Soay Sheep: Hardy, Low-Maintenance, and Eco-Friendly

The Toughest Miniature Sheep Breed from St. Kilda, Scotland

Soay Sheep: Hardy, Low-Maintenance, and Eco-Friendly

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What can be more suitable for the homestead than hardy, self-sufficient, naturally molting sheep? What can be more striking than a herd of graceful, deer-like ewes and rams with magnificent curling horns? How endearing are curious, playful animals, prancing across the meadow! Soay sheep are all of these things, and more … their unique nature makes them perfect for ecology management, low-input farming, and toughing out the harshest climates.

Hardy and Self-Sufficient Miniature Sheep

Soay sheep are small and light-footed, leaving little impact on the land, while grazing all manner of weeds and brush in preference to grass. This includes blackberry, thistle, and emerging poison oak. Their long history on the stormy north Atlantic islands of St. Kilda, Scotland, has given them a robust hardiness unknown to most modern sheep. Their primitive gene pool retains disease-resistant and parasite-tolerant traits, while their hooves need minimal maintenance. Short, thin tails avoid fly-strike and do not need docking. Best of all, they don’t need shearing. Soay shed their wool naturally in summer after lambing. Shepherds can simply roo their flock, which means gently plucking excess wool by hand. As sheep can remain standing for rooing, there is no need tip them. This makes rooing a less stressful experience and a good opportunity to bond.

molting-ewe
Ewe molting naturally. Photo credit: Jamain/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA.

Soay sheep spent many generations as ferals and know how to look after themselves. Ewes lamb easily and make excellent mothers, while lambs are quick risers. Although they mature slowly, ewes can continue lambing until 10 or 12 years old. With nimble bodies and strong legs, Soay actively explore and browse a variety of plants, climbing difficult terrain in their search for forage. Perfect for woodland and hill pastures, they make use of marginal land unsuitable for other sheep breeds. They are wary, alert to predators and rather shy, but they tame well with patient and gentle exposure to people. Then we can experience the charming and inquisitive side of their nature.

An Endangered Rare Sheep Breed

With these excellent qualities, why is this ancient breed now so rare? Human preference for white wool and larger, faster-growing animals drove remaining flocks to a remote existence on the Scottish Islands of St. Kilda, where they remain feral to this day. Despite the popularity of modern meat and fiber sheep, small farms, conservationists, and homesteaders are rediscovering the value of their flavorsome, lean meat, colored fiber, and landscape management skills.

feral-flock-lundy
Feral ram and ewes on the island of Lundy, UK. Photo credit: Nick Stenning/flickr CC BY-SA 2.0*.

History of Soay Sheep in Britain and St. Kilda, Scotland

Neolithic farmers gradually brought sheep to Europe from the Near East around 8000 years ago and into Britain about 6000 years ago. These sheep would have initially been similar to their ancestor, the mouflon, having hair coats with an insulating under-layer in winter. However, early farmers had already developed the undercoat to a fine wool and reduced the hair to a sparse kemp by the time Soay sheep were abandoned in St. Kilda. In 55 BCE, Romans documented small primitive sheep resembling Soay in the British Isles. These were soon crossed to hornless Roman sheep with lustrous, wavy fleece, until the original landrace was almost lost. A relict of Neolithic sheep has remained on the islet of Soay in St. Kilda for about 4000 years. The name comes from old Norse, Seyðoy, meaning island of sheep.

Soay is an uninhabited isle, facing ferocious winds and storms and unpredictable weather. Sheep living there were untouched by human selection since Roman times. Natural selection ensured that only the toughest have survived until the present day. Crofters lived on the larger, nearby island, Hirta, until 1930. They visited Soay to harvest feral sheep wool shed on the rocks. The wool was softer than their own flocks’ and more suitable for undergarments, gloves, and scarves. Weavers combined Soay wool with Hirta wool in tweed, which they bartered for rent or traded to tourists.

