Volume 4, Number 1 Winter 2000
Editor, Deb Kimball
Stephania Sveinbjarnardottir Dignum
"It warms the heart and gives pleasure to pause for a moment before spreading the morning hay in the manger.
The sheep turn their attention to the shepherd.
It evokes a feeling of loving kindness to look into these mild, innocent and trusting eyes, full of hope and faith in the shepherd.
Those are the eyes of God's children."
Asgeir Jonsson from Gottorp, 1949.
When I was a child in Iceland and throughout my early years I often heard stories about
sheep that were referred to as leadersheep. As a person who likes animals I enjoyed
these stories. But it was not until I had moved to Canada and had been sheepfarming
for a few years that I realized what an unusual and interesting phenomenon the
leadersheep are. Even though I have enquired among people of various backgrounds and
ethnic origins, nobody seems to be familiar with leadersheep in breeds other than the
As the name implies these sheep were leaders in their flocks. Through the centuries
they have played a very important part in survival in Iceland. The geographical
location of the country makes habitation difficult, and, especially during winter,
the weather is extremely changeable and often dangerous for both humans and animals.
With a growing season of only three months, hay was usually in short supply for most
farmers until the middle of this century when modern farming methods increased hay yield.
Animal and human survival often depended on a considerable amount of winter grazing
of the sheep, which often were the only livestock a farmer had. The sheep flocks were
usually driven by the shepherds several kilometers from the farm to the pastures where
they scraped the snow to find whatever vegetation was available. Often the shepherds were
just children from twelve years old and sometimes they had to stay with the sheep during
the day. It was a tough live that required both ingenuity and strength.
The leadersheep had many qualities that made them special. Often they were very tame
and human loving. But always the other animals in the flock followed them blindly
with a complete trust. The shepherd also trusted the instincts of these sheep and
that trust often saved humans and sheep from certain death. The leadersheep usually
had an acute sense of the weather. They could sense change on the way often a whole
day before a deadly blizzard hit. In these instances they often refused to leave the barn
to go on pasture. If the weather was good and going to stay that way the leader
usually was the first sheep out in the morning. If, on the other hand, the leader
stayed way in the barn, not to mention if they refused to leave, it indicated bad
weather. Woe the shepherd who ignored the forecast of their leadersheep. Often, when the
weather appeared good, the leader and the whole flock was forced out. In these cases
the leader usually did his best to stop the flock or at least tried to delay the
driving. Then on pasture they usually did not graze but stood alert and at the first
sign of weatherchange they rounded up the flock and headed home. The weather in Iceland is
extremely changeable and often it takes less than an hour to change from sunshine to
raging blizzard. In many cases when flocks were caught in that kind of a situation the
leader found the way home even though the shepherd was totally lost. The shepherd trusted
the ability of the sheep to find the way. A good leader would go home as fast as possible,
though never faster than a speed which allowed all of the sheep to keep up.
Some of the leaders were exceptionally good at finding ways over treacherous ground
where the whole flock could follow. The same applied to finding fording places across
rivers. Some were good at finding good places to graze in the winter. But all had an
amazing ability to find their way home. Many could be trained to follow signs from the
shepherd, not unlike a good dog can. Many stories are told about instances where farmers
had difficulty in getting skittish sheep from one place to another. Then the leader was
sent off and usually the difficult sheep followed him without hesitation.
The leadership ability runs in bloodlines and is equally in males and females. There
were farmers who bred leadersheep and these were usually priced two or three times over
what good sheep traded for. Bloodlines even became famous for their ability and were
sought after. I have been told that leadersheep are often taller than other sheep, and
often they do not have what one would call prime meat conformation. That might be the
reason why leader rams were often castrated. When in a flock of other sheep they can often
be spotted since their heads are raised higher than others. They are usually very alert.
