Sunday, March 18, 2007

Soay Sheep

I'm so interested in these sheep, and I'm guessing a lot of other homesteading-minded folks are, too...or will be.

I'll be listing reasons I like these sheep, but there's no accounting for one of the primary ones...their charm. They're just so darned beautiful! And about knee-high, depending on how tall you are.

In investigating types of sheep and suitability for small acreage, it was my good fortune to run across the Soay on a rare breeds list. Its keepers and enthusiasts are a very loyal and enthusiastic bunch. They are also very helpful towards prospective and first-time owners.

The Soay has a lot going for it. It is considered a primitive breed, hailing in origin from an island chain off the coast of Scotland. It has survived for a long time as a hardy breed of small sheep thriving in the wild. It has its own distinctive behaviors and characteristics, and certainly its undeniable charm (at least to folks like me!).

Soay sheep have wool that sheds itself (see picture of ewe shedding), and can often be plucked, rather than sheared. The wool consists of two distinct fibers prized by handspinners and handcrafters. There are a variety of wool colors and patterns, and some breeders specialize their focus on a particular "type" through line or traditional breeding practices, while others allow herds to breed as they would in the wild. Each practice preserves a particular emphasis within the breed, and all help assure its survival.

Soay are said to have mild and delicious meat, prized in gourmet and specialty circles. Their herding instinct is not common to most domestic sheep, and they range more loosely than in tight clusters. Their conformation is delicate and deer-like, and they are very small in stature. They are useful in browsing underbrush, and have been used in conservation efforts since their small size allows for minimal damage to plants and pasture. They can consume unwanted invasives as poison ivy and poison oak, yet are not destructive to the larger plants.

Soays can be managed in small pastures, since they gain a sense of safety in small areas rather than large pasturage. Livestock guard animals must be bonded to the sheep slowly, and herding dogs must be adapted to the special instincts of the Soay, herding it from a distance loosely rather than trying to confine and move the sheep in a tightly packed herd.

The Soay ewes are said to be very hardy, and lamb without assistance. They can produce singles or twins, and are attentive mothers to their young. The ewes can be horned or polled. The rams are horned. The breed is hardy, and while needing basic sheep care and nutrition, is vigorous and low-maintenance in comparison with many other sheep breeds.

Fencing must have no gaps near ground-level and must be to at least a height of 4 feet. Shelter can be very basic, and does not have to be large.

I was hoping to post some pictures of Soay here so folks who've never heard of this breed might see what initially caught my eye when searching for small rare breeds. The beautiful pictures you see here are used permission Julie Suffolk and Janette Beveridge of the Soay Sheep Society in the UK. Please enjoy the link on my sidebar for further information from the Society. They are an invaluable group and resource for anyone in pursuit of Soay research and animals. Thank you, Julie, for your help in making these photos available to the homesteading community.

This brief blog summary only scratches the surface of the fascinating history and research available about the Soay. I'm hoping I might meet or hear from others who have a similar interest, from any location, as there are no Soay breeders this far south in the U.S. as far as I'm aware.

Hope you enjoy knowing more about these little guys as much as I am :)


Kathie Miller said...

Hi Robbyn,
What a lovely post about Soay sheep. One point ewes and rams can also be scurred- have short misshapen horns. This is not often seen in husbanded flocks but is seen regularly on St. Kilda. White spotting is very rare in the wild flocks, most sheep are brown or tan with white belly and rump patch.

In the US these sheep are referred to as British Soay, but are often confused with the American Soay which is an American hybrid.

There is a British Soay flock in South Carolina (Oak Knoll Farm)if you are interested in seeing the sheep in person and they will exhibited at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in May by Old Line Soays of Maryland.
Best wishes

Kathie Miller

Amber said...

Hi. I have been searching for Soay sheep for purchase in Texas. Did you ever start raising some? Do you know of any breeders nearby? Thank you!

Robbyn said...

Hi Amber, thanks for writing! We never were able to develop the property we owned back then due to access difficulties so we purchased another property a couple years ago and are still in the process of fencing and clearing it. At this point we have not seen any Soay sheep in Florida and will likely start with Barbados Blackbelly sheep since they are easier to find here and are equipped for the heat and climate...if you do get some Soay sheep I would love to know how they do for you in the Texas climate!