Rediscovering the Breed in the Twentieth Century

As the human population declined on Hirta, the final inhabitants left for the mainland, taking their livestock with them. Then, new owner, the Earl of Dumfries, populated Hirta with 107 Soay sheep from the neighboring islet. By 1952, the population on Hirta had grown to 1114 and have remained there since. Small numbers were taken to mainland Britain for parks and zoos, and later private enthusiasts.

british-soay-flock
Soay sheep flock in England. Photo credit: gailhampshire/flickr CC BY 2.0**.

In 1942, Soay were introduced to Lundy, an island off the southwest coast of England, where a feral population of about 200 head still range the island freely. By the end of the century, small exports from registered flocks in Britain spread to mainland Europe and North America.

Ecological and Historical Study

Archaeological evidence of Soay sheep’s long residence of the islet in a form only shaped by the natural environment gives historians a living link to our Neolithic past, demonstrating how far our ancestors had progressed in the domestication of sheep.

In addition, a long-term sheep project on Hirta since 1959 has produced ecological and genetic studies of their population dynamics, interaction with the environment, and evolution. The sheep show an unusual pattern of population boom and crash, so that numbers fluctuate between 700 and 2000 head. All adult females conceive, but the timing of storms can cause huge losses, particularly of rams and lambs during bad winters. Climate warming allows more of the smaller animals to get through the winter, so the population averages for body size are changing.

soay-ram-lundy
Soay Ram on Lundy. Photo credit: Pete O’Shea/flickr CC BY 2.0**. Most rams have two large horns, but a recessive gene is carried for scurs.

Genetic studies have gained a greater understanding of the survival of recessive genes in a population. Most Soay sheep have horns, although some have smaller deformed horns (scurs) and some ewes are polled. As mates with large horns are preferred by females, how do recessive genes that cause scurring get perpetuated? It appears that those same genes have health benefits, giving longevity, so more chances to mate. Rams that carry both genes then have the best of both worlds—long life and sexual attractiveness—so the gene gets passed on.

Soay Sheep in America

The first Soay lineage imported to Canada in 1974 was mainly lost due to crossbreeding. A further import in 1990 of two males and four females remained isolated for an immunology study just outside Montreal. The flock was maintained for 10 years although no longer needed for research, with only one outside ram brought in. Enthusiasts from Oregon bought three rams and two females in 1998–9. They registered the purebred animals and their lambs in the British registry. These were the foundation of an American conservation effort of enthusiasts dedicated to saving this endangered heritage sheep breed. In 2000, as the Montreal flock was sold, 19 more came to Oregon. Then in 2007, semen was imported from the UK. These pure descendants of the original Soay sheep are termed “British Soay”, whereas composite forms, such as “Blue Mountain”, make up “North American Soay”, which are generally larger.

soay-sheep-profile
Photo credit: Julian Paren CC BY-SA 2.0*.

Breed Profile

OriginScotland
Populationendangered
Purposeconservation, meat, wool
Adult weight M/F80/50 lb. (36/23 kg), slow growing
Lambing average0.8–1.5 per year, born April/May
Wool yield3–5 lb. per year, 2–6 in., soft to kempy, 44–50 microns
Appearancebrown or tan with pale belly and markings, some self-colored brown or tan
Horns2, both sexes
Temperamentshy but tamable, intelligent, curious, active, independent, good mothers
Adaptabilitycold-hardy, resistant to disease and foot rot, parasite-tolerant, thrifty browsers, self-sufficient
Needsextensive or rotated pasture, grass hay, water, shelter from rain and sun, good fencing (4 ft with 2×4 in. mesh)
soay-st-kilda-scotland
Color variants tan and brown on St. Kilda, Scotland. Photo credit: Eileen Henderson CC BY-SA 2.0*.

Sources

Links for licenses: *CC BY-SA 2.0. **CC BY 2.0.

Originally published in Countryside in January/February 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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