NOTE: There are a lot of images in this post as this story can only really be told photographically. As you scroll through them you can CLICK on the image to view it larger in LightBox Mode.
In the Fall of 2018, while on a scouting trip in preparation for my 2019 Fall in Iceland Photography Workshop, I had the opportunity to attend and photograph a réttir near Arnes, Iceland. The réttir (sheep round-up) is an annual event during the month of September that occurs all over Iceland. I wrote a very detailed blog post about the réttir I photographer in 2018, which you can find here. I would encourage you to read that post as I wrote a great deal about the sheep, the culture, and the process. However, for those who want to jump right into these images I will give you the Cliff Notes version on the event.
After lambing season in May, and closer to the end of June, sheep that do not remain on the local farms are released to common grazing lands, known as afréttur. In the area I visited there are approximately 30 farms that share the same afréttur. All of Iceland is divided this way so there are many réttir sites and many afréttur areas. During the summer months the sheep run free and feed off of the nutrient rich grasses and heather in their grazing range. While on the summer grazing lands the sheep often spend their time alone, or maybe with one or two other sheep, but generally do not stay together as a herd. Mothers and their lambs do stay together, however while they roam free. And they intermingle with the sheep from other farms which is one of the reasons they must be gathered and sorted in the Fall.
At the end of the summer all of the sheep must be gathered from the afréttur and returned to the local farms. The farmers select a “king”, or “queen” of the mountains, who leads the round up, and each farm sends one or more fjallmaður (mountainman), to the highlands to gather the sheep and bring them home. The number of fjallmaður who go depends on the number of sheep the farmers have in the highlands. This group is generally broken down into teams who scour the sectors of the afréttur, riding Icelandic horses, and using sheep dogs, looking for the sheep. My friend Hjördis was part of one of the gathering teams sent to the highlands to bring the sheep down to the réttir. The week before I arrived she was posting Instagram stories on their progress.
Gathering the sheep from the highlands is as old as the settling of Iceland and it has been done this way for centuries. It is a tradition born of necessity and is an expression of common purpose and the unique bond between the farmers, the sheep, and the very landscape where they live. Though Icelandic sheep are hardy through breeding and life in a harsh environment, if they do not come home, they will almost certainly not survive the harsh winter. Icelandic sheep are a tough breed and can go weeks without eating and can use their hoofs to scrape through the snow to find the grass underneath. But this is certainly not the desired outcome, and for the farmers, it is an economic imperative to bring the sheep home and they all work together to do this.
The night before the réttir the sheep are held in pastures a few kilometers from the sorting ring and are brought to the sorting ring beginning early in the morning. This task is accomplished by the combined efforts of the gathering teams using Icelandic horses, and on foot, to keep the flock of sheep moving. At the same time friends and family begin arriving to the réttir to help, to watch, and to just immerse themselves in the event. It is a festive time and a celebration of the hard work done to bring the sheep home. This year approximately 3500 to 4000 sheep were gathered in the highlands over a period of about 10 days.
Think of the réttir ring a as a giant wheel (see the drone image below by Adam Holston). The almenningur is the center portion, where the sheep are actually sorted, and radiating around the center are the individual paddocks called dilkur. Each dilkur is numbered and assigned to an individual farm.
At precisely 11:00 the gates to the pasture and the almenningur are connected and a group of farmers, on foot, begin to herd the sheep into the inner ring. They literally form a human wall, clapping, whistling, pushing, and otherwise cajoling the sheep forward into the sorting ring. The ring will hold around 1000 to 1500 sheep, and once filled and the gates closed, the real work, and fun begins. Jammed together into a bleating, baying, writhing mass of wool they seem to sense what comes next as those who will be sorting the sheep squeeze into the ring to begin the process of separating the herd into individual paddocks, known as dilkur.
