The sheep population in Greenland

Sheep farming - the extensive period, 1906-76
In the following section, the history of sheep farming will be divided into a period with extensive forms of farming and a more intensive method from 1976 onwards. We are not referring to two distinctly separate periods, but rather to a gradual tendency, developing from extensive to increasingly intensive approaches, with respect to feeding, care and systematic breeding.

Although sheep were first introduced by pastor Jens Chemnitz back in 1906, it was not until 1925 that we find the first reliable records of the population in Greenland. These sheep originated from the Faroe Islands and were gradually introduced as a minor subsidiary occupation among fishing and hunting families and colonial officials across South Greenland. The next sheep imports came from Iceland when the Danish colonial administration introduced animals for a newly-opened agricultural center in Qaqortoq/Julianehåb. Otto Frederiksen - revered today as the father of the industry - was the first full-time sheep farmer in South Greenland. In 1924 he and his family established a homestead in the settlement of Qassiarsuk with a flock of sheep of mixed origins, consisting primarily Icelandic stock, but also of animals from the Faroe Islands.

Der var i 1925 en bestand på 1.678 dyr, som gradvist steg gennem 1930'erne steg til 21.120 dyr i 1948; primært som følge af en række gårdsetableringer rundt omkring i de indre fjordsystemer. In 1925 the number of sheep had reached 1,678 animals, which gradually rose during the 1930s and 1940s to 21,120 animals in 1948, an increase which was primarily driven by new farms that were established throughout the inner fjord systems. This method of sheep farming was based on grazing in the hills and mountains for most of the year, with only a very limited amount of winter fodder. Such a strategy made the sector extremely vulnerable to hard winters, with large losses of sheep and lambs, but it was still possible to enlarge the population considerably during extended periods of mild weather. However, such a system of sheep farming produced low yields per animal, due to the large loss of animals. This was compensated for by large flocks, roughly analogous to the situation in many sheep farming countries in the southern hemisphere.


After the harsh winter of 1948-49, the population was reduced to only 10,453 animals, or roughly half as many sheep. During the following years, the population gradually increased to reach 22,654 animals in 1956, but fell again to 17,575 animals in 1957, again resulting from a long, hard and snowy winter - without foehn winds to melt the snow cover.

This was followed by a large increase in the number of domesticated animals in the late 1950s to 1966, primarily thanks to a sequence of good summers and mild winters, with relatively little snow and good winter grazing. The population peaked in 1966 with 48,000 sheep, which is still the largest number of animals ever registered. But this population should be seen in light of the production yields at the slaughterhouse which, during the record year, were only on par with what has become the norm over the past few years, although nowadays with a much smaller number of animals. Thus, the pioneers in the industry relied on a particularly extensive form of farming, with highly limited yields per animal, even during good years.

The following fateful winter of 1966-67 resulted in record losses - with only 19,070 sheep surviving until the autumn of 1967. More than 60% of the population had died of hunger and exhaustion during the spring, when snow and ice still covered the countryside during the lambing period. Many sheep farmers quit during the following years due to the difficult economic situation and the loss of their production basis.

During subsequent years there were a series of unfortunate seasons with a generally colder climate and more snowy winters, and disasters for farmers in the winters of 1971-72 and 1976-77. The sector underwent an existential crisis during these years.


The intensive form of farming, 1976 and onwards
A markedly extensive form of farming persisted until 1975, when the last disastrous winter took place. This was followed during the 1970s and 1980s by a gradual shift toward more intensive forms of farming, with larger purchases of fodder and adjustments to the size of the herds in proportion to the amount of feed available. The population size was also stabilized, allowing farmers to avoid the considerable annual fluctuations of previous years. This stabilization translated into larger operational expenses in the sector, but also produced far more stable incomes and enhanced opportunities for planning. During the 1980s and 1990s, this led to a gradual intensification of farming methods in the sector, with more feeding and a larger domestic production of fodder on Greenlandic fields.


In the above diagram there is a clear tendency toward greater effectiveness from the last truly disastrous winter, 1975-76, through to 2008. Over the past decade, production of sheep and lambs has reached a level of 20,000 to 24,000 animals slaughtered annually in Narsaq, and these figures currently tend to rise.

The number of domesticated animals has remained stable over the past six months, with a population of approx. 21,000. The last 10 years of production have thus been the most stable and, as a result, the nine years after the year 2000 have enjoyed the largest average production in the history of the sector, with an increase of 22% in comparison to the 1990s.

For additional information you can read the article: "Sheep Grazing in the North-Atlantic Region" (PDF, 2,5 MB).