Recently, when I was in Iceland buying new stock I did buy a ewe lamb whose mother is a
leader. Even though she has not yet had the time to prove herself as a leader, I do have
high hopes for her. She certainly carries her head higher than the rest and from the
beginning she seems to watch us humans more intensely than the others do. She is also tall
During the eradication of maedi/visna (OPP) in Iceland earlier this century many feared
that the leadersheep bloodlines would be wiped out. Around that time farming methods were also
changing, making winter grazing unnecessary and thereby lessening the need for relying on the
leadersheep. That prompted Asgeir Jonsson, a prominent sheep farmer at that time, to
collect stories about leadersheep. Those stories were published in a book called
"Leadersheep" (Forystufe) in 1953. This book is one of my favorites. With the
permission of Mr. Jonsson's daughter I have translated the following two stories.
Svinavatns Surtur (Leader ram Surtur from Svinavatn)
This happened in the fall roundup in 1884. A large flock of sheep had been gathered
deep in the interior and a days drive over a mountain desert was ahead. In the morning,
when the drive was to start a snowfall had begun and the weather was very dubious. Shortly
after leaving the previous nights resting place a raging blizzard hit. It was so furious
that the drivers lost sight of all landmarks and could not find their way over the desert.
To put up tents was impossible on the rocks and sand and turning back was questionable. It
was known that Surtur, already recognized as a superior leader, was leading the flock. He
had led the sheep steadily, but never faster than so that all the sheep could follow.
Under these circumstances, the Mountain King (the leader of the men) decided to leave it
to Surtur to lead everybody to safety, and firmly instructed his men to stick together.
When about one third of the trek over the desert was completed, Surtur stopped suddenly
and came back to the men, who were behind the sheep flock. They immediately saw that
Surtur's face was so covered with ice and snow that he could not see. After they had
cleared his face he resumed his leading, facing the blizzard.
For hours they moved steadily without any incidents except Surtur came back several
times to have his face cleared. Suddenly Surtur stopped and refused to go any further. The
men found that grass was under their feet and therefore knew that they were out of the
desert, but where they were no one knew. It was decided to stop there and put up tents,
even though it was unpleasant.
At dawn the blizzard abated somewhat and then the men realized that they were at the
very spot where they usually stopped after crossing the sands. Every year, since Surtur
was a lamb he had stopped there at this stage in the roundup. He had known exactly where
to go even when the experienced and seasoned men had lost their way.
When the Mountain King returned Surtur to his owner he said, that had it not been for
Surtur's lead over the sands, several men and sheep would likely have died or suffered
seriously from exposure. - This is only one of several stories of Surtur.
Kraga (leader ewe named Kraga).
In 1953, when the book "Leadersheep" was published, Kraga was still alive,
born in 1944. Ten pages are devoted to several stories of Kraga. She was white, tall and a
beautiful ewe. She was a leader right from her first winter.
This story is told by Kraga's owner: "One the 10th of December 1950 one of those
North Atlantic blizzards hit. I had not yet taken my sheep in on hay but grazed them on
the seashore not far from the farm. The evening before the blizzard I walked to my barn
and was surprised to find Kraga standing by herself way back in the barn. Seeing this I
decided to just catnap that night and be prepared for a weatherchange. Up to then the
weather had been just fine. At five o'clock in the morning I heard the roar from the sea
and the blizzard. I rushed out and managed, with difficulty, to get the ewes from the
shore. A few minutes later and it would have been to late. I also managed to call my
neighbor and warn him, otherwise he would have lost several sheep.
Later that winter, in early March, the weather had been good for a few days so I drove
my sheep towards the mountains during the day. In the afternoon Kraga led the whole flock
past the farm down to the shore where they spent the nights. One day, I was standing by
the barn when Kraga came by with her flock. But instead of running past me as she usually
did, she turned off the track and came directly to me. Naturally I stopped the flock and
took them in on hay. That night another killer blizzard hit".
Farmers in Iceland do not use winter grazing any more. The need for leadersheep is not
the same as it used to be and their economic value has diminished But a couple of years
ago I was leafing through a catalogue from one of the AI stations in Iceland. To my
delight I found that this station had a leader ram standing at stud. Even though the
leader is not an economic necessity any longer, Icelanders have not discarded the pride
and joy of having in their flock the type of animal that with intuition and sense helped
the farmer in the struggle with the elements of the far north.
