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Extending terroir: Icelandic lamb production and the taste of land(rights)

Développer le terroir : la production de l’agneau islandais ou le gout de la terre ancestrale
Anne Elyse Lally


The term réttir in Iceland denotes a series of annual events occurring in the smaller towns and agricultural regions outside the capital of Reykjavík. Translated literally to “gathering,” the réttir season begins in early September and consists of the collective herding of Icelandic sheep from common agricultural lands throughout the country. The use of common pastures in the ecologically sensitive highlands region not only contributes to the specific taste of Icelandic lamb, but is also questioned in debates around soil conservation. Large swathes of the Icelandic highlands have experienced continual desertification since shortly after settlement in the 9th century, and historic grazing practice is implicated in scientific narratives of land degradation. However, réttir exists not just as a means of production, but as a strategy to maintain agrarian identities and ancestral land rights dating to the 13th century via practice. This paper extends the concept of terroir beyond taste to include the condensed meanings of landscape expressed through biological accruals of place in the bodies of livestock. Terroir indicates more than a taste of place, but exposes the larger multispecies entanglements of land rights, agricultural production, climate change, environmental conservation, and agrarian identities. In this sense, an ovine diet of subarctic grasses, scrubby willows, and glacial water not only constitutes muscles and fat as a biological process, but concomitantly exposes the topographical complexities of the Icelandic highlands.

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Introduction and Methodology

1The practice of sheep farming is intimately bound to Icelandic identity, landscape, and economics. Icelandic farmers observe long-standing seasonal practices that indicate an adherence to agrarian traditions, the preservation of a uniquely Icelandic diet, and a strategy to maintain land use rights through continual labor. Icelandic sheep exist as both physical beings and accruals of biological, cultural, and economic histories within these practices. The complex relationships of humans, animals, and environment trickle down to the physical bodies of livestock and accrue in flesh in both biological and symbolic forms—a manifestation of terroir enveloping the gustatory experience of Icelandic lamb and Icelandic identity construction through its specific means of production and subsequent consumption.

  • 1 Kirksey & Helmreich (2010) provide the authoritative introduction to the term, although the canon n (...)

2Concerns over ecological conservation and efforts to reduce continued environmental degradation in the interior highlands of the country contradict the grazing practices necessary to produce the terroir unique to Icelandic lamb. The breeding, birthing, grazing, and slaughter of sheep in Iceland adhere to long-standing agricultural practices that influence a specific regional taste and larger culture around the final product; these markers are an integral component of understandings of its terroir. Heather Paxson, following the definition by Amy Trubek (2008), defines terroir as typically “glossed as ‘the taste of place,’ with place referring to the material conditions of a locale—soil, topography, and microclimate—and also to the cultural know-how behind agricultural products” (2010 : 444) that foster identities through practice. However, dismantling these characteristics from the complexities of contemporary sheep farming in Iceland—ecological debates around soil conservation, familial histories and emplacements, the dynamic role of livestock in the lives and identities of their producers—renders the concept of terroir static in current dialogues of food studies. To reveal the “historical, philosophical, social and geographic complexity” (Demossier 2018 : 137) of the term, Marion Demossier champions the “ethnographic gaze… to gauge the social depth of the concept (2018 : 137). Not only does following the interrelations of humans and sheep in the highlands of Iceland provide theoretical grounds for extending terroir into the bodies of producer/produced and consumer/consumed, it also enters terroir into dialogues central to multispecies ethnography1 and overlapping methods of inquiry interrogating how humans, non-humans, and ecologies interact in the Anthropocene (or Capitalocene, or Chthulucene after Haraway [2016]). In Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Swanson et al. introduce the section of their volume entitled “Monsters of the Anthropocene” by emphasizing the necessity of recognizing the ecological and biological systems and organisms that emerge from the “symbiotic entanglement[s] in the Anthropocene” (2017 : M2) as the first step in interrogating larger socioecological issues across academic disciplines. Employing terroir as a means to “notice landscapes of entanglement, bodies with other bodies, time with other times” (Swanson et al. 2017 : M7) fosters a greater understanding of the complex underpinnings of all food production, and is especially pertinent for those foods assigned significance by their specific histories and emplacement.

  • 2 Haraway (2016) describes response-ability as a moral issue and natural progression from first recog (...)

3It is in spaces of ideological friction, or “encounters across difference” (Tsing 2005 : 6), between competing agricultural and ecological interests in Iceland where the term terroir becomes more layered. Conflating the sensory experience of consumption with the social and environmental underpinnings of agricultural practice in the social landscape of the Icelandic highlands serves to expose the multispecies entanglements of lamb production; this is integral to what Donna Haraway describes as our critical “response-ability”2 (Haraway 2016) in unraveling the complexities of our interspecies intimacies, especially within the production of food and the valuation of these products. Drawing from Lefebvre’s “production of space” (1991), Brad Weiss looks at the “political economic restructuring of everyday life under (neo)capitalism [Lefebvre’s [1991 : 39] term], with considerations of the felt qualities of lived, bodily experience” (Weiss 2011 : 441). Weiss links the idea of terroir to “a shared, if also contested, sensory field” (Weiss 2011 : 441); the Icelandic highlands emerge as such a sensory field through which terroir—not just the chemical and or practical composition of a taste of place, but also its inherent complications, messiness, and histories—is manifested.

