Anne Bishop: On April 11, 2010, Anne Bishop of Mount Denson, Kings County, was the guest speaker at the AGM of the Icelandic Memorial Society of Nova Scotia. Anne was born in Ontario and moved to Nova Scotia in 1979.
She apprenticed as a shepherd in Pictou County at a sheep farm with 750 ewes. She is an adult educator and for the past five years has taught provincial government employees.
In 1972 she worked on three farms in Iceland. She now runs a l0 acre farm with her partner, Jan Morrell.
Vikings: Anne’s slide presentation began with scenes of how the Vikings bred sheep for meat, milk and wool. Their summer clothing items were made of linen, but the majority of their clothing was made out of wool. It was woman’s work to spin and weave and the tool for spinning was the “drop spindle”. A “spindle whorl” was discovered at the Viking site at L’Anse Aux Meadows. This provided evidence that sheep and women were at that early Viking settlement.
Spinning Wheel: The spinning wheel was invented in the 14th century and Icelandic women adopted a German form of it called a “castle wheel”. This is a bit different from the side “saddle wheel” commonly used in America. Anne brought along her portable spinning wheel. On the long winter evenings, in the main room of the farmhouses all over Iceland the women would spin and the men would carve wood while someone read from the sagas.
Transporting Sheep: The Vikings transported their livestock, including their sheep, in knarr ships where they evolved into the Hebridean, Shetland, and the Soay breeds of sheep. These, along with the Scandinavian members of the family, like the Spelsau, Gotland, Roslag and Finnsheep are now called the “Northern Short-Tailed Breeds”. In Iceland, the breed was kept isolated and preserved in pure form. It is illegal to import sheep into Iceland and for many years it was also illegal to export them.
Knitting: The Vikings did not have knitting. Instead they made socks and hats with a technique called “naalbinding”, using a large wooden needle with an eye, like an oversized darning needle. Now a great deal of knitting is done in Iceland, particularly the famous Icelandic sweaters made from the equally famous “Lopi wool” from the Alafoss woolen mill.
Iceland Training: In 1972 Anne worked for four months on farms in Iceland. The sheep are turned out in the spring to wander on their own for the summer. In the fall the sheep are retrieved in an event called the “rettir”. The farm families go out on horseback and drive the sheep into pie shaped pens where each family’s animals are separated out by nicks in their ears.
Icelandic Sheep In Canada: The first importation of Icelandic sheep to Canada happened in 1985. Stefania Sveinbjarnardóttir-Dignam emigrated to Canada in 197l. She and her husband Ray Dignam bought a farm at Parnham, Ontario in 1979. In 1984 when she began trying to bring Icelandic sheep to Canada it was still illegal to export them. It took her a year to convince Iceland’s chief veterinarian for an export permit. She got it with so many conditions that the importation looked impossible. Nevertheless by 1985 she finally brought 12 animals to Canada. She died in 2007, but by then her flock was the foundation for every flock of Icelandic sheep in North America.
Icelandic Sheep In Nova Scotia: The founding flock in Nova Scotia belongs to Bill and Kathy Crowson near Canning. They became interested when they heard Stefania interviewed by Peter Gzowski on CBC. Later Bill Mathewson from the Nova Scotia Agriculture College went on tour of the sheep industry in Iceland. In 2005 the Crowsons ordered eight ewes and two rams from Stefania.
Before they arrived they got a call from a neighbor who had found two Icelandic ewes wandering along the road on North Mountain. They were captured and after some research it was found that they had escaped from a farm of a young couple on North Mountain three weeks earlier. They had already decided to sell their farm and move elsewhere so were happy to have Bill and Kathy buy their ewes. Stefania later produced new copies of their registration papers.
In 2009 the Crowsons acquired two rams from a couple in Bridgewater. Also in 2009, after six months of paperwork, they imported six breeding animals from a flock in Maine. The Maine owners had been importing semen from Iceland and had established a more meat oriented line than the one Stefania was breeding.
Currently the Crowsons have 20 animals, 14 ewes and six rams. Beside the foundation animals they sold to Anne and Jan to start their flock, they have also sold breeding stock to Newfoundland, Cape Breton, the Magdalen Islands and the Malagash Peninsula. The Malagash flock began with two ewes and a ram which Bill placed in the Labour Day Breeding Stock Sale in 2007. These were the first Icelandic sheep to be sold at auction in Nova Scotia.
Last year’s woolclip from Bill and Kathy’s flock has gone to a spinner and weaver named Pia Skaarar Neilsen to be made into authentic curtains for the bed benches at the L’Anse aux Meadows historic site. This year’s woolclips will be made into blankets for the beds.
Characteristics: Anne showed pictures which show that Icelandic sheep are small. They are “primitive sheep” with a double coat (tog and thel) which spins up into a lovely soft yarn. The tog wool is used to make rainwear. The thel is softer and used to make clothing next to the skin. Anne said the wool grows up to 16 inches and their animals are sheared in the spring and the fall. She brought along samples of the wool and the tools used to make yarn.