Vegetarian single mom not sheepish about her new life breeding rare Icelandic livestock

Icelandic livestock
Kathryn Stuart unexpectedly "fell into" a life of sheep when she moved to her family farm in the Ottawa Valley.

If you’d asked her six years ago, Kathryn Stuart would never have predicted where she would find herself today. 

Allergic to animals and a vegetarian of nearly 30 years, Stuart was a single mother of four living and homeschooling her children in Montreal, where she was a yoga teacher, reflexologist and musician.

Fast forward, and Stuart now lives in overalls and rubber boots, working the land on her farm in Eganville, where she breeds rare Icelandic livestock.

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“If you had said this was my future, I would have said it was a mistake,” Stuart laughs.

After years of travelling before settling in Montreal, once the homeschooling laws changed in Quebec, Stuart decided to return to her home province of Ontario with her children. It was then that she moved into an old farmhouse, one that had been in her family for centuries and rented out. The property, originally about 300 acres, had belonged to her family since the 1800s.

Not long after moving to the now-95-acre farm, Stuart’s children began wanting to take advantage of the country lifestyle.

“I was allergic to animals. The kids wanted sheep and chickens and I said, ‘No way,’” she laughs. “But they said they wanted to do everything. They built all the pens and fences, so I started researching hypoallergenic sheep. People were claiming that the Icelandic sheep were.”

Since then, Stuart’s allergies have “mysteriously disappeared,” she says. And a good thing, too, since her farm is now home to two peacocks, 26 sheep and a variety of dogs, cats, geese and ducks. Even more rare than the peacocks, though, are the Icelandic sheep and chickens that are the claim to fame for the farm, now known as Northern Viking Farm.

“I have a fatal allergy to eggs, but these eggs are 79 per cent genetically different. The chickens and sheep have so many unique qualities,” Stuart, 45, explains. “I don’t particularly like chickens or sheep, but I like ours.

“I fell into this without realizing and now, oh my gosh, I’m obsessed,” she says. “When they’re purebred registered, you can look up their genetics all the way back to Iceland. I didn’t know anything about any of this before and I just fell into it.”

Icelandic chickens, like the roosters pictured, boast a vibrant array of colours and patterns.

Icelandic chickens owe their distinct genetics to the Vikings, who isolated and kept the chickens from the rest of the world for more than 1,000 years.

Similarly, the type of Icelandic sheep that are kept at the farm date back 1,100 years and are equally valued for their hair fibre, milk and meat. The sheep thrive on a grass-fed diet, can be kept as milk sheep, and are especially hardy when it comes to cold Ottawa Valley winters. They’re born in nearly 100 variations of patterns and colours of fleece, making for an exciting surprise each lambing season, Stuart says, and interesting, vibrant wool.

Some of the sheep in Stuart’s flock even boast names consistent with their Viking heritage, such as Gandalf, Gudrun and Ragnarok.

“I have been a vegetarian since I was 13, so it’s an even weirder thing,” laughs Stuart, whose family has Norse heritage. “I was a vegan for 15 years and I don’t eat eggs. But the kids eat everything.”

Gudren and friend at home at Northern Viking Farm.

Now, when she isn’t homeschooling her children, Stuart spends her days caring for the many animals on the farm, researching sheep genetics, travelling the region to breed her sheep and sell her wares, and exploring everything else her new life has to offer.

In addition to selling grass-fed Icelandic lamb, Stuart offers breeding stock for both sheep and chickens. Her children have also risen to the occasion, with her 14-year-old forging “Viking spear” utensils and traditional wares; her 12-year-old hand-turning wooden bowls, plates, drop spindles and decorations; and the seven-year-old handcrafting leather bracelets. 

Wool products made from the sheep’s unique double-layered fleece are also popular, Stuart says.

“We started getting into the wool during the pandemic because we couldn’t get anyone out here to shear, so the kids and I started with scissors,” she recalls. “Now I shear them, wash the wool in an old bathtub, dry them in the sun, and it goes through a picker.”

The “roving,” or raw fibre, as well as yarn and felting wool, are featured on Northern Viking’s website.

The grass-fed Icelandic sheep show off their double-layered fleeces in the setting sun.

The family travels to local markets and craft shows to sell their wares Viking-style, but with recent support from Enterprise Renfrew County’s Starter Company Plus program, Stuart says she has lots of plans in the works. 

After completing the program, which she said was “intense and wonderful,” Stuart received a grant for Northern Viking, which she says will be a huge boost for operations.

She was able to purchase a breeding ram linked back to the first export of sheep out of Iceland, allowing for older genetics in her sheep. The grant will also go toward a freezer and coolers to support meat sales, advertising and marketing materials, and a revamp of Stuart’s farm kitchen to meet health unit guidelines.

Until now, word of mouth has been the main source of customers, but Stuart says she’s also planning to build an online store and ramp up marketing efforts. 

And this life of wool, fields and hard work is full circle for Stuart, who only learned after starting the farm that her family has deep ties to the craft. 

“My dad grew up on this property with a flock of sheep and my great-grandfather on my mother’s side had sheep,” she says. “But people were moving away from farming, getting an education, moving away from that lifestyle and thinking it was embarrassing.

“But I love it.”

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