4To identify the complexities of Icelandic lamb’s terroir and the response-abilities inherent to its production, we must start with grazing. The annual réttir in Iceland occurs within agricultural communities grazing their sheep in common pastureland. Translated literally to “gathering,” the réttir season begins in late August to early September, dependent on weather conditions and premonitions from the previous year’s excursions. The historical and political meanings of réttir are dense; continual usage of common pasture lands maintains grazing rights grounded in historical land use provisions, and such agricultural practice exists in an uneasy balance with contemporary concerns of ecological conservation. The Icelandic highlands have experienced continuous desertification since shortly after settlement in the ninth century, and contemporarily grazing practices are considered a major factor, albeit a debated one. The ideological uneasiness between agricultural production and environmental conservation further complicates the already condensed meaning of réttir, ultimately making strange bedfellows of farmers, conservationists, and sheep.

5Local farmers work cooperatively to round up their collective sheep from the surrounding mountains over the course of a few days to a week, contingent on the size of the integrated herds and the terrain to be traversed. The majority of Iceland’s sheep are put out to graze in common agricultural lands in the spring, after the lambing season, and left until the fall. As such, it is a common sight in Iceland to see an ewe and lambs wandering down the main highway, populating the guttered bridle paths lining gravel roads, or appearing in the distance as series of white specks on a mountainside. These everyday occurrences define life in rural Iceland, acting as vignettes of agricultural production.

6Working with farmers based in Hvolsvöllur and Hella in South Iceland, and Husavík and Hörgárdalur in North Iceland, I worked two réttir from 2013 to 2015, participated in three lambing seasons, and conducted formal and informal interviews (largely during agricultural labor) with sheep farmers and their families from three farms in the North and five farms in the South. As part of my larger research project I also interviewed Sigriður Björnsdóttir, state veterinarian at the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (Matvælastofnun), Sigurborg Daðadóttir, the Chief Veterinary Officer at the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, regional veterinarians, horse and dairy farmers, and other livestock professionals working in the North, South, and Capital regions; these formal conversations, along with the myriad interactions with laborers during the work of collective herding, also inform this paper. The largest réttir I participated in was the Laufaleitir sheep round-up in the interior highlands of South Iceland, an ecologically sensitive area largely desertified by a combination of use-related and ecological factors.

7Agricultural identities are forged by intergenerational emplacement in regions and farmsteads, where practices and seasonal patterns of work are shaped by the unique micro-environment of the farm and passed down through families; for some, like Bernharð Arnarson and Þórdís Þórisdóttir, who operate Auðbrekka outside of Akureyri in the north, these ties can be traced back five generations in Bernharð’s family tree. These identities, and their lineages of practice, are brought to the fore in ecological debates as an increasingly urban population decries historic grazing practices as the main impetus behind ecological destruction since Settlement. However, land use is not simply a product of necessity, but of ancestral land rights, historical practice, and identities forged through diet and the specificity of taste and place. Following these lines, the complex interactions of humans, non-human animals, land-use policies, urban and rural ideological demarcations, and agricultural practice are traced through time and space. Ultimately, human and non-human bodies inscribe the landscape and are in turn inscribed by biological accumulations in flesh and fat via movement through these topographies. Corporealities are linked to histories, climates, practice, and politics through the condensations of meaning inherent to the physical bodies of sheep—in this sense, terroir is extended beyond taste to include the multispecies histories that form and reform ovine bodies in the Icelandic highlands.

How did we get here? Soil degradation since settlement

8Iceland is roughly 103,000 square kilometers, located just south of the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic Ocean. As of January 2019, the total population of the island was 356,991 people, with just less than six percent living in rural areas (Hagstofa Íslands 2019). The climate ranges from maritime cold-temperate along the coast to subarctic in the northern highlands, as influenced by the Gulf Stream (Arnalds et al. 1997 : 8). Permanent human occupation occurs in the coastal lowlands, where the climate proves generally more favorable to larger vegetation and the agricultural production of hay and other feed plants. As elevation increases vegetation decreases, with large swathes of the highlands considered subarctic deserts. The bleak volcanic landscape is largely mutable and environmentally sensitive, with noticeable changes in the density of flora and quality of soil occurring rapidly as one moves through space, both vertically and horizontally.

9The capricious and often inhospitable climate and geographic character of Iceland has been a historically difficult environment for survival. Prior to human occupation, Iceland’s environment in the mid-Holocene was governed solely by climate variability and considered notably more fertile than today (Eddudóttir et al. 2016 : 715); vegetation covered approximately 60 percent of the landmass, and birch woodlands covered 25 percent of the island (Arnalds 2000). The delicate Andosols were maintained by this vegetative cover, allowing for cyclical ecosystem regeneration necessary to replenish soils during climatic shifts. The Norse colonization of the North Atlantic Islands, or landnám (McGovern et al. 2007, Vickers et al. 2011) brought approximately 24,000 people to Iceland by the tenth century (Vésteinsson and Mcgovern 2012). Deforestation for fuel, lumber, and pastureland starting in the ninth century spurred soil erosion patterns. The original ecosystem never recovered, as the island was previously devoid of large grazing mammals (Arnalds and Barkarson 2003 : 106, Eddudóttir et al. 2016 : 715). Cold spells, volcanic fall-out, cooling trends, and glacial sand encroachment intensified the effects of human deforestation over time. Today, the country is considered one of the most degraded lands in Europe, as three-quarters of its land mass is affected by soil erosion (Arnalds et al. 1997). The landscape is composed of eerily treeless expanses wherein perceptions of distance are distorted, at least to an untrained, foreign eye.