For what it may be
worth I would like to add my own experience to the Icelandic stories of the
Leadersheep. When I was in Iceland in 1990 selecting lambs to bring to Canada, I inquired
about buying a leadersheep. Only one of the farmers in the district wherefrom the lambs
had to come had a proven leader. She was a spotted black ewe. To my delight she had two
ewe lambs and I was welcome to them. The one I took is black with white a blaze and white
socks on her hindfeet. She was rather thin and light and quick as lightning. I do not, as
a general rule, breed lambs so when they were released from quarantine I kept the ewe
lambs and the ram lambs in the same barn but separated with a wall made of old thick
boards. One of the ram lambs managed three times to break a board in this wall and get in
with the ewe lambs. The result was an unexpected crop of lambs. This first winter here in
Canada Blesa certainly stood out. She was taller than most of the others and she often
stood and seemed to be studying us humans. But she was not particularity friendly. In the
Spring Blesa was one of the ewe lambs that gave birth.
I was not sure what, if any, environmental factors here in Canada would influence
Blesa. The Weather Service certainly warns us farmers about changes in the weather. And I
keep my sheep home around the barn in the winter where I feed them hay. So I did not
really expect that there would be anything special for which Blesa's talents would be of
It was on a Thursday in early June 1991 that I noticed that one of the young mothers
did not have her lamb with her when she came home from pasture. The next day I looked for
it in the pasture but did not find it. On Saturday morning, when I opened the barnyard
gates for the ewes to go out Blesa kept running around in the yard bleating. All the ewes
went out except Blesa. She kept running around the yard and up on a rock outcropping by
the barn where she stood bleating after the flock. I thought that she had lost her lamb,
but the lamb was with her. Since we were very busy this day weighing lambs, I did not take
the time to find out why Blesa acted in this unusual way. She stayed by the barn all that
day. By mid afternoon we were done weighing, and suspecting that Blesa had a reason for
her behavior, I went out to the pasture to look around. I found one of the young mothers
running frantically around a couple of apple trees bleating constantly. Realizing that
something was wrong I got the family to help round up the sheep. The lamb of the bleating
mother was not with the flock. When all were home I took the mother out to see if she
could lead me to the lamb. She took me right to the apple trees and stood there bleating.
There was nothing to be seen so I took her home. After dinner that evening I went out once
more to the pasture and as I came over a hill there I met a coyote eye to eye. It turned
around and sloped off into the bush and I went home.
On Sunday, when most of the flock went out on pasture, Blesa and all the young mothers
stayed around the barn. On Monday I reported the coyote presence and the Government
trapper came to set traps. That day and the next Blesa and the other mothers stayed home.
On Wednesday Blesa went further out than before. After letting the flock out I went and
checked the traps. Sure enough, we had got the coyote. Blesa led the flock out after that.
Since then, I always observe Blesa's behavior when letting the flock out on pasture. If
Blesa is first or among the first out I feel easy. If she is late or not eager to go I go
with the flock to the pasture and check on them once or twice that day. The lamb that we
lost on that Saturday in June 1991 is the last sheep we have lost to coyotes to date.
However, the coyotes have not left us since the summer of 1991, we caught five more
coyotes in traps. And in the wintertime we see their tracks in the snow.
Blesa had her second lambing this summer (1992). While she was nursing her lamb she
stayed on our pastures and came home every evening. But as soon as her lamb was weaned she
started jumping fences and go over to our various neighbors' properties where the grass
was better. Most of the time she took a few ewes with her. First I was alarmed, but after
a while, since Blesa always brought all home with her, I stopped worrying. My neighbors
rather enjoy looking at my sheep and most have been introduced to Blesa even though she
does not hang around to meet them.
I do not take the threat of coyotes lightly since we have had coyote kills every year
up till 1992. I must say that I have considerable faith in Blesa. I do believe that she
knows when there is danger and that she acts to warn and protect her flock. And I hope
that in the future she will give me many good leader sheep.
Note: This article originally ran in two parts with part one published in the Fall 1999
issue and part two in the Winter 2000 issue. For continuity for our readers, the entire
article is here. This article was originally printed in The Shepherd in 1991 and was
reprinted by ISBONA with their kind permission.
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