Iceland Mag

5 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag

Animals

Mystery of mass deaths of Icelandic sheep still not solved – rainy summer and cold winter top suspects

By Staff

  • Sheep being herded from the mountains and highlands Last winter and this spring large numbers of sheep died from unexplained causes. Authorities suspect the blame lies with unfavorable weather. Photo/Vilhelm Gunnarsson.

The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority MAST is now preparing a follow up study of what caused the mass death of sheep last winter and past spring. Some farmers lost as much as 20-30% of their flocks last spring and winter. Although authorities began searching for explanations last spring, after the extent of the problem became known, studies have remained inconclusive and no answer has yet been offered as to why the sheep are dying.

Read more: Study confirms mysterious mass deaths of Icelandic sheep

Mysterious mass deaths
In January and February many farmers began noticing that their sheep were showing signs of being malnourished, and shortly thereafter sheep began dying. The problem remained hidden as farmers kept quiet, fearful of the stigma which is attached to farmers who fail to feed their sheep properly. The problem only came to the attention of authorities this spring however as a large number ewes died of exhaustion after lambing.

The problem seemed to be concentrated in several areas in North and West Iceland, where some farmers lost as much as a fifth or a third of their flocks. In a normal year farmers expect to lose somewhere between 1% and 2% of their flock during the winter and spring.

Read more: Is the Holuhraun eruption to blame for mysterious mass deaths of sheep in Iceland?

Extensive research will hopefully shed light on the mystery
MAST will work with the Federation of Sheep Farmers, The Icelandic Farmers Association and the University of Iceland’s agricultural research institute to determine what caused the deaths. One of the explanations offered is pollution from the Holuhraun eruption, although no firm evidence has been offered to support this theory.

Another hypothesis which MAST is working on is that last year’s hey was unusually poor. Due to a very wet summer farmers had a tough time harvesting grass from their fields for the winter. This meant the sheep had lower quality feed over the winter, which was also unusually cold. The combination of poor quality grass and cold winter then led to exhaustion as the ewes were lambing this spring.

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