10Soil erosion in Iceland emerges as an assemblage (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) of interactional factors extending beyond pure human causation, but influenced and entangled with human action. Such interactions are exposed in the most degraded areas of the island. These wasteland areas were caused by the overuse of fertile soils during periods of intense environmental conditions: volcanic activity, glacial flows spurred by increases in temperature, and or climate change. However, the intensity of erosion related specifically to land use is unquantifiable – “expanding glaciers, volcanic eruptions under glaciers and glacial bursts are the main reason for the destruction of continuous vegetation in many areas” (Arnalds et al. 1997 : 48).

11Beyond the more arable lands of the coastal lowlands lie the highland rangelands. These areas make up over 80 percent of the interior of the island, and are dominated by largely infertile areas, such as sand or pumice flats, lava fields, and moss heaths (see Figure 1). Such denuded areas are often described as ‘ovigenic’ or created by sheep (Simpson et al. 2001 : 177). Although agricultural usage is often indicated as directly causal in the historic degradation of the highlands, a variety of factors most likely contributed to the original desertification of large swathes of these ecologically sensitive regions. Specifically, a cooling trend beginning in approximately 3000 BP and an increase of melt flooding from glaciers (Arnalds and Barkason 2003 : 105) influenced long-term degradation of the highlands in addition to the impacts of grazing.

Figure 1. Vegetation Map of the Central Highlands of Iceland

Figure 1. Vegetation Map of the Central Highlands of Iceland

Source: Icelandic Institute of Natural History (Náttúrufræðistofnun Íslands)

12In their study of Barðalækjartjörn, a lake located on the highland margin in Northwest Iceland, Eddudótir et al. found human interventions during the Medieval Warming Period (c. 1000 cal. a BP) in this area did not cause, but strained, an environment already stressed by cooling and tephra deposition (Eddudótir et al. 2016 : 725). This pattern is similar in the highlands of South Iceland (Eddudótir et al. 2016 : 724); Sigurdur Greipsson (2012) describes the Haukadalsheiði region in the south as possessing about 20 percent of the original vegetation and soil from the heathland ecosystem extant prior to human settlement. The historical soil erosion at Haukadalsheiði is the combination of a reduction of species diversity spurred by grazing, tephra fallouts from 1693 and 1766 AD, glacier fluctuation from climate change and related sand encroachment, and katabatic winds driving erosion. Local place names in Haukadalsheiði indicate erosion patterns: “erosional soil-cliff scrap (Bakki), eroding front (Klofningar), remnant of vegetated patches (Torfur), deflated soils (Moldir), and barren lands (Skersli)” (Greipsson 2012 : 51) all mark places that are contemporarily vegetated, and current barren lands are not marked by such historic designations. This topological memory serves to exemplify how quickly lands change in composition over time.

13Contemporarily, the vegetated areas of the highlands reflect continual sheep grazing dating to settlement, with small woody species, rushes, and sedges tolerant to grazing dominating the flora (Arnalds and Barkarson 2003 : 106). Vegetation in higher altitudes is especially sensitive to grazing, and as such even minimal grazing practices can cause deleterious side effect on sensitive ecosystems (Arnalds et al. 1997 : 48). There are two possible reasons why land degradation was magnified by communal sheep grazing in Iceland: a lack of shepherding within the commons, and a failure to remove sheep from pastures at the correct time in the growing season (Simpson et al. 2001, 187). Both of these factors reflect the delicate balance necessary for biomass retention in the ecosystems of the highlands.

  • 3 Rangárvallasýsla translates to Rangárvalla County, and although the administrative unit of county i (...)

14The Rangárvallasýsla area3 in South Iceland, where I participated in the Laufaleitir réttir during 2014, extends from the agricultural lowlands of the southern coast, including the towns of Hella and Hvolsvöllur, to the highlands region demarcated by Hofsjökull and Vatnajökull glaciers. Lowland areas are sites of extensive agricultural production, while the highland regions are severely eroded. Sheep grazing has been reduced in these areas, largely by the protected status of much of the highlands as designated by the Environment Agency of Iceland. Fjallabak Nature Reserve abutts and overlaps this area, as do the common grazing lands of Rangárvallaafrétti. Much of the land is poorly vegetated due to long-term soil erosion, volcanic eruptions, and the increase of sandy areas caused by a combination of land use and environmental factors. The large-scale historic removal of trees and subsequent grazing practices on lands suffering from climatic degradation caused significant damage. The high probability of volcanic ash in these highland grazing areas as a result of Katla and Mt. Hekla merits protection to allow for vegetal intensification to combat the effects of such unavoidable geologic events.


