Sheep farming at the end of the world

On the Faroe Islands, you might well see a sheep before you spot another human being. But with modern dairy farming and dinners served up by the farmers them­selves, more and more people are starting to realise there is more to this remote corner of the world than first meets the eye.

The Faroe Islands lie far away from the rest of the world in the North Atlantic, halfway between Norway and Iceland. The 18 islands are largely barren and inhos­pitable, with cliffs that drop steeply into the sea, battered by the wind and the rain that falls almost 300 days a year. The Vikings reached these islands 1,200 years ago and their descen­dants partly make up the popu­la­tion of the Faroe Islands today. But why exactly did they settle here in search of a better life? “Legend has it that all the seafarers who felt seasick got off their boats on the Faroe Islands on their way to Iceland, because even today most Faroese are not seaworthy.” Says Harriet Olafs­dóttir, before giving us a cheeky wink.

The 33-year-old works as a sheep farmer on the south­ern­most tip of Eysturoy, the second largest island in the North Atlantic arch­i­pelago. Her sheep farm, Hanusarstova, is situ­ated in a beau­tiful loca­tion on the edge of the 28-house village of Æðuvík. The farm is shel­tered at the back by moun­tains, and in front boasts an unob­structed view over sheep pastures to the sea. On the Faroe Islands – or the “Sheep Islands”, as they are called in Danish – there are more sheep than people: the islands’ 54,000 inhab­i­tants are well outnum­bered by the more than 80,000 sheep who reside here.

Harriet Olafs­dóttir, sheep farmer on the Faroe Islands

Unique breed: The Faroe sheep

The Faroese sheep are an offi­cial breed and most likely descend from the Norwe­gian Spaelsau and Icelandic sheep. In the 19th and 20th centuries, some Scot­tish Black­face were imported to improve the wool quality; cross­breeds of which still exist today. The Faroe sheep are said to have over 300 different fleece colours and their wool is still used locally in knitwear.

The Faroe sheep live outdoors all year round and are fairly small, sturdy sheep that cope well with the climate and soils on the islands. Harriet’s farm has around 70 ewes with offspring. The pastures where the sheep roam are distrib­uted around the farm, with a mixture of fenced, drained grazing areas heading out towards the sea, as well as open grazing areas stretching up the moun­tains. Drivers on the Faroe Islands are always advised to drive care­fully, because you never quite know where a sheep might attempt to cross the road there.

The Faroe Islands lie halfway between Norway and Iceland.

The Faroese sheep are an offi­cial breed and most likely descend from the Norwe­gian Spaelsau and Icelandic sheep.

The pastures of Harriet Olafs­dóttir are "king's land"; state-owned land which she leases for 180 kroner (£20).

The pastures are “king’s land”, as Harriet refers to them; state-owned land which she leases for 180 kroner (£20). As part of the agree­ment, the govern­ment stip­u­lates the exact number of sheep she can keep on the land. The ewes only give birth to one lamb on average, but that is more than enough, consid­ering they have to make do with the island’s sparse grass­lands.

The lambs are slaugh­tered when they grow to around 15-20kg liveweight, with home slaugh­tering being the most common method across the islands. “We rear and slaughter about 55 lambs a year,” Harriet says. Only a third of the lambs are sold; the rest are kept for private consump­tion by Harriet’s family and friends. “Everyone who has helped us over the year gets their share; for a day’s work you can look forward to getting a whole lamb.”

Sheep farming is a tradi­tion

Sheep meat and sheep-based food prod­ucts are an impor­tant part of the Faroese diet. Although large amounts of food are now imported from Denmark, for centuries nature dictated the menu in these parts, with fish and lamb being the most impor­tant staples. A tradi­tional method of preserving meat and fish is “raest”, a method of fermen­ta­tion typical in the Faroe Islands. Raw meat is air-dried and then left to hang for several months until it begins to decay. The process is a science in itself. Acquiring the right flavour depends on ensuring the perfect climatic condi­tions; too warm a temper­a­ture and the taste is spoilt, too cold and fermen­ta­tion is prevented, too much wind and the food is rendered taste­less.

On every island, the meat can taste different.

Harriet Olafs­dóttir

“On every island, the meat can taste different,” Harriet notes, as she sits with her husband John and their two young daugh­ters at supper. They’re cutting wafer-thin slices of meat from a leg of lamb before sand­wiching them between slices of buttered bread. The meat has a deep red colour and tastes partic­u­larly tender. “It’s because my animals are exclu­sively grass-fed that the meat is so good,” the young sheep farmer adds.

