Text: Petter Løken
A massive waterfall looks like a fluttering white summer curtain while pouring down the steep mountainside. Below, the sky is reflected in the dark blue fjord. With a gentle breeze and sunny skies, it’s a perfect day to go hiking in the mountains.
After the long ascent, like a true Norwegian, you grope in your backpack for a packed lunch and thermos full of delicious, hot coffee. Finally, you can sit down in peace – just enjoying the view of the picturesque western fjord like you’ve dreamed about for ages.
Suddenly a loud noise makes you jump:
Whether you go trekking in the Norwegian mountains or go for a drive on the Norwegian country roads, it’s just about impossible not to meet one of the free-range Norwegian sheep.
In the mountains, bells and bleating breaks the silence when you’re least expecting it. And you should be prepared to step on the brakes when you see a danger sign with sheep on it along the road. Normally, sheep are not in a rush, like the rest of the traffic.
If you somehow manage to avoid them, you can enter a souvenir shop and buy some postcards picturing sheep enjoying beautiful views of the fjords on the western coast of Norway.
And please feel free to guess what the hair on the heads of many Norwegian souvenir trolls are made of.
Approximately two million sheep are grazing in the outlying fields of Norway every summer. That’s unique, and something that you won’t experience elsewhere.
“In Norway, the resource situation is different than in the rest of Scandinavia and other comparable countries. Only three per cent of Norway’s landmass is arable land, but 45 percent is usable or excellent grazing land”, says Tone Våg, sheep farmer and leader of the Norwegian Sheep and Goat Association.
Våg continues: “Norwegian agriculture is dependent on the extra resource of the outlying fields, and pasture is an important source of income for Norwegian farms”.
Sheep grazing in outlying fields have free access to whatever they want to eat. That makes the Norwegian sheep happy.
“When you’re taking the sheep to their summer grazing land in the mountains you can hear the happy sounds from the herd. You can tell from how they’re acting that they remember from year to year”, Våg says.
Grazing without fences allows the sheep to act more in tune with their instincts, and they naturally divide into smaller groups with individuals closely related to one another.
If you occasionally encounter sheep far into the wild, you normally don’t need to worry: “Sheep recognises where they are, and they know where they are going” Våg says.
Whilst out grazing, it occasionally happens that sheep get ill, get stuck or lost - or that they encounter predators. They are, however, not completely left to themselves.
“It’s statutory to check on flock at least once a week during the whole summer. Therefore, it’s not only the tourists who can enjoy the sight of sheep grazing in the nature. I feel privileged that I can take my family with me into the mountains to look after the animals as a part of my regular work”, Våg says.
Another factor is that grazing sheep are preventing the landscape from overgrowing and maintains the biodiversity in the Norwegian nature. According to Våg, almost 300 endangered species are dependent on the Norwegian cultural landscape.
“It’s not overgrown nature the tourists come to see”, says the farmer.
In the fall you can often see rivers of sheep flowing down the mountainsides.
By checking the Norwegian Trekking Association’s website, you can find out when and where you can join the farmers as they’re bringing the herd back from the mountains.
“It’s always a great pleasure to get your animals back when the summer is over, and to see that the lambs have had a good time and gained weight. I’m proud of making a product by using a renewable resource like the outlying fields”, Våg says.
“When you’re a sheep farmer it improves your quality of life to see animals grow and thrive in the outdoors”, she adds.
Våg has no doubts that the sheep are happy to see the farmer and the barn again in the autumn as well.
“It depends on the size of the flock, but you do get a special connection to some of them”, she says.
The Norwegian white sheep, which incidentally can be black or brown, is the most common sheep breed in Norway. Here are the five Norwegian sheep breeds you most likely encounter while travelling in Norway. (Sau means sheep in Norwegian).
Source and pictures: Norsk Sau og Geit