15According to estimates made in 2003, there are 460,000 winterfed ewes in Iceland (Arnalds and Barkarson 2003:105). Winterfeeding indicates these ewes are bred annually, resulting in spring lambs that graze for the summer and are slaughtered at the end of the fall. The population of sheep in Iceland has varied since the Middle Ages (Arnalds and Barkarson 2003), when the trifecta of horse, sheep, and cow farming was firmly cemented in Icelandic agricultural production. Norse settlers brought cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, goats, and chickens with them to Iceland, but the latter three animals were phased out in the tenth century. Chickens and pigs have been reintroduced into Iceland in the twentieth century, however their production mimics industrialized farming in the United States and Europe. The historical continuity of production means the breeds of the original livestock varieties, along with the practices to raise them, have largely been preserved. The number of sheep in Iceland has grown substantially since a low of about 50,000 sheep in 1784 (as caused by the eruption of Laki); haymaking technology spurred intense population growth in the twentieth century as flock size was no longer controlled by the carrying capacity of grazing lands, with a high of 896,000 sheep in the country in 1977 (McGovern et al. 2007 : 108).

16The Icelandic Soil Conservation Service (Landgræðsla Ríkisins, or LR) was founded in 1907 as a response to sands encroaching on large swaths of farmland in the south of the country, threatening agrarian society itself. Soil conservation efforts at this time were focused on reducing the encroachment of sand dunes on pastures and rangelands, and by the 1950s the integration of fertilizers and new technologies proved to be successful in revegetation of some of the most seriously impacted areas. Contemporary awareness of climate change and its direct impacts on the global north hastened the establishment of a Ministry for the Environment in 1990, under which Landgræðsla Ríkisins functions today (Arnalds et al. 1997 : 8). However, laws focused on grazing and soil conservation have not been amended substantially since 1965.

17While staying at Þverá, a small family farm outside of Husavík in the north of the country, I spoke with Sólveig Halla Kristjánsdóttir about her family’s experience of sheep farming in an unsteady economic (and ecologic) climate. Halla described how government reports in the 1990s portrayed farmers as unintelligent, backwards, and unconcerned with the future of their own pasturelands—an implication that seems bizarre considering these lands are their lifeblood. This separation between farmers and governing bodies, and subsequently between rural and urban populations, serves to obscure the myriad factors at work in erosion processes, as well as processes at work to correct them. A patently top-down policy approach has served to further exacerbate this ideological division over time (Arnalds 2005, Young et al. 2005). For the first seventy-five years, Landgræðsla Ríkisins rarely incentivized their programs for land-users, and those individuals most intimately bound to the affected areas were left out of the development and execution of conservation strategies. As a result, the issues surrounding soil erosion and land degradation were largely considered a governmental issue outside the purview of agriculturalists.

18A shift towards participatory approaches to soil conservation since the 1990s includes greater efforts to involve stakeholders and the general public to assume ownership of the national issue of land degradation. The integration of quality management (Arnalds 2005 : 118-119, Arnalds and Markarson 2003 : 106) into government-issued production subsidies has hastened some practical changes regarding sustainability, grazing, and maintenance of soil quality since the early 2000s. An operational framework for Landgræðsla Ríkisins from 2003 to 2014 was instigated by farmers and approved by the Icelandic parliament. Additionally, Farmers Heal the Land, a participatory land use program housed under Landgræðsla Ríkisins, launched in 1990 to encourage stewardship of agricultural lands by land-users (Arnalds 2005). Although the program funds activities previously undertaken by farmers to conserve their grazing land, this bottom-up program attempts to ameliorate historical issues by reframing soil conservation and sustainable land use as a responsibility of both the Icelandic government and the agricultural sector.

19About 15 percent of all Icelandic farmers participate in land reclamation activities in conjunction with Landgræðsla Ríkisins. Halla described her work with Landgræðsla Ríkisins, which provided her with fertilizer and seed to maintain the common grazing land shared by her and her neighbors outside of Husavík. “Icelanders have always been proud of sheep, and wool is connected to the consciousness of the Icelandic countryside… or sveitin,” Halla intoned one May morning in the second-floor break room of her sheep-barn-labyrinth. “However, sheep farming is less popular than 30 years ago, and there are more enemies saying sheep are not good for the land because of grazing.” Although multifaceted, Icelanders have largely blamed livestock grazing for soil degradation in the last century, which has “influenced the views of Icelanders towards traditional sheep farming” (Arnalds et al. 1997 : 14), particularly as the population continues to shift away from rural life.

20Conservation rhetoric often exists in direct contradiction with the narratives of Icelandic farmers and their intergenerational relationships with the landscape. At Þverá, Halla described how urban people are upset about how farming is affecting the land outside of the capital, that there are a dwindling number of natural and untouched “green spots” beyond agricultural fields. The question shared between urban residents and rural farmers is how to maintain these spaces, and what maintenance is defined as. Is rotating agricultural use and reseeding considered maintenance? Should farmers be barred from observing their historic grazing practices in the name of environmental conservation? Halla described the ideological split as occurring along party lines, in that people who want to join the European Union, who are politically more liberal in Iceland, want to import lamb and reduce the grazing herds in Iceland. This modernist perspective runs roughshod over the complexities of meaning compressed in the marbled meat and fat of a leg of Icelandic lamb, ignoring the unique parameters of space, place, and the distillation of the two in the physical bodies of Icelandic livestock.