Sheep meat is tradi­tion­ally fermented on the Faroe Islands. It has a deep red color and is partic­u­larly deli­cate.

A sheep-farming rose among the thorns

Harriet is the only woman in the Faroe Islands to have taken up sheep farming as her sole profes­sion. “There are a lot of men in their sixties in the busi­ness,” she laughs. And they are not at all happy about the way she does her job. Although around 900t of sheep meat are produced on the islands every year, very few of the 400 or so sheep farmers can make a living from it. Sheep farming in the Faroe Islands has always been mainly a secondary occu­pa­tion. For a 15kg lamb, Harriet receives 1200 kroner, which works out at about £9/kg, she says. “Far too little to make a profit.” But despite the small pay slip, she never wanted to do anything but be a sheep farmer.

At the age of four, her grand­fa­ther already had her out in the field with the sheep. And for four years now she has been respon­sible for the flock herself. Initially, her family was unsup­portive of her ambi­tion to take over running the farm, as they believed it was no job for a woman. But when none of her four brothers wanted to take on the role, the family gave in, Harriet recalls.

Faroese culture and the humble sheep

Sheep farming in the Faroe Islands is about more than just money. It is a central part of the self-governing territory’s culture, and it is greatly impor­tant to the commu­ni­ties there. Sheep owners whose pastures border each other meet regu­larly during the year to support each other. They help one another with slaugh­tering as well as driving the sheep down from the moun­tains when the time comes to vacci­nate or shear them.

This year the sheep will be sheared in front of Harriet and John Olafsdóttir's barn.

Around 15 men shear the sheep by hand.

They alter­nate whose pastures they meet on. This time it is the turn of Harriet and John’s sheep­fold. It’s the end of July and following two long-awaited rain-free days, it’s time to shear the sheep before summer. Sheep shearing is and remains a hands-on job. As always, several old-fash­ioned wooden tres­tles are at the ready for the event. It takes two strong men to hoist a sheep onto the trestle and secure its head in the wooden flap. In total, around 15 men have come to help with the shearing and the chil­dren are also allowed to pitch in.

Modern ideas for prof­itable sheep farming

Although she is crit­i­cised for taking on the farm, Harriet wants to prove that it is possible to make money with sheep farming. A few years ago, she started photographing her sheep. But she doesn’t just take any old photos. Not at all. She captures impres­sive close-ups of her sheep adorned with flowers and hand-made head wreaths. “I am only able to do it because my sheep have great trust in me,” she says. The photos subse­quently appear on numerous post­cards, posters and T-shirts and are sold in many shops in the Faroe Islands as well as online.

I didn’t have to do any publicity at all. People just found me on Insta­gram.

Harriet Olafs­dóttir

“I make as much money with two big posters as I do with one sheep,” the young sheep farmer turn photog­ra­pher adds. The photographs have become so popular she is now on social media. After having started as a blogger, she has now turned her atten­tion to Insta­gram, where she has amassed a total of 10,500 followers. “People are inter­ested in what happens on our farm.” This summer, the young family also finished building a holiday house and in no time it was booked up for the rest of the year. “I didn’t have to do any publicity at all. People just found me on Insta­gram.” German and French tele­vi­sion reports on Harriet and her farm meant many fans already knew to find her on social media.

Harriet Olafsdóttir’s farm also has Faroese horses. There are only 90 of this tradi­tional breed left in the Faroe Islands.

A changing dairy industry

Harriet has a soft spot for tradi­tional live­stock breeds. Her farm also houses four Faroese horses. Found nowhere else in the world, there are only around 90 left on the islands, she says. She also wanted her own domestic Faroe Island cattle. “I would have been living the dream,” she laughs. But the old cattle breed which was native to the islands has been extinct since 2010. “The state lost interest in them,” Harriet tells. The breed was not suit­able for milking machines, produced little milk and did not fit into the program to modernise the islands’ milk produc­tion.

Today, the Faroe Islands are able to cater to their own milk and dairy product needs, according to offi­cial sources. In the past 10 years alone, house­hold dairy milk produc­tion has increased by 10%, while the number of dairy farms has fallen from 28 to 16. The remaining farms house a total of 900 dairy cows and operate as a co-oper­a­tive, encom­passing dairy farming, produc­tion, and distri­b­u­tion. They supply 7.5m litres of milk annu­ally, which, in addi­tion to drinking milk, is used to make yogurt, butter and a small amount of cheese.

