Our neighbors' lambs are being born here in Vermont now, and soon it will be lambing time in Iceland too. I remember one Icelandic friend of mine, sad that they were giving up sheep-farming, say, “But it won’t be spring without lambs bouncing around.”
I’ve never been in Iceland during lambing time, but when I went to Greenland to see Eirik the Red’s Viking settlement there in May 2006, the people who lived on Eirik’s old farm, Brattahlid, were in the middle of lambing season. They had learned their craft—and bought their sheep—in Iceland, and were trying to recreate (with government help) the Viking economy.
Jacky of Blue Ice Explorers warned me, when he rented a cottage for me on a Greenlandic farm, that I wouldn’t see much of the farmers, and I didn’t. They were hardly sleeping, two needing to be in the sheep house twenty-four hours a day. But one day I did get a tour of the barn. My hostess, Ellen, was small and patient and proud of her sheep. When she spoke—to me in English, to her kids in Greenlandic—her voice was soft and even, and she raised it only slightly in surprise when a young ram butted the housedoor with a bang. She slipped out and grabbed his horns before calling to me to follow.
The ram, nearly as big as she, was a yearling, bottlefed last May because he was born too small. “Now he won’t stay with the other sheep,” Ellen explained. “He likes to come in the house. Watch out he doesn’t hurt you.”
Holding tight to both of his impressively curled horns, she dragged him off the porch and through a muddy stream to the barn, then waved me inside before shooing him away.
The high, wide barn was divided lengthwise into five aisles, each about six feet wide and filled with sixty jostling, curious, pregnant ewes. We walked between two aisles on a raised boardwalk, which was also where the sheep’s noontime hay was piled (and the dogs were napping). It smelled very sweet. Ellen’s husband Carl and a helper were busy in the aisles, both slim, short, dark, sweaty, and tired. Carl had a wide, open face and a brightness to his expression, as if he’d like to speak to me but couldn’t, knowing no English. Instead he merely smiled, hopped nimbly up out of the pen in front of me and stretched up to the rafters to fetch down a wooden grate that he then slipped into grooves in the sides of the aisle to separate off a ewe and her two lambs. The far end of the aisle, I noticed, was already divided that way all along its length into little ewe-and-lamb-sized pens.
“There,” Ellen nudged me and pointed toward our feet.
A birth-slick white lamb lay sprawled on the aisle floor, glistening, two ewes competing to lick it dry. “Will the others step on it?” I asked.
“Only if they are scared,” she said, and I held very still until Carl reached it. The new lamb’s fleece by then was just starting to curl. Carl lifted it carefully by its head and carried it down the aisle to make it a pen, both ewes anxiously trotting behind him. He held the grate high for a moment until only one ewe was on the lamb’s side, then quickly slid it into place, leaving the second ewe trapped, baahing miserably, outside.
“How does he know which one is the mother?” I asked.
“Its rear end is bloody. And the other one is fatter.”
Off the back of the barn was a spacious shed carpeted with hay, to which the lambs graduated in groups of ten or so when they were strong enough. There, Ellen said, they “learned to find their mothers” before being taken up to the mountain pastures and let loose until October, when they are rounded up, sorted, and sent by boat to the slaughterhouse.
It’s a short, but sweet, life for mountain-raised lamb.
If you want to visit the Viking sites in Greenland, I recommend Blue Ice Explorer at http://www.blueice.gl/ in south Greenland. Greenland doesn’t export lamb, as far as I know, but you can often buy Icelandic mountain-raised lamb at Whole Foods; on their website, read “The Tender Story of Icelandic Lamb.” It’s the wild thyme and other herbs they graze on all summer that makes it so delicious.