A rural Norwegian experience: Sauesanking, bringing the sheep home
John Erik Stacy
Norwegian American Weekly
If you have friends or relatives in Norway, chances are some of them are sheep-farmers. Late September through October every year, Norwegian sheep-farmers sank (find and retrieve) their flocks from mountain pastures. Your farmer friends or relatives may be happy to have able-bodied help in this yearly routine.
Sauesanking is something like a hike with the purpose of locating and leading (or driving) the flocks to a corral in a valley. The sheep have spent their summer grazing the grasses on high plateaus and mountainsides, but now need to be gathered back to barns for shearing and slaughter.
Not surprisingly, sheep show mixed feelings about leaving their mountain haunts. Flurries and sleeting rains may incentivize their movement in the direction of the corral. On the other hand, there might also be late season sun-bursts that leave the sheep happy where they are. Coaxing sheep toward the corral may involve using meal or a sheep dog. But in my experience, sanking is usually done by driving the flocks down the mountainside toward the river and the corral.
The first time I got a taste of herding sheep was about 25 years ago. I was invited to join a friend and several others in Raundalen near Voss. My friend is Brynjulv Norheim Junior, and at the time we were students at the University of Oslo. His father, Brynjulv Senior, still runs the Norheim farm, but is in the process of handing over responsibilities to his oldest son (odelsgutten) David.
I have lost count of how many times I have participated in smalasanking (as it is called in Voss). My guess is that it is somewhere between ten and fifteen times. Sometimes we would trudge up the trail from Mjøllfjelltunet along the Veseto River to Vesetvatnet and its surrounding slopes. In other cases we would start from a place called Voddlen (a word that in most of Norway would be Vollen and essentially means a relatively flat area). Here we would need to cross the Bergensbanen train tracks as well as the footbridge over the Kleivelvi that runs the length of Raundalen and flows into Vangsvatnet in Voss. The trail out of Voddlen leads up to a shepherding cabin called Voddlestølen and the lake named Voddlebotten. North of Voddlebotten is Voddleranden, which is to say the ridge above the lake. This ridge or rand butts into the slopes that surround Vesetvatnet and the meeting point holds a lake called Vetlavatnet (little lake). The slope that falls away from Voddleranden toward the river is Vindaset.
Yes, there is a name for just about every bump, rock or puddle in the area. But this not surprising—well, maybe the overuse of the letter “V” is surprising—considering that finding the sheep can be dependent on communicating logistics for the sankere. We would often start the morning discussing who would go where. Some of us would go to what we hoped would be the highest likely point for the sheep to be hiding: a pasture above Trollvatnet. From here we could scan across most of the domain and listen for sheep bells. When all went well, the sheep would gather from small flocks to a herd of about 50 as we drove them down. Helpers below would entice with a bag of feed or block side routes to escape. The lakes and rivers formed barriers we used to direct movement. As we neared the corral there were fences that helped channel the flock. Some sheep would test the fence, lodging their heads in a persistent attempt to break through the wire, needing to be pulled free by one of us. Eventually we would drive them across the bridge and train tracks at Voddlen and load them onto trailers to be brought back to the main farm.
Things didn’t always go smoothly, however. Some attempts failed to find any sheep. Worst case scenario, they had crossed the gap in Fessanuten and were on the Ulvik side enjoying the view of Hardangerfjord. In other cases all seemed to be going as planned until somehow they got around us and bolted back up to familiar pastures. In most cases it took more than one outing to get all the sheep down.
In either case, there was the well-deserved reward of hardy food on our return to Norheim farm. Often the meal was a soup made from fenalår leftovers. Fenalår is a dried and salted leg-of-lamb usually eaten with flatbread and sour cream, but once you have carved it down there is a soup-bone remaining that makes an excellent broth. There might, of course, also be smalahove, although this tends to come a week or so later (smala = sheep, hove = head). And there is heimebrygg, which is to say home-brewed beer. Brynjulv Senior once told me there were seven flavors in heimebrygg: malt, yeast, hops, juniper, smoke, a sixth one that no one can remember, and the seventh flavor is (punch-line) meirsmak. I didn’t get the joke either and had to have it explained carefully that meirsmak (more-taste) is the desire to taste more.
So if you want an experience that is a little beyond Norway in a Nutshell and have the opportunity to travel in the autumn, find out if you have any connections with sheep. Rural life in Norway can be surprisingly interesting. Voss is perhaps the premier small town in Norway, with music festivals and other amazing cultural experiences. But I am sure you can find experiences similar to mine all over Norway. The weather is unpredictable and the hiking is physically demanding, but there are many that wouldn’t have it any other way.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 16, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.