Pingdom Check
08/25/2023 | 9:00 AM

Iceland's réttir: Sheep roundup and a country party

Sheep are integral to Iceland: some 800,000 roam the country, more than twice the human population, and they’ve sustained the island’s inhabitants for centuries. Best of all, they’re almost entirely free range. After lambing time in May, farmers turn their flocks loose to graze on the lush highland grasses and berries of Iceland’s interior.

September brings réttir—the nationwide roundup where people on foot, ATVs or Icelandic horses retrieve their stock from the mountains and valleys, aided by trusty sheepdogs. The grueling endeavor sometimes requires days in the saddle, and entire communities turn out in support.

The ancient tradition is followed by sorting at réttirs, circular pens with radiating sections where farmers separate their herds. It’s a grand country party, where friends, family, and neighbors come together to play music, picnic outdoors, and help each other marshal their sheep. Tourists are welcome to join in on the fun.

A schedule for réttir events in 2023 has been released (in Icelandic, in the local farming newspaper), broken down by region. A number of tour companies will offer day trips to see réttir in country towns.

Below, images capture iconic moments of réttir in Skagafjörður, North Iceland.

an aerial view of the réttir circular sheep pen where all the sheep are being herded into by farmersA bird’s-eye view of Stafnsrétt reveals how the farmers' sections radiate like spokes on a wheel.
Photo by Ross Weinberg
Banner photo by Rebecca Stumpf

a child takes a picture of the sheep up close on a mobile phoneChildren delight in the bustling excitement of the sorting.
Photo by Rebecca Stumpf

an aerial view of Stafnsrétt in IcelandStafnsrétt, located in the valley of Svartárdalur, is a prime example of a traditional rétt for sorting livestock.
Photo by Ross Weinberg

a view of the wider landscape with sheep being rounded up by farmers on horses and in their carsThe réttir is a group effort, with dozens of people on foot, horseback, and in support vehicles working together during each roundup to herd thousands of sheep.
Photo by Rebecca Stumpf

a front on view of sheep being rounded into pens at réttirAt Mælifellsrétt, sheep wait patiently beneath a blustery September sky.
Photo by Ross Weinberg

a view from behind of four people on horses rounding up a flock of sheepSorting complete, members of Starrastaðir farm guide their flock home.
Photo by Rebecca Stumpf

Travel notes

Experienced horse riders can often join tours that are involved in the réttir, while spectators are usually welcome at events. The roundups are usually held around the country in mid-September, with local newspapers publishing the schedule ahead of time.

Text by Karen Carmichael

Photos by Ross Weinberg and Rebecca Stumpf