21This disconnect between the towns and the country is another residue of technologization, automation, and related reduction of rural populations. Urban children used to spend their summers on the farms of their agrarian relatives, where they would develop connections to the countryside and agricultural practice. In this way, children learned to respect the source of the food found in the supermarkets found in the towns and city. However, Halla explained, “there are fewer jobs for kids on sheep farms in the summer because of technology. Growing up, there was no plastic. A machine blew hay into the barn to dry, and us kids would pack hay into bags. As a result, fewer people have connections to farms. Until 2000, they were resisting this in government.

Afréttir and Icelandic grazing politics

22Variability emerges as a trend within the physical environment of Iceland, as well as the approaches to understanding its degradation, conservation, and improvement. The majority of the interior highlands are designated as common grazing areas, wherein some spaces fall under federal conservation regulations as nature reserves. Rangárvallaafrétti, where farmers from the region surrounding the southern town of Hella have brought their sheep to graze for generations, is adjacent to, with some overlapping boundaries, the Fjallabak Nature Reserve. A nature reserve falls under the designation of protected area, and restrictions are put in place to protect the wildlife and landscape, although these rules vary from site to site. As seen at Fjallabak, the 47,000-hectare reserve is open to mixed recreational use throughout the year, with accommodations made for grazing from spring to autumn (Umhverfisstofnun 2016). Specific requirements include the removal of sheep by the end of the grazing season, which typically involves at minimum three trips to scour the landscape for sheep.

23I made the first and most prolific autumnal journey to Rangárvallaafrétti as a seasonal worker at Miðkot, a horse farm and training facility outside the nearby town of Hvölsvollur. Accompanied by 30 of our best riding horses, Ólafur Þórisson, his brother Vikar Þórisson, and two seasonal workers (myself and Emma Fager, a Danish woman working at Miðkot) rode our horses the approximately 30km to the farmstead Hjarðabrekka 1 in Hella in the first week of September 2014. There we joined Steinn Masson, along with his family and a few friends, and an additional group of horses to ride to the base of Rangárvallaafrétti. At our base camp we joined the formal leaders of our weeklong trek into the mountains: fjallkóngar, or the mountain kings, Ingimar Ísleifsson from the farm Sólvöllum and Ingvar Magnússon of Minna-Hofi. The fjallkóngar inherited their privileged position ancestrally, and often spoke about their experiences in the mountains in our evenings in the mountains; at the cabin Hungursfit, Ingimar told the group about being snowed in at the old mountain cabin located next to the modern building we were currently housed in. Used to house the horses if the weather was unfavorable contemporarily, the second floor of the original structure served as the main sleeping quarters in the 1950s, heated only by the body heat generated by the stables on the first floor below. Ingimar and Ingvar both had extensive experience herding sheep on horseback in the area dating to their youth—a skillset inherited from their fathers and grandfathers back through generations. In the highlands, an intimate knowledge of both the terrain and the weather are essential for a successful réttir and a safe excursion. This knowledge was best derived from continual emplacement in the space, as maps cannot always denote undercurrents in rivers, volcanic soils eroded between seasons, or hidden shelters built in caves decades ago. Experience in the landscape and knowledge of the terrain passed down intergenerationally was key to leading the group and deciding on tasks for each day based on conditions, and as such the fjallkóngar were established from the most prominent and long-standing families farming in the area.

24The fjallkóngar held familial ties to the majority of the group of about 30 laborers entering the mountains, including sons, nephews, some daughters and granddaughters, and more distant relatives. The majority of the sheep were held by the fjallkóngar and their extended families. In 2014, the number of sheep in Rangárvallaafrétti numbered over 2,000 as divided between six main farms located in the lowland region outside of Hella. Gathering the sheep took a week’s time, largely executed on horseback with support from ATVs and a few four-wheel drive vehicles used to haul hay, tack, and people to the three mountain cabins used as bases in the region.

25Highland grazing areas vary in size throughout the country, ranging from less than 100 to more than 5000 square kilometers (Arnalds and Barkarson 2003 : 107). Areas may be enclosed or delineated by natural borders, or may exist as a combination of both, as seen in Rangárvallaafrétti. Such modern communal grazing lands are referred to as afréttir, and are utilized and governed by a collective of local farmers. Jon Haukur Ingimundarson (1995) cites Grágás, the code of laws dating from the Commonwealth period (tenth to thirteenth centuries), as the first document to reference afréttir as “grazing lands which two or more men own together” (Ingimundarson 1995 : 74). The Bishop Sagas and Sturlunga Sagas make reference to the Commonwealth expressions of these laws, including the documentation of home pastures used in the winter, summer mountain pastures, and the practice of gathering sheep in the fall; however, specific laws are not outlined in detail (Eggertsson 1992 : 429-430).

