October arrived and the slaughter season was already well underway. September had brought a wave of unusually good weather, which resulted in the season starting earlier than normal. The lambs were around six months old by now, fattened up on green grass, fresh water and lots of exercise. Jóhannus’ family had taken in two orphaned lambs during the summer, Trilla and Norðan, and we’d spent many days bottle-feeding them, laughing as they jumped, skipped and played around. I knew they were going to be slaughtered in the autumn, and it did make me feel sad because they would nibble our hands and face affectionately and let us stroke them. Trilla was especially well humanised. She’d even stand on top of the counter in the kitchen whilst being petted like a dog. Vilhelm explained that it is harder to kill the lambs when they raise them themselves because they develop a personal bond, but orphaned lambs are not uncommon, and there can be dozens across the islands every year. The average natural lifespan of a sheep is between 10-12 years, and when the islanders rely almost solely on lamb for their source of food, they can’t afford to keep dozens as pets because of a personal attachment.
Similarly to July, the first task was to herd all of the sheep down from the mountains and into the sheepfolds. We were up well before sunrise, getting ready for the day ahead, packing food and waterproofs before starting our ascent in blue hour. There are no paths or tracks to follow. You simply walk up, and by “up,” I mean almost vertically up, legs aching and lungs desperate for air. The locals cruised on as if they were out for a relaxing stroll, talking animatedly without missing a breath. We were surrounded by nature’s beauty, with panoramic views overlooking a fjord and out across the next island. I could see the golden light of sunrise starting to peak out from the clouds and I had to pause for a second to take in the view, completely speechless and awestruck. I glanced behind me to see where the herders were and saw them as small dots a good 300m ahead of me. Picking up the pace, I charged on, determined to try and catch them up. Hopping over a small fence, I walked in a line towards the nearest local, who was a farmer called Arni. We talked for a while before I spotted a familiar face coming towards me, Jóhannus from the trip in July. He introduced me to Levi, his brother-in-law and ex-footballer, before they both carried on uphill towards the peak of the mountain.
Shortly after, we were off at a brisk walk again, driving the sheep down and into the pens. It took another hour or so, having safely made it across the many streams, dips and hollows of the hillside. Lambs, rams and ewes were all separated into different enclosures, and number tags were placed around their heads so we could identify them easily. A metal scale had been rolled in, a sort of cage that would tell us how heavy the sheep were. The lambs were first, marking down their number and weight on a sheet of paper. Not all 178 of them would be slaughtered, as there had to be enough for breeding the following year. Seven male lambs were chosen for future mating, and to introduce new blood into the gene-pool. Ram is considered a delicacy, but the heaviest ram, which weighed a massive 91kg, would be used for mating rather than killed for food.
There must have been two dozen people there, everyone helping with the work. There were also a lot of kids joining in with their parents, holding the sheep or just watching from the walls. I felt such a huge sense of the community and culture, and a wave of respect for the islanders became rooted within me. A lot of the lifestyle in the Faroe Islands is considered as ‘brutal’, but I reminded myself that the life I am accustomed to is much less hands on, and infinitely more sheltered. A lot of us who reside in highly populated, developed countries, only see the final product of food in supermarkets. The locals in the Faroe Islands are familiar with the whole process, from the mating of the sheep to the consumption of the meat. The Faroese are not keen producers of waste, and you will find that all parts of the animal will be consumed here, even the head. I know of a jewellery maker called Alia Gurli who makes a range of beautiful rings, necklaces and earrings from sheep horn. Regardless of our personal diets, using every part of the animal seems like a healthy practice.