Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America


The following rules were formed by the late Dr. Halldor Palsson who was the leading sheep specialist in Iceland for a quarter of a century. Few, if any, people have had such influence on ideas in sheep breeding in Iceland as Dr. Palsson.

How a sheep is to be measured

A sheep to be measured shall stand on a flat dry surface. Sheep will be shown in its natural fleece (not shorn).

Chest measurement shall be done with a soft but strong measuring tape just behind the shoulders. The person measuring shall always stand on the left side of the sheep, slide the end of the tape down the right side, pull it up the left side and pull the tape tight and have the ends meet over the spine. Care should be taken that neither shoulder blade is under the tape. Inexperienced people should be careful to pull the tape firmly so that it gets close to the chest, especially when the sheep has a lot of wool.

Width of loin is measured with the tape right across the loin out to the end of the loin rib. Pull the tape tight.

Length of front leg (cannon bone) is measured with a ruler that must be at least 15 cm long (around 6”). It can be bothersome if it is any longer. This measurement is taken on the left front leg by lifting the leg from the ground and bending at the knee and at the pastern. Then the leg is measured from the outer edge of the leg head to the end of the leg at the knee. For those that have studied the legs at slaughter it should be fairly easy to estimate where the leg begins and ends.

Scoring points for special body parts and for wool

For the audience and participants to easily understand the good and bad aspects of the sheep, each body part is judged and given points from 0 to 10. Only whole points should be given. Keep in mind that when a point system is used, a sheep that gets below 5 for each body part, characteristic or wool, or a total of less than 50 points should not be passed since that is a poor sheep. If the points are 50-59 the sheep gets 3rd grade; if it gets 60-74 points it gets 2nd grade (i.e. it is a good sheep); if the points are 75-100 it gets 1st grade and is very good. If the sheep gets more than 90 points it is an excellent sheep. Never give a sheep 0 except for a deformity such as a bad bite or badly twisted feet, etc.

Icelandic sheep should be as follows to be given maximum points

HEAD: The head should be short and broad, with a broad forehead, a broad (the front section of the) nose, nostrils well open, lips thick, jaws good looking, upper- and lower jaw even and good distance between the lower jaws at the neck, eyes big and bright, horns on horned sheep fine ridged and not too long. The head on a polled sheep can be somewhat thinner than on horned.

NECK AND SHOULDERS: The neck should be short, round and broadening at shoulders so that where neck and shoulders meet is not noticeable. Rams should have a very thick neck but the ewes should have considerably narrower neck, particularly at the head. Shoulders shall be rounded and meaty on both sides of the spine (Spinous Process). Shoulder and neck should be equal in scoring.

CHEST AND RIBS: The chest should be very broad and reach well in front of the legs by at least a hands width when the sheep is standing naturally. Even though the chest should be broad in the front it is more important that it be broad in the back and the ribs come well out from the sternum between the legs and behind the legs, resulting in a good flat area at the bottom of the chest cavity. The ribs should stand well out so that the chest cavity be well rounded with no tapering in behind the shoulder. Of the 10 points given for chest and ribs, 3 should be given for chest in front of front legs, 4 points for chest behind the legs and the shape of the ribs attached to the sternum and 3 points for the roundness of the ribs themselves.

LOIN WIDTH AND STRENGTH: The loin should be broad, roundish, strong and well connected to the chest cavity. The spinous process must not be so high that the back looks like a high pitched roof. The back must be firm when pushed on.

MUSCLE FULLNESS ON BACK: The muscle on the back shall be so thick that the transverse process bones will not be sharp when pushed on, that is, on rams and other non-lactating sheep. Ewes with lambs are naturally thinner but should anyway have good meat covering

RUMP: Rump should be broad, fairly long and straight but can taper back a bit. It shall be well muscled.

LEGS: The legs should be well muscled and thick so that the crotch is “u” shaped rather than “v” shaped. The upper leg should be short and the muscle should reach far down towards the hock. Up in the crotch the muscle should be large and firm and fit well into a palm of the hand when grabbed.

FEET: The feet should be short, thick, straight and with good space between them. The space between the knees should be the same width as that between the feet at the pasterns. The pastern should be strong and form an angle of about 45 degrees to the ground when the sheep stands naturally. Feet must not be twisted, neither at pasterns, knees or hocks.

WOOL, QUANTITY AND COLOR: There should be a lot of wool. The quantity of wool can best be gauged by grabbing the wool and feel how well it fills the hand. The wool can be any color.

WOOL & SKIN, FINENESS, etc: The wool should be thick, lots of fairly long, fine waived thel (the finer undercoat), and the wool greasy. The tog should be corkscrewy, rather fine and not too long. The tog should be soft when rolled between the fingers. The tog should not be straight and sleek, and little difference in the coarseness on the shoulder and on the rump and legs. No kemp should be in the wool. The wool should not separate along the back nor open to the skin.

Note: One would be tempted to compare some aspects of the Icelandic sheep to other breeds. A lot of wool on an Icelandic sheep means 6-8 lbs. Compared to some other breeds this is a small amount. On average, Icelandic sheep only give 4-5 lbs. of wool annually. Thickness is also a relative question. For example the Merino sheep has 53-87 hair follicles per square mm and the Romney has 22, whereas the Icelandic sheep has only 12 hair follicles per square mm. Greasiness is also relative. A normal Icelandic sheep does not have as much grease as most North American domestic sheep. In washing domestic sheep’s wool loses about 50% of its weight whereas Icelandic wool loses only about 25-30%.

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