Spirited Sheep Farmer

Heiða Guðný Ásgeirsdóttir turned down a career as a model to take over her family’s remote sheep farm. 

Bordering on the southern highlands—at a 25-km (16-mile) distance from Katla volcano—right where the highland route Fjallabaksleið syðri (F210) starts, stands the farm Ljótarstaðir in Skaftártunga. “I’ve just finished trimming the hooves and shearing the sheep,” says Heiða Guðný Ásgeirsdóttir, the farmer at Ljótarstaðir. She lives there with her mother, but running the farm and taking care of its 500 sheep has been Heiða’s responsibility for about 15 years.

For the Love of the Land

Through lambing, haymaking, sheep herding, slaughtering, shearing, maintaining the buildings, fences and her vast land, Heiða has herself to depend on—and some help from family and friends. Many farmers have been tapping into tourism and Heiða has taken visitors on tours from her farm in the summer. “I take them hiking for three to six hours up along the river Tungufljót, up to the waterfalls.” There are four waterfalls in Tungufljót and its tributaries, which cascade into a canyon, and people can walk behind one of them. Heiða’s land is close to the borders of Vatnajökull National Park and Heiða is on the park’s board, along with other locals. Her responsibilities include protecting the sensitive vegetation by making sure that sheep only graze in highland pastures which can handle the strain. Heiða’s love of the land is obvious. She has stated that she doesn’t consider herself the owner of the land, rather that the land owns her. For generations, it has sustained people and animals, and it is her responsibility to hand it over to future generations in no worse shape than it was in when she took over.

Farm over Fashion

Having grown up at Ljótarstaðir with her four sisters, being a farmer was something Heiða had always set out to become. However, when she was in her late teens, a different career path presented itself. “I have this weird look,” says Heiða, referring to her tall, slim physique. “Suddenly, I realized that it was desirable.” Heiða, who in her youth had a complex about her appearance, became a sought-after model, traveling to New York for photo shoots. While the attention helped with her self-image, Heiða decided not to pursue a career as a model. “It was fun to try it out, but it was not for me.”

Inside the barn, Heiða introduces me to her herd. The sheep are neatly shorn, apart from a few which were spared a haircut, as they are at risk of getting cold during the upcoming lambing season. “These are the "gemsar", she says of young ewes, expecting their first lambs. I ask Heiða whether she likes her job. “Oh, yes.” But has she ever considered giving it up? She laughs. “Absolutely.” Heiða pets her German Shepherd Fífill and looks out across her land. I take in the unobstructed view of hayfields, hills and mountains, as far the eye can see. There’s a nip in the air, but it seems that spring has arrived: the snow is melting, uncovering withered grass. Such close contact with nature is the biggest upside to farming, Heiða says.

By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photo by Páll Stefánsson.

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