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How sheep with cameras got some tiny islands onto Google Street View

A resident of the Faroe Islands used sheep to create an innovative mapping system that helped connect the islands with the world. (Video: Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)

The Faroe Islands, a remote archipelago that juts out of the cold seas between Norway and Iceland, doesn’t even appear on some world maps. But as of last week, the verdant slopes, rocky hiking trails and few roads of the 18 islands are on Google Street View — and a team of camera-toting sheep helped get them there.

When the islands’ tourism board decided last year that it wanted to get the company’s attention, it knew it would need an unusual pitch. It also knew that its rugged terrain would not be easily traversed by those Google cars that ply city streets worldwide, snapping photos. So it strapped solar-powered, 360-degree cameras onto the backs of a few shaggy Faroese sheep and began uploading the resulting, and very breathtaking, images to Street View itself.

The whole sheep idea — which the tourism board called “Sheepview 360” — was not such a stretch. Sheep are a big deal in the Faroe Islands, an autonomous nation within the Kingdom of Denmark whose name translates to “islands of the sheep.” The islands’ distinct breed is believed to have been imported by Norse settlers in the 9th century, and today about 80,000 sheep live there, far outnumbering the 50,000 people. Tourism official Levi Hanssen said most Faroese have some connection to raising sheep, about one-third of which are slaughtered for meat; the others are used for wool and dairy products.

And although all the sheep are owned, they roam freely — usually.

“It’s not very easy putting cameras on sheep,” Hanssen, the content manager for, said in an interview. “We would just stand there, and they would stand there and look at us. You have to, in some way, get them to move.”

Move they eventually did, and the tourism board was soon posting videos and maps of the sheep videographers’ movements on its website. It held a naming contest for one sheep on the crew. (The winning submission: “Baaa-bra.”) Locals and visitors were encouraged to share photos of the Faroe Islands on social media with the hashtags #WeWantGoogleStreetView and #VisitFaroeIslands.

It didn’t take long for the media-friendly story to make its way to Google, which pronounced it “shear brilliance.” Last summer, the company visited the islands and loaned out one of its eyeball-like Street View Trekkers, as well as some 360-degree cameras for human use. In a blog post, the former tourism board employee who spearheaded the campaign, Durita Dahl Andreassen, explained that those would be handed out to locals and tourists alike and that they would be attached to “sheep, bikes, backpacks, ships and even a wheelbarrow.”

“We, obviously, couldn’t map the whole country with sheep,” Hanssen said.

Last week, the Faroe Islands made its debut on Google Street View. Most images ended up being captured by humans, and they included all public roads and hiking trails. But Hanssen said the tourism board decided to leave some spots out to preserve a bit of the islands’ mystery.

Sheepview was charming, but it was at heart a marketing bid — and a successful one, said Hanssen, who said it had a “PR value we could never have bought ourselves.” Hotel reservation rates, the country’s primary yardstick for measuring tourism, are up at least 10 percent this year, he said. Visitors tend to be outdoorsy types, but the islands are also increasingly attracting gourmands who come for “really good, locally sourced food,” Hanssen said.

The tourism board has moved on to a new, sheep-free effort to get Google Translate to include Faroese, which descends from old Norse.

As for the sheep that made Street View happen? They retired from filming, Hanssen said. He wasn’t sure, however, whether any ended up as someone’s locally sourced dinner.

“Their job,” he said, “was done.”

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