September is the month when farmers go to collect their sheep for the winter, as the sheep can not stay outside in frost and snow. The biggest part of the work is hiking to collect the sheep, “réttir” is just the small part at the end of the process, where the sheep are sorted by farm depending on their earmarks. Theoretically, the sheep could probably stay outside throughout September and October but daylight is also a factor here. Day by day, daylight is getting less and less this time of year, and it is far from ideal to collect sheep in the dark. The collection methods vary based on landscape and area, in some places it will take days while it can be done in one day in other places. In the highlands in South Iceland, I was told it takes five days and is done on horseback for the most part, as the area is too big for hiking (or it would take even longer and be more difficult). Since I was around 10 years old, I have been collecting sheep in the autumn almost every year in North Iceland, and I did that once again on the weekend.
Sheep-Gathering in North Iceland
On Friday night, we set our alarms to 4 AM, and if we didn’t for some reason or if our alarm failed, my uncle (the farmer) would wake us up, a group of around 20 people, mostly from the extended family. Then it was time to get dressed in our hiking gear and to have breakfast. At 5 AM we drove up to the heath, the drive took us 1 to 2 hours on extremely bumpy roads, maximum speed was probably around 30 km per hour as the roads don’t allow for driving any faster than that. When we started our walk, daylight was breaking out, and that is exactly the reason for waking up so early in the morning, we need to make use of the daylight.
This year, we were unlucky that we started hiking in heavy fog and light but constant rain. When I had been walking for around half an hour, I saw a fence in front of me, but there is not supposed to be any fence on the route, at least not for the first 20 km or so. I had walked in a circle in the fog apparently, heading south when I should have been walking north from the beginning. I think this is the first time I have gotten lost on the route, but the fog was heavy and I was walking from a different starting point than in most previous years. I downloaded a compass app on my phone after this to avoid repeating the same mistake.
I still managed to walk in circles a little bit after this, but took out the phone regularly to correct my course. I tried to avoid overdoing that though, both because the battery had to last for at least 12 hours and because of the constant rain. Just one or two hours after starting the hike, I was soaking wet on my upper body, the “rain jacket” apparently not very rain resistant. Everyone had a walkie-talkie to communicate with people in the same area and to inform the next person if they saw e.g. a group of sheep on the side of a hill close to them. The rain was doing no favours to the walkie-talkies and one guy was not reachable early on and said when we met that his walkie-talkie “died or drowned”.
The terrain is difficult for hiking, most of it consisting of big tussocks (ca. 3-5 metres long, one metre wide and half a metre high). The tussocks are covered with a combination of plants, such as small birch plants, crowberry, blueberry and whortleberry bushes. There are also many ravines, up to ca. 25 metres deep. In previous years, we have had cases of lambs or sheep stuck on a ledge in one of those ravines and some had to be saved by rope or similar equipment. Sometimes, we also have sheep giving up on walking and just laying down, breathing heavily. Then they will either be left there to rest (and be picked up a week later) or put on the back of a trailer with a “private driver”.
We have rarely been as unlucky with the weather as this year, although 2020 and 2021 were worse, with heavier rain and more wind. In 2020, it was also cold, 3-5 degrees Celsius. Negative first impression can damage the whole concept. My phone was destroyed from the rain this year. People going to their first “göngur” in this weather (or 2020 or 2021) may not wish to come back again. I saw a group of 10 South Europeans at the round-up later and heard that they had also been doing the hike to collect the sheep for the first time. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, so maybe the weather didn’t destroy the experience for them.
Last year, the weather was ideal, slight wind (meaning no flies) and no rain. Wind direction also matters as for some reason, the sheep are inclined to walk against the wind rather than with it. The wind was blowing from the north this year, in the same direction as we were headed, so that was a positive.
We reached our destination at around 4 PM, waiting for the rest of the people (and sheep) until around 4:30, which is relatively early. Sometimes before, we finished at around 6 PM, if the collection was going poorly for some reason (e.g. in sunny and warm weather, the sheep don’t want to move). This year the number of sheep we collected was rather low, meaning that many are still somewhere on the heath. The main reasons for that are probably the heavy fog early on and the constant rain, meaning that people were hardly stopping at any point.
We went home to eat at around 4:30 PM and the round-up started at 6 PM. It took around 1.5 hours and after that we herded the lambs of my uncle to his farm. That took another 1.5 hours and when we arrived it was about to get dark. The workday that started at 5 AM finished at 9 PM and then we had “kvöldkaffi” (e. evening coffee break) – cakes and pancakes plus beer and wine for those who wanted. At 11 PM everyone went to bed at the end of a long day, with the lambs bleating in the hayfield outside the window.
Information on réttir in Iceland in 2023 can be found here (in Icelandic).