An attempt at understanding Icelandic sheep colors and patterns

Visiting Queso Cabeza farm really piqued my interest in working with breed specific fibers. I thought I’d try to learn more about the fleece I have in my craft room that I bought as raw fleece and washed with every intent of combing and spinning them up right away. That didn’t quite happen, but as I learn about the fleeces, it should inspire me to get them spun, right?


This weekend, at the local Spinner’s Flock meeting, I saw (and purchased) this book:


I may have been a bit too excited when I saw it, but it looked perfect for someone who was excited to be learning about sheep breeds. It was fun flipping through it last night. Did you know that there is a breed of sheep, called Ouessant, that only gets to be 19 inches tall at the withers (shoulder)? I didn’t, but they sure are cute! I managed to keep the thinking about how they’d be as a pet to a relatively short period of time.

Since the sheep they have at Queso Cabeza are Icelandic, I’ll start my study with them.  The geneticist in me is loving the challenge of understanding the Icelandic sheep colors. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook says “If you want an exercise in studying color genetics, Icelandic sheep will give it to you”. Bring it on!  Unfortunately it doesn’t go into Icelandic sheep colors. I’m back to remembering what Laura told me.

Apart from the challenge of getting everything I learned at Queso Cabeza correct (I believe that Laura will correct my errors), there will also be the challenge of keeping it simple and clear (and interesting). Here goes.

There is no such thing as a white colored Icelandic sheep. I know. You’re thinking, “I saw white Icelandic sheep in the picture of your last post!” Here’s that picture. Sure looks like there are white sheep to me. but their color isn’t white. White is a pattern. Yeah, it seemed odd to me at first, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Photo of Icelandic sheep at Queso Cabeza Farm

Brief genetic lesson. We have these genes (they live on chromosomes) that determine so much of what our bodies look like. We all have two copies of each gene, one from each parent. Sometimes one version of the gene will hide the effect of the other version.

Here’s an example from my life:  You know how when you get blood drawn they’ll tell you that you’re something like A+ or AB- or O+ or some combination of letters and a +/-? That +/- sign indicates Rhesus (Rh) factor. If you are “+”, you make the resus factor. If you are “-“, you don’t make the Rh factor.

I am Rh-. Mom was a bit confused (she asked “How did that happen?!”) when we found out that I was Rh- because both she and Dad are Rh+. Remember what I said about having two copies of each gene? Well, when they tell you that you are “+” or “-“, they are simplifying it because the relevant thing is whether you make it or not, but genetically speaking, when you’re “+”, you can have two copies of the “+” or one “+” and one “-” usually depicted as “+/-“. The “+” is dominant, it hides the “-“.

If you are Rh -, you can only have two copies of the “-” version of the gene. The “-” is recessive in that it is hidden by the other version of the gene, if you have it.

So for me to be Rh-, from two parents who are Rh+, they must both be Rh”+/-“, and I received the “-” version from both of them.

As an aside, my husband is also Rh-. Since there is nowhere for the “+” to come from, we know both of my daughters are also Rh-.


There are 3 genes that control the color and patterning of the sheep. The first is the actual color of the sheep, the base color. There are two colors, black and moorit, which is brown. Black is dominant, so if the sheep has a black version, the sheep will be black. The sheep only gets to be moorit if it doesn’t have any black versions of the gene. Two moorit sheep can only have moorit lambs because there is no way to get the black version into the lamb. Black sheep can have either color lambs depending on what versions of the gene they have. If they have a black version and a moorit version, they will be black but can have moorit lambs.

Another gene determines if the sheep will be spotted. Oddly enough it’s called “spotting”. No spotting is the dominant version. If the sheep has two of the “spotting” version, the sheep will have spots. The extent of the spotting is greatly variable. Spots can cover a large percentage of the sheep, or just a few small areas.

That’s where the simplicity ends.

The third and final gene is the “pattern” gene. This is an “agouti” locus. It affects the color of the wool along the length of the wool, but that isn’t necessary to go into for this post.

There are six (6?!?) versions of this gene. The sheep can have one or more than one version of this gene.

The white pattern is dominant, if the sheep doesn’t have one of the white pattern versions, the sheep will have the “solid” pattern. Within the white or solid patterns there are three variations; badgerface, grey, and mouflon. All are equally dominant and the sheep can express more than one (receiving one pattern from each parent)

Badgerface have lighter coloring on their back, sides and face with darker coloring on the chest and belly as well as around the eyes. I expect that this last is where the pattern got its name.

Mouflon is the opposite of Badgerface in that it is darker on the back and face with lighter coloring on the chest and belly

Grey appears to be a mixture of light and dark fibers giving a grey color to the areas where the color comes through

The sheep can also show silvering, which isn’t genetic, but shows a lighter coloring to the longer, outer coat.

Now let’s see if I can show you some of the possible colors in the picture above. I’ll admit that I’m guessing for some of this.

We’ll start with this trio of black sheep.

QuesoCabezaSheep2They are

1 black (not moorit)

2 solid (not white, grey, badgerface or mouflon)

3 not spotted


This one is

QuesoCabezaSheep1 1. black (you can see the black around the eyes)

2. White badgerface (you can see the dark around the eyes and the lighter color on the face, back and sides)

3. Probably not spotted.

QuesoCabezaSheep31. black

2. Grey solid (You can see the gray in the lighter colors on the side)

3. Spotted

I’d be less confident of this one, but she’s on the Queso Cabeza website and that’s how she’s listed.




