Soay Sheep Domestication
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The domestication of the Soay sheep is a rather odd one, having been domesticated centuries ago and semi-abandoned on a small island until the early 1900s.
By Sherri Talbot When one looks at a Soay sheep, it isn’t uncommon for those unfamiliar with the breed to believe they are looking at a strange goat. Their tiny stature, delicate legs, and horns tend to lend them a look that — to most people — says “goat.” By today’s standards, Soay are incredibly dainty, with a much finer, softer coat than one would get from most modern-day sheep.
The Soay is a sheep, producing wool rather than cashmere in the springtime. They are a primitive, semi-feral breed, and their development is designed for survival rather than enhanced production. Slender legs and light bone structures allow them to move amazingly quickly, but they only produce about a pound or two of wool per animal each year.
The specifics of sheep domestication have been lost over the centuries, so theories on the details can vary. It is undisputed that sheep were one of the first domesticated species. The general belief is that the first sheep breeds were domesticated about 10,000 years ago — at least 2,000 years after dogs and at about the same time as goats.
Mouflon were probably the first sheep domesticated — or at least used — by humans. Mouflon are not wool sheep, however, and were used only for their hides. Soay are thought by most historians to have been the first wool-bearing livestock breed, being domesticated between 6,000 to 9,000 years ago. Most historians believe that closer to 6,000 is more likely. Other, more productive modern-day sheep developed centuries later with more advanced breeding techniques to create the sheep we have now.
Today, Soay are described as “feral” rather than “wild” because evidence suggests these sheep did not evolve on the island of Soay and were likely a result of some earlier domestication. Their isolation on the island of Soay is estimated to be sometime in the mid 19th century.
As with so much else, why the Soay were abandoned on their island is speculation. Speculations revolve around the introduction of other, more profitable sheep to the St. Kilda islands. Since the incredibly hardy Soay would have been tough competition for these newer but more productive breeds, experts believe that they were moved to the island to allow the new breed more leisurely grazing.
Evidence suggests inhabitants of the main island returned once a year or less. Soay island was difficult to access, meaning long periods between visits. These trips may have been for visitors to collect the fleece of the Soay or to hunt them. Whatever the reasons for the trips, humans were not present enough to selectively breed or care for the sheep. Even without human intervention, with the lack of predators and their adaptability, the Soay thrived.
Soay were only rediscovered on Soay island in fairly recent history, and it wasn’t until the 1920s and 30s that they began to be transported off the island and spread throughout the world. They weren’t available in North America until the 1990s. The introduction of the Soay to small homesteads and conservation programs has helped increase the population but can have its pros and cons for breeders when compared to common, domestic breeds.
Soay are one of the last wool breeds to shed their coat. They rub themselves on branches, bushes, and other available objects to pull the old winter fleece off each year. This means that homesteaders without the desire or ability to shear sheep are still able to produce fiber. Today, it is more common for shepherds to “roo” or pluck the wool from their Soay when it starts to shed, so it isn’t necessary to wait for them to shed in bits and pieces. Non-breeding ewes and castrated rams will not shed, however, since they lack the hormonal changes needed to lose their winter coats. In these cases, shearing is still necessary.
Each animal also produces much less wool than its modern counterparts. For those who are looking to support themselves financially with fiber, the tiny amount of fiber a Soay produces pales in comparison to the production of a contemporary fleece, which can be up to 30 pounds.
Soay are also used as a meat breed, producing a small carcass, but one that is incredibly lean. Soay meat — even young animals — possesses a distinct, intense flavor that does not match what we often think of as “lamb.” It is more suited to a hearty stew than a leg of lamb in most cases. This means that for those sensitive to “gamey” or strongly flavored meats, Soay might be a difficult dish to adapt to.
They are generally easy to care for, however. Soay tend to be a vigorous breed, showing parasite resistance and producing lambs without assistance. Even first-time birthing ewes will deliver without intervention and usually have excellent mothering instincts. Tails do not require docking, and Soay do well on pasture and fresh water. Shepherds often use grains only to get the sheep conditioned to coming in for health checks or sometimes for pregnant ewes in the winter. However, the wild nature of the Soay does mean that lambs are likely to be bred in their first fall if not separated, and ram lambs become active very young.
The change in environment between the island Soay sheep was adapted to, and mainland areas can also require breeders to adapt for the sake of the sheep. For instance, the island of Soay does not have blowflies, making flystrike a non-existent concern on the island but a significant concern for those raising sheep elsewhere. Also, many shepherds use dogs to move and contain sheep, but the feral breeds often do not flock in the same way that modern breeds do. This means that if dogs are used, they need to be specifically trained to deal with the Soay tendency to scatter and regroup when frightened.
The main barrier to conservation is the lack of available animals. New breeders may be reluctant to expend the cost and effort on an animal that may be difficult to replace, and experienced breeders may give up after years of struggling to find new genetics. This results in numbers dwindling due to the available animals being scattered too far to make breeding reasonable.
Here in the United States, there are the additional challenges of registering animals “across the pond” in the UK and finding available British Soay. Since there are also “American Soay” — a cross between true Soay and other breeds — registered animals are necessary to verify they are purebreds. Previously, registration and oversight of rare UK breeds was done exclusively by the Rare Breed Survival Trust out of Europe. This also led to complications for new breeders interested in raising stock and finding breeding animals.
Hopefully, the introduction of the Soay to the Livestock Conservancy will make this process easier for conservation breeders in North America. For those interested in conservation breeding and rare breeds — or even simply interested in having a small, manageable animal on their homestead — the Soay can be a fantastic addition to anyone’s program. We have indeed found them well worth what little effort they have required.
SHERRI TALBOT is the co-owner and operator of Saffron and Honey Homestead in Windsor, Maine. She raises endangered livestock breeds and educates on heritage breeds, sustainable living, and the importance of eating locally.
Originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.