NARSARSUAQ, South Greenland — Karin Flatøy Svarstad grew up on the small island of Voksa, off the western coast of Norway. The daughter of a North Atlantic fisherman, she was raised on tales of far off places.
In mid July, as she welcomed sheep farmers and fiber enthusiasts to South Greenland, she smiled, recalling the journey that brought her there. It marked a decade of the North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference, an initiative she started.
It has been about 20 years since Svarstad first began her quest to help shepherds throughout the region find value in products from their sheep, native short tail breeds dating back to the Vikings and even before. Most often, raw wool is cast off from those sheep, because, historically, there hasn’t been any value. Struck by the colorful waste piles, Svarstad, who has worked as a wool fiber artist for 40 years, began spreading the word about the inherent value that could be found, with some creativity and passion.
“I had to do something,” she recalled. After years of planning and hoping, finally, she stood on ground she’d heard stories of throughout her childhood, doing what she loves: championing the opportunities for native short tail sheep and wool of the North Atlantic region. The site was special, she said, because “I’ve heard about Greenland since I was a little girl.”
This time, the conference’s goal was to breathe life into Greenlandic sheep farming, and find more opportunities for the small but passionate group of folks who are involved.
As word has spread about the initiative and a network of like minded folks grew, products and projects emerged. From smaller scale initiatives such as branded yarns, hats, scarves and clothing from the Faroe Islands, the Outer Hebrides and Iceland, to the establishment of small scale woolen mills, textile companies and even Svarstad’s current project to make pelleted wool fertilizer. Farmers have banded together to seek special labeling as a unique fiber or meat. Agritourism projects are underway as well.
The conference has sparked a bigger discussion, about the legacy of some of the world’s oldest sheep breeds, and what can be done to preserve that heritage. In many of the areas covered by the organization, the terrain, weather and culture are such that primitive sheep are some of the only livestock that thrive, Svarstad said. In some cases, it’s a matter of necessity to find a way for them to continue. If there is no income from sheep, some areas would wither away.
As folks from around the North Atlantic gave presentations about their particular breeds and projects, themes stood out. The obstacles facing these sheep breeds and the people who love them are similar to those many farmers encounter. Collapse of infrastructure. Decreasing sheep numbers, due to changing climate or poor markets. Lack of transition opportunities to younger generations who want to continue the work.
It’s compounded in many areas by geographic insulation, an attribute that has allowed unique cultures, traditions and sheep genetics to be preserved. But it can limit opportunity as well. What are the answers? It’s unclear, but through meetings like this, there are people working to find them.
The North Atlantic conference has become a rite of passage for a dedicated group of shepherds and wool fiber enthusiasts now. The second part of Svarstad’s vision, a traveling wool exhibit called “Wool around the North Sea,” has become a popular attraction regionally as well.
The conference has met throughout the North Atlantic. After pandemic-driven delays, folks, including myself and my mother, descended on Narsarsuaq, South Greenland, from July 12-19, to pick up where the conference had left off. My mother and I do not own a wool fiber flock. We focus on wool breed meat genetics. But we have had an interest in sheep breed preservation and the use of fiber products. After stumbling onto the group a while ago, we’ve attended several conferences.
The history of North Atlantic sheep breeds is a long and storied one. The phrase, “sheep the Vikings left behind,” isn’t just a clever play on words. In the time when Vikings navigated the globe, they proved to be quite adept at spreading sheep genetics to far flung places. They picked up rams they fancied in one region, brought them to another area, mixed them into native populations and so on.
It might sound far fetched, until you walk the worn cobblestones of ancient castles on the coast of the Isle of Man, meander through weathered ruins in Greenland that defy time or explore a recreated Viking longhouse in Norway. There is deep rooted history Americans can only begin to imagine, despite the fact that North America was also a stop in the Vikings’ adventures.
In addition to the Viking influence, some native short tail sheep breeds have even more primitive roots, evidenced by various traits, including the “mouflon” pattern, a nod to a type of wild sheep of the same name. In general, all of these breeds also possess keen instincts not often seen in more domesticated breeds, making them adept at surviving unsupervised in places like the mountains of Norway, Iceland or Greenland, or on the cliffs and coastlines of the various, secluded North Atlantic islands.
Greenland is the world’s largest island, and the native language is the world’s most widely spoken Eskimo-Aleut language. More than three times the size of Texas, it’s also known for the world’s largest national park and the second largest ice sheet aside from Antarctica. There are about 56,000 inhabitants, with about 100,000 visitors annually. The island is a territory of Denmark, and has a winding, complex history.
Narsarsuaq, the location of the conference, is a former American military base built in 1941 and abandoned in the 1950s. There are only about 100 residents scattered throughout the settlement, in buildings constructed by the American military. The hotel utilizes former military barracks.
