Meeting Free-Ranging Sheep In Norway (Are Sheep Really Just Hanging Out In The Mountains?)

Many tourists are surprised by the sheer amount of sheep that are wandering around in the Norway forests and mountains, and there are in fact over 2,000,000 free-ranging sheep in Norway every autumn.

These sheep are almost like a national symbol to Norway, and it’s nearly impossible to miss meeting free-ranging sheep if you are hiking in Norway unless you visit in the middle of winter.

But how should you act, and what should you do if you meet these free-ranging sheep while out on a hike in Norway?

When you meet free-ranging sheep while hiking in Norway, either ignore them or see if they want to be petted. Most people just leave them alone and keep hiking, but there’s nothing wrong with interacting with them or taking a photo.

Free ranging sheep in Norway
Free ranging sheep in Norway. Photo published with permission.

A general rule of thumb is to not feed the sheep anything, and they have more than enough food (seeing as they eat grass).

Some sheep will be pretty shy to humans and run away if you get too close, but other will let you approach them. Some sheep might even come close to you if you call for them.

It is considered OK to pet them if they come close to you, but most sheep will probably not let you do that. If they clearly don’t want to be touched or petted, then don’t.

And if you do touch or pet one; wash your hands before eating our touching your face afterwards. Sheep are far from the most hygienic animal!

Sheep in the forest of Norway
Sheep in the forest of Norway. Photo published with permission.

Where can you find free-ranging sheep in Norway?

You can find free-ranging sheep all over Norway, from the furthest point south until Northern Norway. The only big exception is in areas with predators, especially where we have brown bears and wolves. There tend to be less sheep in Northern Norway than in the south, east or west.

Read more: All you need to know about brown bears in Norway.

So you don’t need to look a particular place to find free-ranging sheep. As long as you’re hiking in Norway, chances are that you will hear or meet sheep on your journey. Most people will also see lots of free-ranging sheep from their car, bus or even train.

Free ranging sheep with lambs in Lofoten
Free ranging sheep with lambs in Lofoten. Photo published with permission.

The sheep tend to stay in the forest during the summer, then move up towards higher altitude in the early autumn. So you won’t find many sheep in the forest any more after the end of July.

The migration from forest to mountain is just a rule of thumb, and not all sheep will have access to both these ecosystems. This means that it’s a good chance of meeting sheep in the summer in places like Hardangervidda where there’s no lowlands or forest for the sheep to graze in.

Why are the sheep living in the wild in Norway?

Only 3 % of Norway’s land is suitable for farming, but almost 50 % of it is suitable for grazing. It just makes sense to let the sheep eat their grasses in places that would otherwise be unused!

Many farmers let their sheep loose in early summer to let them go into the wild to graze on the grasses and herbs there. They are all by themselves until the middle of autumn when the farmer will get them down to the farm again.

While the sheep are by themselves for the most parts, most farmers check up on them fairly often. It’s also more and more common for farmers to have GPS collars on them to be able to know exactly where they are at all times.

The farmers need to get the sheep back to the farm in time for slaughter in the autumn. This is typically done either with a herding dog like a border collie, or by a big group of people that shepherd the sheep towards the farm.

Some farmers have this sauesanking (sheep collection) as part of a public gathering where anyone, including tourists, can join the herding of the sheep. It’s actually a pretty nice experience to partake in. This happens in the first two weeks of September.

Skiing with dog
Border collies like this one are often used to herd free-ranging sheep. Photo published with permission.

The benefits of free-ranging sheep

Both farmers and agricultural scientists argue that there are many benefits for letting the sheep be on their own in the Norwegian wilderness compared to staying fenced in.

The biggest argument is that they have a sense of freedom, and they will have a higher quality of life by being able to go wherever they want to, eat what and where they want, and choose their own groups.

Most sheep form smaller groups with family members when being on free-range, they seem to have a sense of which sheep they enjoy being with and who to stay away from.

Another big benefit is that they provide an ecosystem service by grazing on smaller bushes that would otherwise grow big. Norway actually has a big problem with the fact that the wilderness if growing too rapidly, and this is a big threat to certain animal species and landscapes.

This might sound a bit counter-intuitive to some, but there are over 300 different endangered species (mostly invertebrates) which rely on a specific cultural landscape that can only be made by grazing animals such as sheep.

Sheep in a Norwegian forest
Sheep in a Norwegian forest. Photo published with permission.

The Norwegian sheep breeds

There are several sheep breed that are used in Norway. The most common one is called Norsk kvit sau, which can be translated to Norwegian white sheep. This is the breed you are most likely to encounter in the wild in Norway, and about 65 % of all Norwegian sheep are of this breed.

You can see a Norsk kvit sau at the top photo of this article. This sheep provides a lot of wool, but comes at a serious cost of being generally unfit for defending against predators or traveling in uneven terrain. These have a higher mortality rate due to fall accidents, predator attacks, broken legs than any of the other sheep species.

There are a total of six different Norwegian sheep species, and the other five are much better adapted at the Norwegian nature than the Norsk kvit sau is.

Some of the more durable Norwegian sheep breeds are the Spælsau (Old Norwegian Short Tail Landrace) and Gammelnorsk sau (Old Norwegian sheep). These are much better at defending against predators, and much more unlikely to die from the weather or nature conditions. They will form a tight group that can actually fend of certain predators without too much trouble.

Some of these sheep are very slender and have big, curly horns, so many tourists mistake them for goats. We do have some free-ranging goats in Norway as well, but this is very rare.

Gammelnorsk sau
Gammelnorsk sau / Old Norwegian Sheep. Photo by Karl Ragnar Gjertsen / CC BY-SA 3.0.

While using better suited sheep breed might sound amazing, their wool is of much less quality, and they have a lot less mean on them when it’s time for slaughter. So many farmers prefer the breeds that aren’t as good at surviving by themselves in the wild, but that will give more wool and meat.

1 thought on “Meeting Free-Ranging Sheep In Norway (Are Sheep Really Just Hanging Out In The Mountains?)”

  1. The absolute losers in this tradition of almost sacrosanct free-range sheep (and yes I remember it well as a child growing up in Norway, always encountering sheep or hearing their bells on my father’s cabin just below the treeline in northern Telemark) is the Grey wolf and the Lynx! Protecting the livelihood of the owners of the 2 million sheep, many of these purposefully left to roam without shepherds or guard dogs as they are for example in the Alps or in North-western Spain, because of what? A Norwegian tradition? Because the free-range sheep have a better quality of life? Who is to say the sheep in the Alps and Spain have a lesser quality of life? And then allowing the heavy and not very agile Norsk Kvit sau to graze in woodland along the border between Norway & Sweden, which is often the preferred hunting ground of both wolf and lynx and then call for the cull of both! Norway, together with Sweden, is becoming a pariah among the nature conservation community of Europe. And then my country sees fit to kill a female walrus in her legendary search back to her home range. I never before thought I’ would say or indeed write this but I am deeply ashamed of my country with regard to its attitude and treatment of its wild animals and especially predators that are vital links in healthy thriving and sustainable ecosystems


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