Each autumn, Icelandic farmers and farm hands travel into the mountains to herd their flocks of sheep toward the communal corral, called 'réttir', where they’ll be sorted by the colour of their ear tag. The repeated act of travelling into the mountains to seek the flock creates a ritual that builds a relationship between land, people, and food.
The physicality of the act—retrieving the sheep in the crisp air of early autumn and drawing them down the mountain into a pen to be separated by farm—creates a deep connection between the food that humans subsist on and the people themselves.
It’s not clear how long réttir have been in practice, but many accounts date them as far back as the 14th century. A four-volume tome, "Göngur og réttir", records the techniques used in the round-ups during the 19th century, thereby preserving them.
At the centre of the practice of ‘réttir’ are enormous, circular livestock corrals sliced into separate pens, many of which have stood for generations.
Icelandic sheep are bred for the land, born to brave its mountains and barren stretches of lava fields. The animal is hearty enough to thrive in the Arctic summer—travelling over mountain ranges and into deep valleys from March until September—surviving cold and harsh weather because of its naturally water-repellent fleece and Iceland's nourishing wild grasses.
The animal’s continued presence on the island means, in part, that it is essential to sustenance. Lamb has long been a staple of the Icelandic diet: it was a vital source of nutrition in the harsh climate of early and medieval Iceland. Today, smoked lamb is pervasive in grocery stores, and served as a snack in preschools. Leg of lamb is the centerpiece of the holiday table. Sheep’s head, a practical fixture of Icelandic victuals, smells of a sweet and smoky fire, warm drippings. Kjötsúpa—a lamb-based soup— is couriered to the table on cold days.
The Icelandic practice of rearing sheep is unique: the sheep roam wild for a portion of the year. Ear tags denote the farm they belong to. Those same markers of ownership transform them into a part of the island’s social community on the first Saturday in September, which marks the first day of the "réttir".
In crossing land in search of sheep, the people forge a sensory connection with the landscape that their sheep have lived on, lived from, for months. And as the farmers come running down the mountains with their sheep, approaching the 'réttir' where the entire community has gathered, the wind and the mud and the cold and the wet seem to lose meaning.
There is work to do be done. Younger children are rapt with wonder at the spectacle, while older children run toward the herd.
The community is swept up in a cascade of weather, people, and sheep, as the animals swamp the pen. It becomes easy to forget the wet and the wind when your single most important task, the only concern you have in that moment, is to wrestle a sheep into the right pen.
Icelandic uses the verb 'skilja' to describe the act of separating the sheep by owner. It’s a word with two meanings: skilja, on one hand, means to understand. It also means to separate. Both denote toward the ear tags that enables comprehension of ownership and separation by colour.
The Iceland sheep round-ups, in all of their historical and social complexity, are an elegant choreography of people, heritage, and food that has persisted for centuries.