QuesoCabezaSheep41 Moorit (brown)

2. Possibly solid, I can’t see a pattern from this view

3. Probably not spotted, again, it’s difficult to tell from this angle


QuesoCabezaSheep5 1. Moorit

2. Badgerface (you can see the darker chest and lighter back and sides)

3. Not spotted


  1. Black
  2. Solid
  3. Not spotted
  4. Silvering, because the grey looks like its frosting the outside of the locks rather than being gray for the whole length.



QuesoCabezaSheeptoo2I think this picture shows a couple examples of how the badgerface can appear, if I’ve got it figured out.

The one in the left side is black, badgerface

The one in back on the right is black, white badgerface because it has the white pattern.

The one in the middle is moorit solid.

I don’t have any pictures of sheep with the mouflon pattern

This is the point where people respond and tell me just how wrong I’ve gotten it.


To write this post, I used information from Laura at Queso Cabeza farm and The Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America  website.

I’ve washed the black, solid, not spotting lamb fleece that followed me home from the farm. It’s now dry and waiting for me to have a chance to spin it. I took pictures during the washing and will do the same during the combing and spinning from the locks that I plan to try with it and will post about that as well.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Michelle Fleming Written by:


  1. February 25, 2016

    You got the trio of black solid not-spotted sheep correct!

    The mostly-white ewe with the small colored patches on her face is Berniece. She does not have white pattern, but rather is heavily spotted. Her patterns are grey and badgerface. The grey is evident on closer inspection of the black woolly areas on her cheeks and head. I didn’t notice the visual evidence of her badgerface pattern (some tan markings on top of her head) until after she produced a badgerface lamb by a solid ram (who could only throw solid pattern – so the badgerface pattern had to come from mom). I have a cousin of Berniece’s who is also so heavily spotted, all her body wool is white and she just has some patches of color on her face. (Spotting arrangement also has a genetic component!)

    The gangly-adorable black grey spotted lamb is, indeed, black grey spotted. The black is obvious, of course. The grey would be noticeable if you parted the wool on the black areas of her body, revealing the light-colored thel underneath. The visible white on her body is spotting.
    The moorit by the feeder is mouflon pattern. He (his name is Fred, he’s a wether) has a rather vague mouflon pattern – he lacks the high-contrast chest. If you look closely, though, you can see the light markings at the front corners of his eyes, and the little bit of lighter coloring under his chin. And, you’re right about him being not-spotted.

    The next photo is Jordyn. You have correctly identified her as moorit badgerface. She is, however, spotted. Her colored body wool is so pale it is hard to distinguish from the spotted areas, especially this time of year when the sheep look grungy. Though, looking at that photo, I’m second-guessing whether she is spotted! I think she has a spot on top of her head, though, which would be pretty conclusive.

    The next photo is Cara. She is black. She is an enigma. Although her body wool looks like she is grey pattern, it really isn’t. It’s just lots and lots of silvering. Her thel (undercoat) is actually black, instead of white/grey/light as it would be in grey pattern. The ‘grey’ shading is actually in her tog, which would stay black (or moorit, as the case may be) on a grey-patterned sheep. There are a couple facial indicators of grey pattern – sugarlips, or light-colored fibers around the mouth, and eye rings, or light-colored fibers around the eyes – that are somewhat variable by individual but both clearly and completely absent on Cara.

    In the final photo, the sheep on the far left is black grey not-spotted. (I think it’s Fresca, but I’m not positive.) Notice the ring of light fibers around the mouth (LOTS of sugarlips – the amount varies throughout the year) and the narrower ring of light fibers around the eyes? The one on the right is Junior. She is black grey spotted (that cousin of Berniece’s I mentioned). (There is no such thing as white badgerface, btw. There is white pattern and badgerface pattern, but they don’t co-express, as the white pattern is completely dominant to badgerface.) The one in the middle is Fred again, the moorit mouflon wether who doesn’t have the courtesy to display his mouflon pattern in full obviousness (he ought to have a tannish ‘bib’ but doesn’t). So, you do have pictures of a sheep with mouflon pattern, just not the best example of it!

    You’ve gotten black and moorit completely correct. And you accept that white is a pattern, not a color. So, that already puts you ahead.

    It just occurred to me that you don’t have any designated photos of white pattern sheep! However, in the top photo, the two sheep in the bottom right corner are both white pattern. One is bright white (Dolly), and the other (Tansy) has the “antique linen” coloring of the secondary pigment phaeomelanin. Although phaeo can make a newborn white-pattern lamb look moorit, it has no genetic connection to the base color genes, and is just as likely to occur on black sheep as on moorit. (Phaeo also occurs frequently on mouflon pattern sheep, making them look moorit or grey even if they are black and not grey. It can influence solid, too, although that seems to be less frequent, and I suspect it happens to badgerfaces frequently but is not as noticeable because of the badgerface coloration.)

    If it makes you feel any better, I’ve been raising and breeding Icelandic sheep for a decade, and they can still sometimes throw me off! (You don’t even want me to get started on “flashing” on grey lambs that looks kind of like spotting but isn’t.)

  2. February 25, 2016

    I figured I wouldn’t get them all correct. It’s tough, especially if some details can’t be seen until they breed. Thank you for correcting me! I doubt I’ll get it all figured out, but I’ll try!

Comments are closed.