When Stuart Somerville first started researching Icelandic sheep on the internet back in 2009, he never realized he would fall in love with the animals.
He and wife Kayla ended up purchasing two ewes and a ram and bringing them to their farm near Endiang, 150 kilometres southeast of Red Deer, in 2009.
Somerville had grown up raising cattle with parents Rob and Laurie, but had never raised sheep. He grew to like the Icelandic sheep immediately, because they handle a lot like cattle.
“I knew what I was doing with cattle and the shearing was satisfying,” said Somerville.
He worried about predator loss but Icelandic sheep, which are smaller than most breeds, stick together in a tight flock and are hard to chase because they have a wide flight zone.
“They had a better chance of surviving coyotes,” he said.
The couple has yet to lose an animal to coyotes, although they have lost a few goats, which they run with the flock. (They also raise pastured pork.)
Icelandic sheep are one of the oldest breeds, with a history going back more than 1,000 years. Ewes generally weigh between 130 to 160 pounds and rams between 180 to 220 pounds. Short legged and stocky, the breed is very hardy and is used to a cold climate, so tend to do well in Canada.
“The animals are tough, they’re small and they take less feed,” said Somerville. “Since their frame is a little different, they’re a little less appealing to a lot of buyers.”
“The meat is milder than some lamb and most people who haven’t tried lamb or who aren’t used to lamb like it,” added Kayla Somerville.
The sheep are hardy, and some have impressive horns. The Somervilles used to have a larger flock, but sold off 50 ewes. They now keep 20 ewes and two rams, maintaining a small herd because of dry conditions and a lack of access to grass.
The Somervilles don’t advertise their flock, save on their website and Twitter, and mainly keep them for breeding stock, meat, and wool. Kayla is a knitter, and has even created Icelandic-inspired sweaters for the couple’s two small sons.
In 2011, they travelled to Iceland (where sheep outnumber people by a wide margin) in part to see them in their home environment. Icelandic sheep are rare in Alberta — the couple knows of only one other flock — but Stuart suspects there may be flocks with one or two Icelandic sheep in them.
Icelandic sheep commonly give birth to twins and sometimes triplets. Somerville moves them every two days, using an electric fence. The sheep need to be trained to the fence, because if the electricity isn’t there, they will attempt to bust right through it.
The sheep also have to be fed more minerals than other breeds.
“I can feed them cattle minerals which you’re not supposed to do with sheep usually, because of the copper,” he said. “That has to do with them being adapted to volcanic activity in Iceland. If you don’t feed them enough copper, their colours fade and they will all look kind of grey.”