Dýrafjörður, Westfjords, Iceland.
At this point in time I had been living here for almost half a year, in this remote part of Iceland and I was about to take part in an Icelandic tradition: Sheep herding. Every autumn, the farmers gather the sheep together from summer-free-roaming in the mountains, to a warmer environment in the stables. Because most farmers own quite a lot of sheep and Iceland owns quite a lot of valleys, a lot of volunteers are needed. These normally consist of the family, friends and neighbours of the farmer in question. Or some random girls from the European mainland, who happened to live in the community that summer.
We arrived at the farm very early that particular day. “Góðan daginn! Komdu inn!” The farmers’ wife greeted us at the door. The sun had just left the warm embrace of the horizon and had started his climb over the mountains. Just as we were about to do.
Squished in the little kitchen, 15 people were drinking their morning coffee, no nonsense black stuff, while exchanging warfare strategies and memories from previous years. We sat down at the kitchen table next to the farmer. “Ok girls, pay attention.” He said while unfolding his battle plan. This consisted of a sheet on which he had drawn a simplistic model of the mountain valley that was going to be tackled today. On various spots along the length of the valley and in the different sub valleys, everyone’s name was strategically positioned. “So, you girls will come all the way up to the tip of the valley and we will put you at your starting points. From there you will start walking down. As we come further down the mountain, more people will join the line. So, when we come down to the sea, everyone will walk on one line with the sheep in front of us! This valley will probably take us about 4 hours.” The farmer concluded.
We drank our coffee, put on our wool sweaters and got handed a fluorescent jacket and walkie-talkies. Then it was finally time for the train of cars to leave. We drove in a row on the bumpy gravel road next to the stream that runs in the middle of the valley. One after the other, cars started turning to the side, into the sub valleys. The car I was in, just kept driving straight up the main valley. After a while we had to stop, because our car just couldn’t handle the steep bumpy road anymore. I got out and climbed into the bed of the pickup car in front of us, together with the other remaining people in our car. While we got all shaken up, the pickup car drove the last steep end to the top of the valley. From there we went on by foot, each of us to our assigned starting point.
For me that meant climbing up the mountain, almost to the ridge that marked the boundary with the adjacent valley. Now the real work started. While a mixture of English and Icelandic instructions echoed out of the walkie-talkie, we walked up and down along the mountain edges, forcing the sheep to run downwards. Slowly we made our way down again, while more and more people joined our walking line from one valley wall to the other.
Every now and then, a tired, old or wounded sheep had to be put in the pickup truck, for it couldn’t walk down on its own. This is where other challenges appeared for someone not that familiar with sheep farming, such as myself.
At some point, a sheep was walking in front of me, clearly very pregnant and very struggling. So, it was decided that she had to put in the pickup. Therefore, some instructions came through the walkie-talkie bouncing around my neck: “Ellen, just grab the sheep by the horns and clamp her between your legs!” “I have to do what now?” I answered unsure in the walkie-talkie. “Just grab it and hold it! I’ll come to you with the truck.”
Now I had never caught a sheep before and throwing myself onto this panicking one, wasn’t something that struck me as appealing. So, the whole valley witnessed, through the walkie-talkie, how I chased this sheep and let it escape multiple times in a row. What was there to be afraid of? She was a very pregnant and very exhausted sheep, what could she possibly do to me? Luckily, I got some back-up before the sheep could escape again. In my defence, she did have crazy eyes.
After a few hours, we finally got to the lower part of the valley, only a short walk away from the farm. Apart from a few other brave escape attempts from some sheep through water and steep hills, no other incidents took place. Near the beginning of the valley, lots of villagers with their children had gathered to help guide the big amount of sheep, home to the stables.
We ended the sheep gathering event, back in the farmers house for some (well yes) soup from last year’s sheep. The fact that I didn’t eat meat, was a quite foreign concept to this farmers community. They probably thought I was just afraid of sheep, because I didn’t dare to catch them and I didn’t dare to eat them. Luckily there were also potatoes.
I want to thank the farmer for the hospitality!