26After the transition to Norwegian rule in 1281, Jónsbók was established as the new law code and made minimal changes to the previous afréttir laws outlined in Grágás. Mediating overgrazing in the commons was addressed as early as Grágás, wherein assessors decided grazing quotas for commons users to prevent land degradation. Timelines for driving sheep into their designated afréttir were outlined beginning in Grágás and continued in Jónsbók; these regulations remain intact today, with permutations occuring based on weather patterns.

27The variability of the highlands ecosystem and the vast expanses of pastureland make standardized maintenance extremely difficult. As such, rights and management practices continue to be designated by the local district councils utilizing the land, or hreppur (Arnalds and Barkarson 2003 : 107). Originally founded as collectives through which agricultural insurance could be sourced and funds provided for indigent farmers (Ingimundarson 1995; Simpson et al. 2001), these governing bodies date to the Commonwealth period as per taxation records dated to 1096. The hreppur exists today in a modernized incarnation both bound to and existing outside of federal regulations. This internal governance of the common grazing areas entails protecting the grazing capacity by regulating time, number of sheep, and external forces that could degrade capacity (Eggertsson 1992 : 428).

28Ancestral ties also establish unique rights outside of modern land-use guidelines, including designations held by Ingimar Ísleifsson, one of two fjallkóngar at Laufaleitir. Ingimar’s lineage can be traced to the Oddaverjar clan of Rangárþing dating to the Commonwealth period; this influential lineage controlled the road running east to west through the Fjallabak region in South Iceland. The land of Rangárvallaafrétti was ceded to the clan during Norwegian Rule (1262 to 1380) due to their political prominence and control of the regional roads. Ingimar’s farm at Sólvöllum falls on the western border of the ancestral region near the now-rebuilt Oddi church. Although legalities regarding land ownership have changed since Norwegian rule, Ingimar maintains rights to the grazing lands at Rangárvellir through his ties to the Oddaverjar family. As described by Hróbjartur Darri Karlsson, a physician in Reykjavík who participated in the Laufaleitir round-up in 2014, Laufaleitir has “nothing to do with sheep,” and instead functions to protect the land of Ingimar’s family lineage through continued use. More recently, this continued use allows agricultural rights to lands designated as nature reserves by the Icelandic government, as without continued use these rights would be subject to change due to contemporary conservation designations.

Terroir: you are what you eat

29Highlands grazing is, most pragmatically, seen as an essential component of producing Icelandic lamb’s unique mild taste and composition. The ideal Icelandic sheep has a specific proportion of meat and fat that is achieved through high rates of growth over the short growing season, which occurs with the greatest success in the highlands or similar mountain grazing lands, “where average live weight gains are often above 300g per day” (Guðmundsson 1988 : 59). Siggi, Halla’s husband, echoed this sentiment at Þverá: “to get the best meat, the lambs need to grow evenly until they are slaughtered. From birth until slaughter the lamb has to be healthy: a good start means the happiness of the lamb, enough milk… this means good meat. They must have enough to eat outside every time of the day until they come home in autumn. Many lambs that come together from the mountains have grown the same.” The line between objective fact and hallowed belief may be blurred in this instance, yet perception is often reality in small-scale agricultural operations continuing intergenerational practice.

30If terroir is to be understood as the literal and figurative condensation of landscape and practice in the physicality of a plant or animal, and the subsequent sensory experience of a food product derived from said being, we must then question how deep into soil, flesh, and time this definition takes us. The intra-actions (Barad 2007) of Icelanders and sheep are dynamic and constantly evolving through time, in spite of attempting to harken back to a simpler collective national identity borne from the historical necessity of survival in the North Atlantic. The constellation of practices, laws, and beliefs related to sheep farming are bound to the distinctly mild flavor and fat marbling specific to Icelandic lamb. By consuming Icelandic lamb and attending regional réttir, Icelanders seek to engage with the agrarian identity continually eroded by the urbanization of the country – and engage with contemporary land-use debates through consumption. Conservation efforts and public policy fade from view, however, when chasing a sheep down a sheer cliff with an Icelandic horse in hand. Farmers like Steinn Másson, typify their participation as a maintenance of historical practice and connection to previous generations. His teenaged daughter, Ingibjörg, represents the next generation in a long line of sheep farmers grazing in the Rangárvallaafrétti area.

31The consumption of traditional Icelandic foods, including lamb, is an important part of identity maintenance, particularly as the populace shifts towards the urban core of Reykjavík. In February Icelanders observe Þorrablót, a celebration of Icelandic foods characteristic of the Commonwealth period. The festival itself is said to have come about during the mid-nineteenth century, as Iceland’s political role in the Danish international sphere was evolving towards greater independence during a romantic nationalistic period. The Þorrablót festivities include a series of culinary mortifications celebrating the resourcefulness of Iceland’s largely impoverished agrarian populace in years past: spongeiform slátur (blood pudding/haggis) is served sliced, fried in a pan, and seasoned with sugar; lifur pylsur (liver sausage) is often eaten cold for breakfast or sliced thick on a sandwich; svið (smoked sheep’s head) occasionally reminds you, if you could possibly forget, of its origin grazing in the mountains as bits of undigested cud reveal themselves at the gumline while one struggles to pull the tender cheek meat from the skull.