From Narsarsuaq, we took a boat across the fjord to old Viking settlements and modern day sheep farms, which are accessible via rough gravel roads mostly frequented by all terrain vehicles. In the winter, most folks put tracks on their ATVs to go out and about.
According to Icelandic “sagas,” or narratives detailing early history in Iceland, Greenland was discovered around 982 AD. For about 500 years, Vikings farmed in the southern areas, after Eirikr rauði Þorvaldsson, known as Erik the Red, discovered the island, named it and settled in Brattahlið, or what is now Qassiarsuk. Erik the Red had a legendary temper. That’s why he found Greenland in the first place — he and other family members had been booted out of Norway and Iceland for violence. (His son, Leif Eriksson, by the way, is credited as the first Viking to discover North America.)
Viking ruins dot the landscape in areas where they settled, along fjords with easy access to the water. According to historical evidence, they ran successful farms with a variety of livestock, including cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, cats and horses. Archeological projects have unearthed at least 250 Viking farms scattered throughout the fjords of South Greenland. It’s thought that upwards of 5,000 total inhabitants lived in the settlements in the west and the east at their peak.
Although it’s not known why the Vikings left Greenland, their disappearance corresponded with the spread of the Black Death in Europe. It’s speculated that other aspects — changing climate that led to more difficulty in farming, or tension with indigenous groups — could also have contributed.
Today, settlements like Qassiarsuk or neighboring Igaliku, known as Garðar during Viking times, are small enclaves of Greenlandic folks, some of whom are sheep farmers. There are 37 sheep farms in all of Greenland. All but one are located in the south; one is located in the capital of Nuuk. Each farmer owns between 400-800 sheep.
The Inuit people have been in the region for centuries, although most often they moved in and out of areas as they followed hunting for seals and whales. Starting in the 1920s though, they began to establish sheep farms throughout the south and south west of Greenland.
The sheep that live on Greenland originated in Iceland. They were brought in to start the new farms. In the spring, they lamb, often hitting 180% lamb crop, according to local farmers. After lambing season concludes, the sheep spread from the fjords up into the mountains and graze until the fall. In September, farmers travel into the high country to gather their sheep. After some late season grazing in the lowlands, the sheep are moved indoors until spring.
The sheep industry is state run. There is one window of a few weeks in the autumn when the abattoir is open for sheep. Approximately 17,000-25,000 sheep are slaughtered then, according to Tupaarnaq Kreutzmann Kleist, a Greenlandic sheep farmer. If farmers find stragglers that need to be slaughtered after that window of time, they are responsible for taking care of processing and marketing themselves, sheep farmers told me.
There is one set price for lamb, which is locked in for the whole year. No Greenlandic lamb is exported, but there are imports, because there is not enough lamb meat produced to fill the demand.
Greenlandic sheep farmers will tell you they love what they do. It’s a lifestyle. But they are looking for more ways to make it profitable. There used to be more than 50 sheep farmers, according to Kleist. That number has shrunk.
“It’s a culture that’s slowly dying,” she said during a July 17 presentation at the conference.
Most farmers have outside jobs. Or they’re diversifying their operations, relying on outside sources of income such as agritourism. Otto and Paarnannguaq Nielsen run a farm called Tasiluk. They both grew up on farms and have farmed together for 30 years. In addition to sheep, which they estimate takes about 60% of their time, the rest of their income comes from fishing and growing vegetables.
Advocates like the Nielsens and Kleist want to bolster the marketing of sheep and their products throughout Greenland. The way to do that is to create more profitability in the other products, such as the wool and the pelts. But there is currently no way to process the wool on a large scale. The spring shearing time produces 24 tons of wool. Families may use some of it for their own purposes or to make a few products to sell, but it’s mainly burned. Sheepskin tanning is extremely limited.
There is opportunity, but it’s going to take work. The 2018 designation of Kujataa UNESCO World Heritage sites throughout South Greenland could help. It provides opportunities to display the Viking and Inuit farming history, and opens more doors for tourism, which could be a valuable part of Greenlandic farmers’ marketing going forward. But first, they need to figure out how to build more infrastructure.
Kleist wants to pursue large scale processing for wool.
“We would like to start wool production here in Greenland,” Kleist said. “I see the business of it. I see the opportunities of it. I see a dream. I see a vision of it.”
A former Olympic skier, she grew up in the northern part of Greenland. When she married her husband, who was a sheep farmer, she started getting a crash course in it.
Wool experts from around the region listened as Kleist spoke. By the end, they had launched into a discussion on what would need to be done, brainstorming better timing for shearing to keep fleeces clean and other logistical issues to collect the wool.
It’s this dynamic that Svarstad envisioned when she began the conference. “We can learn from each other,” she said.