Each sheep is marked with a distinctive ear cut, specific to each farm, and a numbered ear tag that corresponds to a particular farms dilkur. The trick of course, at least to a novice sorter like myself, is to grab the sheep long enough to be able to read the ear tag. Some of the sheep are compliant in this process while others bolt away from you as you attempt to grasp their horns. It is all like a chaotic dance as adults and children alike attempt to find their sheep while the sheep undulate through the ring, never stopping until they are caught.
Once a sheep is identified it has to be moved to the dilkur. The technique is to grab it by the horns, straddle over its back, lift slightly, and walk it to the paddock gate along the inner wall. The farmers essentially guide the sheep to the gate and it is important to understand that no sheep are hurt in this process. And as one might expect the sheep are not always compliant, attempting to get away or buck as they are grabbed. It can be rather difficult early in the sort but as more and more sheep are placed in the pens it gets a little easier. At least it is easier to maneuver about but the sheep also have a lot more running room around the ring. At this point the farmers will form a human wall and pin the sheep against one of the walls so they can finish the sorting process.
It required two sorting sessions to divide the sheep into their individual dilkur and the whole process takes about 2 to 3 hours. 3500 to 4000 sheep may seem to be a lot but Hjördis told me that in the recent past they have had to sort well in excess of 15,000 sheep. This is the way it has played out for centuries, as Icelandic farmers that have turned out their sheep into the highlands, must bring them home for the winter. And of course there is a cycle to all of it. From lambing season, releasing some of the flock to the highlands, gathering, sorting, shearing, and yes even a time for slaughter. My friend Pálína told me that the réttir is her favorite time of the year and that the slaughter season her least. It is certainly understandable. I have a hard time thinking about that when I watch them frolic in the highlands or dance around the sorting ring just daring anyone to try and catch them. But that is the economics and the reality of being a farmer.
This year I took my 2019 Fall in Iceland Photography Workshop Group to see, and photograph the réttir. Even after attempting to describe the event I am certain they did not quite grasp the realities of it until they saw it first hand. It was clear in the discussions afterwards that they all loved it. It is not hard to look beyond the event and see the immense depth of the culture instilled into the very DNA of these farmers from their ancestors. For seven generations my friend Pálína’s family has been sorting sheep at this location, and the site itself dates to around 1200 and is mentioned in the Icelandic Saga’s. Family and friends turn out for this day. At an early age children are brought into the ring and learn how to sort the sheep. Young and old ride to the highlands to bring the sheep home. The entire family stays up for days on end during the lambing season. There is a deep history here and if you allow yourself to be wrapped in its folds you can not only see it, but feel it as well.
I hope you have enjoyed these images as much as I did making them. My eternal thanks and warm hugs to my friends Pálína Axelsdóttir Njarðvik, and Hjördis Ólafsdóttir who have extended their friendship to me and allowed me to “jump into the ring” and experience just a small part of their lives. If you want to know more I suggest following them on Instagram at @farmlifeiceland and @olafsdottir90
I will be visiting the réttir for my 2020 Fall in Iceland Workshop and if you are interested in experiencing this amazing event then you might consider joining me. Thank you again for stopping by.
Notes on the Images
I have a few notes and thoughts on making these images. I used two cameras to record the action - a FujiFilm GFX 50s with a Fujinon GF 32-64mm f4 R WR, and a FujiFilm X-T30 with a Fujinon XF 18-55mm. It was my intention to capture singular moments that happened throughout my time in the sorting ring. Events and action unfold quickly and their is a certain amount of just giving yourself over to it. It was not my first réttir so I had a better idea on how, and what I wanted to capture this time around. I wanted more candid and emotional images and so did not attempt to get everything perfectly in focus. I looked for, and tried to anticipate where things were happening and set both cameras to Single shot and Zone Focus. Lighting conditions varied because of some cloud cover so I set the camera to Shutter Priority for a minimum 1/1000 of a second to stop the action. This meant I was always shooting at a wider aperture and a higher ISO. But that gave me the depth of field and grittier feel I wanted to convey in the final images. I created a custom B+W User Preset in Capture One to render the final RAW files.
<The image of the author shot by my friend Adam Holston.