32It is within the larger context of identity politics of taste and consumption that Icelandic lamb exists as a more moderate, everyday participation in Icelandic culinary traditions. Many farmers do not produce lamb in Iceland for financial gain; a herd of less than 500 sheep is not economically viable for a farmer without additional agricultural products to sell, such as milk, beef, or horses. Ólafur Þórisson described his small herd of roughly 200 sheep at Miðkot as a means to provide this Icelandic identity marker to the urban masses, as well as to his own young family. His participation in this practice, his identification with the processes and the product borne from it, cements his Icelandic identity. By consuming lamb pastured in Rangárvallaafrétti or other highlands commons, one consumes the geographical, political, historical, and multispecies networks at play in its production.

33The Icelandic sheep doting the highland regions spend the majority of their spring and summer blissfully unaware of the human intentionality legitimizing their existence. The amorphous herd only assembles when prompted by humans on horseback, then move as a single line extending through space for miles at a time, then protracting into an amoebic mass within a pen or steep valley. Both in their journey to the lowlands and their unseen movements prior to shepherding, the sheep compose with place. The sheep are agentive beyond their individual subjectivities, imbuing their rutted migratory paths with human meaning bound to the historical practice of generations of farmers riding over the same heaths and pushing sheep into the same valleys. Their value emerges not just as an agricultural commodity after slaughter, but through their existence in physical space. The flock serves as a legal contract at Rangárvallaafrétti in the grazing process. Without the cloven hooves of thousands of sheep rooting for tender grasses, the landscape loses its historical human meaning; without a highlands diet, the resulting lamb loses terroir. Trying to parse out the practices that produce this terroir from those practices that are contested in debates on the ecological impacts of grazing practices is impossible.

34Flocks of sheep are not just expressions of their human keepers’ interests, or a symbol for understanding land use—they are living beings through which intergenerational knowledges of landscape create a collective sheep memory, transmitted as ewes lead their lambs annually through the rangeland. “The flock is a memory of the land… the memory of the land, in some ways, gives to the land a part of its existence. By the concrete memory of the mouths, the eyes, the guts, the bodies, the legs, and the feet, the flock multiplies the ways lands, paths, bushes, springs, and rocks exist” (Despret and Meuret 2016 : 33). The flock itself experiences the landscape devoid of human underpinnings, and yet their sensorial histories are interrelated, entangled, and complicit with our own. Donna Haraway describes these “webbed existences” as a “ramifying tapestry of shared being/becoming among critters” contingent on “staying inside shared semiotic materiality” (2008 : 72). For these sheep, the rangelands at Rangárvallaafrétti extend before them in a sense we can only assume to be similar to Ingimar’s view, or perhaps totally different, yet the mere fact of their existence within the landscape wills it into its contemporary, backwards-looking existence. The highlands construct sheep bodies through nourishment, and the sheep construct landscape through their movement through it. This experimental cosmoecology—“learning attentiveness to the infinite ways of being affected and of affecting… [and] the kinds of forces and entities that will constitute landscapes and worlds with us” (Despret and Meuret 2016 : 35). Ovine subjectivities and the inscription of the highlands over generations of sheep emerge as an additional layer of meaning when one consumes Icelandic lamb.

35Drawing from Timothy Morton’s concept of “hyperobjects” (Morton 2013 : 4), Cary Wolfe and Maria Whiteman look beyond the objective environmental devastation incurred by the infestation of the mountain pine beetle in the Front Range of Colorado from the 1980s to the mid-2000s to expose larger systems at work. The “trees become a cipher of sorts for factors and causes that indelibly left their mark there but were not limited to and did not begin and end with that plot of land before us” (Wolf and Whiteman 2016 : 147. At Rangárvallaafrétti, the ruts worn by sheep moving through space, the paths forged by horses and humans herding them, the gravel expanses, and the desertified landscapes of the highlands function in a similar way to compose a material history of the highlands. These long lines of subsequence spiral out from the landscape of today, fumaroles of causation invisibly extant in the windswept mountains demarcated by ravines funneling glacial run-off to the lowlands beyond. These interstitial spaces appear as voids to those unfamiliar with Icelandic grazing practices but are enlivened by the histories replicated and built upon by the annual réttir. “Landscape became a site of inscription, a set of traces to be deciphered rather than something that could be known immediately and all at once… they become traces of retention of an evolutionary past suddenly ill-fitted to new environmental conditions” (Wolf and Whiteman 2016 : 147). The ability to inscribe the highlands with this density of meaning is not only a property of the sheep as living entities, but can be understood as a dimension of the terroir of their meat after slaughter transforms them into an agricultural product.

