeding them brought me much needed content.

The lambs refused, out of principle, to let us take them without a struggle. But once in our lap, they soon lost all inhibition at being there and focussed solely on the bottle (those that were hungry at least). It got to the point with some where we could simply hold the bottle down for them in the stall and they would come up to drink from it. They would bow down on their front knees, heads arched back at a wonderful angle and take the bottle from near directly over top. Their short little tails wagging at regular intervals as a sign of their satisfaction with the ritual.

The Average Workday

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Bragi breaking open a bale

I enjoyed working on the farm, but it took a toll on me. Every day I woke around 8.00am. I looked out the window, got dressed and went down to the kitchen to eat breakfast. I did so alone, for Árni slept up at the barn the whole month of May. Around 8.30 I’d stroll up to the barn, walk through to see how many new lambs had been born in the night and then start breaking down the hay bale to feed the sheep their breakfast.

This was often strenuous work, as the bale didn’t always come apart so easily. But Árni was usually up by then and unless he had another job to do we’d take turns hauling hay to fill the mangers or throwing it down with a pitchfork into the drop by the manger doors. We’d do the same thing again in the evenings but, apart from feeding the animals, no one day was ever the same. Hauling slats, setting up pens, driving sheep, repairing fences, bringing up more bales from storage in one of the outfields, but most of our attention was devoted to the lambing – assisting with the birthing where needed; sometimes very actively so.

Playing the Midwife

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A newborn resting – www.frasermilphotography.com

I will never forget the first time I delivered a lamb solo. I had seen it done enough times to know what to do. The mother was having difficulties – nothing too serious, but if I could minimize her pain, I would do so. The snout was beginning to protrude, but it had to be the hooves first. As gently as possible, I reached in with my fingers. I felt the hooves, and pulled as best I could.

It was difficult to get a grip, and I had to slide my hand in a bit further, but I got a hold and began to pull. Slowly. Slowly. The hooves were out. I readjusted my grip, and began to pull again – muttering words of comfort and encouragement to the mother. The head began to show again, and the mother moaned. Louder now, I encouraged her and, with one last pull, the limp form of the lamb slid out. I cleared the airway of placenta, and rubbed the lamb. It took its first breath. I set it down in front of its mother, who began to lick it clean. The warmth of her tongue starting up the lamb’s respiratory system. Before too long it was on its feet.

Long Days

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Late evening (ca. 9:00pm)

We usually took a few breaks during the day. But there were a few days in May we got none at all. Surviving on the coffee and biscuits in the kaffistofun up at the barn – such were the quantities of births and the urgency to find space for all the new lambs those several days that we hadn’t even the time to return to the house. I am certain Árni would not have begrudged me for leaving to go eat, but his mind was on the lambing; and if he at 50 had no intention of taking a meal break, I felt I must survive without one too.

Those days were rarities, but even with the few breaks in the day we usually took, they were very long days. Beginning around 8.30, we often didn’t eat dinner until around 10.00pm. Some days not until 11.00pm; which left little time to decompress before sleep. Working on the farm came to feel a little like purgatory. In that first month I had no days off, and I began to lose track of the days, and the hours; for in that sub-arctic summer too, the sun never really set.

It was the second Sunday of my time on the farm that Árni finally snapped. Up until then he had impressed me with his patience regarding the difficulties of communication and understanding. But that day the lack of sleep and overwork, coupled with the frustration of the day, finally boiled up in him. The admirable patience that he had exhibited thus far had worn thin. He grew snarky, and raised his voice. At that moment, the seal was broken, and there would be other occurrences in the days that followed. 

The Power of Language

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Árni and Sporri – www.frasermilphotography.com

The power of language becomes all the more apparent when you do not speak it. Whenever Árni got angry with me, or uttered that sigh of frustration or displeasure, I could not defend myself, not fully at least. I could not justify my actions, and make clear to him that I had carried out the order as I had understood him to have given it. Instead he grew angry, and all I could do was stand there and take it. At first, I showed remorse; trying to demonstrate that I had meant well. But after several incidences over just two days, my remorsefulness turned into a quiet stoicism.

I stood there, derision in my eyes, unimpressed as I was with his behaviour, and so passed the time. I began to wonder if Árni had come to regret taking on someone with so little Icelandic. Still, I worked hard for the man and tried to give him as little reason to hold such thoughts as I could. Working as hard as I did, for such long hours as I did, it seemed to me unfair for him to get moody with me. I understood how worn he must have been, and so forgave him at the start.  As the behaviour continued though, it became unjustifiable; it was just part of his character.

These moments were not exclusive to my time there. Indeed, the vast majority of my time there was quite pleasant – such moments only formed a small dark cloud on what was otherwise perhaps the best summer of my life.

The Midnight Sun

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Sunset in the valley

I later learned that a number of my friends still in Reykjavík for the summer had found the lack of night quite trying, but I was revelling. The winter had hit me hard, and I was starved for sunlight. Each night, the long hours of labour saw me honestly to sleep, and each day I feasted on the sun’s rays. Living in that valley, sitting out in the late evening, listening to the sound of the river flowing and watching the clouds float over the mountains as the sun set in the west, it was poetry.

A sort of panic set in a few months later when, beginning the second year of my program in Norway, I sensed the darkness of autumn begin to return.

Those first four weeks on the farm I laboured 14-16 hour days, without a day off. What got me through was the knowledge that as hard and as long as I was working, I knew Árni was working harder and longer. But by the end of May, the lambing began to slow down. Most of the sheep were now out in the fields, and I took a couple of days to return to Reykjavik to submit my visa application at the Norwegian embassy. Árni gave me a ride into Blönduós (the nearest town), where I caught a bus south to the capital.

A Changed Landscape

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The grass turns to green

It is hard to describe the state I found myself in then. A mixture of joy and relief. It was the first of the few breaks I would get in those ten weeks. Whatever ailment of mind or spirit I suffered, it was always cured by a drive through that beautiful land. The Icelandic landscape has the uncanny ability to free your spirit. To lift from you your woes, drawing them into itself to build upon its own dark brooding majesty. But that majesty had transformed from its previous dull brown and grey monotony. The withered grass of winter had found new life, and the land was carpeted now in varying shades of green.

Back in Reykjavik, the trees I had left behind, so long the bare and withered branches, were now blanketed in green. Flowers had emerged: yellow, white, blue; and a sweet aroma filled the air that I should have welcomed merrily. But like an old friend that, after a time spent long apart, has changed beyond recognition, so the city felt to me now.

Homecoming

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The cold and cloudy day, with precipitation turning from mist to rain, did nothing to improve the homecoming. But two friendly and familiar faces proved all that was needed. As I stood on the doorstep of that familiar building, nestled in secret in the alley off the main street, a smile was quick to return to my troubled face as the door opened and the well-known voices of my housemates rang out. Home was still home. For they had not yet left for their own lands.

That night we talked, the three of us around that small kitchen table. I slept like I had not slept in four weeks. Not the overworked and overtired sleep that had for a month now left me wanting more, but a long, wholesome and decent sleep; in a familiar bed, in a familiar room, in a familiar house.

As I walked out the next morning towards the embassy, the city regained its charm. The sweet smell on the air I now welcomed. The well-remembered black cat nesting in its old spot. I went off again refreshed. Catching the bus north a day later, the short stay that could have been longer, had been enough. Enough, I hoped, to see me through the next six weeks of labour.

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