Breeding and Lambing in Soay
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For those new to sheep, the ease of Soay lambing can be great for a beginner and certainly makes it worth considering this unique breed.
By Sherri Talbot The Soay sheep is a small, primitive sheep, originally found wild only on the St. Kilda Islands off the coast of Scotland. While still on the islands, they are also bred domestically in the United Kingdom and the United States, often as part of conservation programs. Its naturally shedding wool and manageable size make it attractive to many, but the ease with which they lamb is often the central selling point. Both wild and domestic ewes are known for their mothering instincts, with complications being rare.
Like many herding animals, Soay rams fight for dominance in the wild. The most powerful rams are usually horned, larger, and more aggressive than their rivals. This isn’t to say that younger rams aren’t willing and able to sneak in with the leftover ladies when they can, but most offspring in a flock will be from one or two males, who will breed up to 10 ewes each.
Since the dominant male often breeds for more than one generation, line breeding (rams breeding their daughters or mothers) in wild flocks is common. However, the average Soay male lives only about six years, meaning the main sire of a flock is likely to change frequently.
While ewes in heat are eager to be bred, this doesn’t mean they are satisfied with any available male. Ewes show a preference for bigger males in most flocks. While it may be simply a matter of desiring the strongest male, there are other, more complex theories around this favoritism by females.
The most direct theory is that being bred by a larger ram keeps the ewe from being harassed by the young males that may travel with the flock. Since the dominant sire keeps most of the ewes for himself, an available, unprotected ewe may find herself chased and harassed by any number of eager suitors. This can be especially problematic for young ewes since a dominant ram with many breeding partners is likely to choose older ewes first, leaving the young and inexperienced at the mercy of the other males.
Another theory involves the medical health of the ram in question. Even rams of the same age can vary in size, and those with a lower tolerance for parasite loads are smaller on average. This means (to maintain the parasite-resistant gene) larger rams are a better evolutionary choice.
In a domestic flock, many of these breeding patterns change. Heritage conservation breeders may be working with small numbers of animals, be more concerned about tracking parentage and reducing inbreeding than Mother Nature, and are less willing to follow “survival of the fittest.”
Management methods vary, depending on how much control the breeder wants. Some allow for more natural breeding programs by running a ram or two with their ewes year-round. In other programs, rams are often separated from lambs and ewes to give the breeder more control over parentage.
The attempts to develop more natural programs can be complex since a ram in a domestic flock can commonly live for 10 years or more. This means more extended breeding periods for dominant males and more line-bred offspring. Also, determining parentage — necessary for registering the offspring — can get expensive if there are multiple rams. Multiple mature rams can lead to fighting, which some people are uncomfortable with. And finally, since Mother Nature isn’t likely to cull as hard as she would in a wild flock, line-bred sheep need to be culled harder by the breeder to weed out negative recessive genes.
For those programs choosing to keep their ewes separated, tracking parentage and registration becomes much easier, and genetic diversity is easier to guarantee. The breeder can also ensure lambs are not bred before hitting a safe size and that older ewes are not bred if it becomes risky. These programs often sell off or butcher most of the lambs each year to prevent inbreeding the following year. In other cases, they may keep several rams or swap out their ram with other breeding programs every few years for diversity. However, this depends on a new ram being available when needed.
Programs may also adopt some combination of these methods, such as rotating their rams between groups of ewes. This allows for keeping specific bloodlines together to balance inbreeding and genetic diversity. The larger the flock, the easier it is to keep genetics varied.
Breeding is usually in November and December, with lambing in April or May. However, early and late lambs are also possible if the ram is left with the flock. Since lambs are born wet and without their parents’ heavy winter wool, early births can be dangerous for the young. Soay Island temperatures can get below freezing but are generally more moderate than in some of the northern United States. Also, snowfall is limited on Soay, with rain being far more likely.
Still, in our experience, lambs born in early March have done well with just a simple shelter. Ewes should give birth easily and without assistance — ours took only about 20 minutes! The lambs are born about three pounds, and most ewes have singles, with occasional twins. A healthy lamb should be on their feet and nursing quickly, usually in less than a half hour. It isn’t unusual for us to head down to the fields and find a spring lamb or two already dry and moving with the flock. Mothers are usually hyper-attentive until the lamb is several days old, especially first-time moms.
A Soay lamb’s tiny size makes them a target for predators, which can be during the actual birth when the smell may attract coyotes or other hunters. However, ariel predators are also a concern. Many people don’t consider that an eagle can carry off five or six pounds! Especially if the ram is not kept with the ewes and lambs, some sort of protection for lambs and mothers alike is wise.
Many breeds of sheep can result in a lambing season full of lost sleep and assisted births. For those new to sheep, the ease of Soay lambing can be great for a beginning shepherd and certainly makes it worth considering this unique breed. And certainly, there is nothing quite like a springtime pasture full of tiny, healthy lambs.
Originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.