Producing hay is diffi­cult in the Faroe Islands because of the weather condi­tions.

When the harvest is too small, farmers have to import cattle feed from abroad.

Dairy farmer Roi Absolonsen, who is based on the island of Viðoy, runs one of the island’s most modern dairy farms with 120 dairy cows in co-oper­a­tion with two busi­ness part­ners. And that means indoor housing. On the Faroe Islands the winters are mild, with maximum temper­a­tures of 4°C, while the summers are mostly cloudy with highs of 15°C. That said, it can be extremely windy and rain heavily at any time. The soils are wet and the modern dairy breeds that are on the farms today – at Absolonsen, this is mainly Holstein-Friesian cattle – are too heavy to roam them.

To protect the soil, the animals are kept in the barn and only the young­stock go out to pasture from June to September. To simplify the farming process, a milking robot and a TKS robot feeding system, which feeds the cattle up to 10 times a day, are used on the farm. It comprises 60ha of grass­land, 5ha of which are rented out. In addi­tion to grass silage, concen­trates like soyameal are also fed to the cattle. Because of the poor soil condi­tions, most of the cattle feed on the Faroe Islands is brought in from abroad – mainly from Norway and South America.

Kirkjubøur is located south of the capital Tórshavn. The tiny village consists of a few black wooden houses with grass roofs.

Producing hay here is a gamble, Harriet acknowl­edges. She can still remember summers when she never left the farm in fear that the sun could come out at any time. The weather is extremely unpre­dictable, she explains, adding that it can change from one hour to the next as well as from one island to the next. Last year (2021) was a prime example of this and resulted in a failed hay harvest, she says. This year, she has decided not to take the risk and bought hay for her sheep from Iceland instead.

Óli and Anna Rubeksen, sheep farmers

17 farming gener­a­tions later and still going strong

But if the sun shines long enough, then the fields come to life. July is nearing its and and 11km south of the Faroese capital, Tórshavn, in Kirkjubøur – a tiny village of black, grass-roofed wooden houses – four trac­tors are on the move in the meadows. In a jaw-drop­ping setting, with fields reaching down to a dark-blue shim­mering sea surrounded by barren islands rising into the sky behind them, the trac­tors are hard at work mowing and turning grass. “That must have been Jóannes Patursson’s four sons,” Óli and Anna Rubeksen later tell us when we pay them a visit at their farm. The couple run a sheep farm with 150 ewes just a few kilo­me­tres further along the coast in Velbas­taður.

The Patursson family have been farmers for 17 gener­a­tions and are said to be the longest estab­lished family farming busi­ness in the world. Their farm­house in Kirkjubøur dates back to 1350 and has become some­what of a tourist attrac­tion. People can pay 50 kroner (£5.70) to visit the farm, while groups can arrange to have their dinner there. At the Tórshavn Tourist Office, the offer is adver­tised as “Dining with Farmers”.

At Óli and Anna’s farm, you don’t have to be a part of a group to get a good feed. You can also sign up to go for dinner by your­self. So far, busi­ness at their farm­house kitchen is going swim­mingly. When they first opened the kitchen, the Rubek­sens only catered for guests once a month, but now find them­selves serving up meals twice a week. Tonight, 16 people are seated around their large dinner table, waiting to be treated to some deli­cious food made from ingre­di­ents sourced from the farm. Roast lamb heart, fatty cuts of lamb, pota­toes, turnips and rhubarb compote are among the special­i­ties the guests can expect to sample. But feasting at the Rubeksen dinner table comes at a hand­some price: A five-course meal will cost you just under 1000 kroner (£113) – the hosts greatly appre­ciate your patronage.

Facts about the Faroe Islands

  • Approx. 53,900 inhab­i­tants, almost half live in the capital Tórshavn
  • 18 islands, many are connected by tunnels or bridges
  • Only about 2.15% of the land is used for agri­cul­ture
  • The agri­cul­tural sector makes up about 1.5% of the territory’s gross domestic product; its main source of income is fish
  • Autonomous area with its own govern­ment, belonging to the Kingdom of Denmark, not a member of the EU.

( und other sources)