36Despret and Meuret describe the extinction of grazing practices in France as “not the form that makes a species, in the sense of quantifiable biodiversity, disappear but those that make worlds die, worlds that were hitherto shaped and characterized by practices, by modes of inhabiting, by landscapes that are no more” (2016 : 28). Urbanites’ desires to engage with the nation’s agrarian history, as well as the modern identity crises experienced by farmers, are products of anxieties related to a fear of losing these worlds of the past. Icelanders need not look further than mainland Europe to see how abandoning time-tested regional practices not only cut ties to the increasingly distant past, but also can contribute to dire economic consequences. For example, the enclosure of French rangelands in the 1960s was the end result of intensified agricultural modernization brought about by industrial food production and selective breeding of animals that required a controlled diet to provide maximize yields. However, the system for producing lamb imploded in the 1990s, when subsidized cereal production and meat importations drove the price of grain-based feed up and lamb meat down, spurring a return to rangeland grazing largely lost over the course of 30 years (Despret and Meuret 2016). Amy Trubek describes how “the ‘production of locality’ through taste helps constitute the meaning of France in the midst of the global flow of ideas, ingredients, and values shaping our tastes for food and drink” (2008 : 53); this meaning-making extends beyond gustatory taste when considering how intimately production is tied to the intra-actions of humans and livestock in modern agriculture.

37In describing her experiences raising mules and driving them on a pilgrimage through the American South, Karin Bolender underscores the anatomical processes of condensing landscape, biology, experience, and culture into milk, or in her stylization, ASSMILK. She describes the gestalt of the milk produced by her mule as greater than the physical product itself. “Milk of the land… [is] flowing just under the surfaces, invisible and potent, through infinite webs of tissues and minerals and leaves and watersheds” (Bolender 2014 : 82). The corporealities of her mules is inextricably bound to the physical environment through consumption, and the milk produced by her mules is a byproduct of that entanglement that reflects, perpetuates, and reconstitutes accrued experience through space. In consuming said milk, Bolender is corporeally linked to this network of place, beings, and materialities. Milk becomes more than food, but a narrative of movement through and within “ecologies of production,” a term developed by Paxson (2013) to “call attention to the multiple agencies that contribute to agricultural enterprise” (2013 : 32) while also acknowledging the capitalist nature of agricultural production. Like the lamb derived from sheep traversing the rutted paths through the Icelandic highlands, Bolender‘s ASSMILK possesses a terroir of vibrancy extending beyond the hoof-prints of its origin. Biologies comingle through measures of scale and terminate in excretions, muscle, and bone as taste is transformed into participation, identification, and implication.


38Extending Bolender’s biological processes of milk production, which condense landscape and meaning into agricultural products, to Weiss’ (2011) structuring of terroir as borne from sensory fields, Icelandic sheep emerge as the living, breathing expression of history, space, and practice. The taste of Icelandic lamb reflects the biological transformation of mountain grasses, scrub brush, and sweetgrass hay into a product identified as uniquely Icelandic—this taste is notable to any non-Icelander who has consumed lamb from the United States or New Zealand. The “nature-culture” (Latour 1993) of the highlands is the site of human/non-human relations that sustain modernity (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010 : 555), yet also confound it as climates warm and the global North is plagued by environmental shifts that contribute to soil degradation in Iceland. Bodies that inscribe the landscape and contribute to historical continuities of human practice are circularly inscribed by these sensory fields through the basic biologies of human-nonhuman animal relationships.

39Terroir exists as a complex of cultural condensations and physiological expressions of landscape specificities, bound by the temporalities of agricultural production within a physical and ideological space. Going beyond the practices and places that define products borne from particular localities, terroir emerges as a material expression of everyday agrarian experiences marked by contradictions, difference, and evolving perceptions of what food systems should and should not be. The taste of Icelandic lamb and the practice of consuming implicates one in the conflicting narratives bound to the bodies of sheep inscribing the highlands with meaning, perpetuating ancestral land practices as both a resistance to modern modes of production and a maintenance of familial land rights. The entanglements of humans, landscape, and livestock condense in the tissue of sheep traversing the guttered paths crisscrossing the plateaus both eroded and maintained by human occupation since the Settlement period; the taste of place implicates consumers in these histories through the act of consumption, adding another dimension to the complexities inherent to agricultural production and a call for greater response-ability to those agencies implicated in the production of terroir.

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1 Kirksey & Helmreich (2010) provide the authoritative introduction to the term, although the canon now extends beyond the space of this endnote.

2 Haraway (2016) describes response-ability as a moral issue and natural progression from first recognizing the interconnectedness of humans and non-humans in the current age of ecological destruction. In identifying how humans interact with, influence, rely on, destroy, etc. other organisms and ecologies as a component of capitalism, we then must become response-able to these lively networks through our awareness of and obligations to other organisms through our human action.

3 Rangárvallasýsla translates to Rangárvalla County, and although the administrative unit of county is now defunt in Iceland the term is still used locally to refer to the area.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Vegetation Map of the Central Highlands of Iceland
Credits Source: Icelandic Institute of Natural History (Náttúrufræðistofnun Íslands)
File image/jpeg, 317k
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Electronic reference

Anne Elyse Lally, « Extending terroir: Icelandic lamb production and the taste of land(rights) », Anthropology of food [Online], S14 | 2020, Online since 31 July 2020, connection on 15 August 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Anne Elyse Lally

Research Associate, Department of Anthropology, University at Buffalo,

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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