Boreray Sheep

The Boreray is one of the UK’s primitive breeds and part of the Northern short-tailed group.  It is a small breed with ewes weighing around 30kg and rams 45kg.  The face and legs are black, tan or grey, often with dark speckles on a white background.  Both sexes are usually horned and the horns of the rams are large and spiralled; ewes may occasionally be scurred or polled. 

Borerays are very hardy, will do well on sparse grazing and are able to cope with most conditions.  There is also evidence that they have a high level of resistance to foot-rot and flystrike, so they are a useful breed for some grazing sites where other sheep would struggle.  The breed is long-lived with ewes often lambing into their teens; average lambing percentage of lowland flocks is approximately 140%, although in upland flocks the average is less.  They have very few lambing problems, and lambs are small and lively.

The Boreray has an excellent flavour and is generally slaughtered as hogget or mutton for a bigger carcass and should be hung for at least a week before cutting.  They are slow maturing and finish off grass at 18 months for hogget or older for mutton.  The meat is delicious with a rich, full flavour and described as juicy and tender.  Slow cooking is beneficial for mutton but if it is well hung it is very tasty roasted.

Many Boreray shed their fleece naturally, allowing for it to be rooed (plucked off) rather than shorn.  The wool is predominantly cream or light tan in colour, with a small proportion of sheep having grey or dark brown wool (animals can be born completely black or with large patches of black, but these usually change to cream or light tan as they mature, although occasionally these animals stay black).  There is sometimes a dark rump patch, and a dark collar, particularly in rams.

For crafting, the fleece can be spun as a whole, or with the two coats separated.  The fleece felts easily and takes dye well.  The undercoat makes a fine and very soft yarn that can be spun for lace knitting.  The outercoat alone can be spun for robust or specialist uses such as rugs or twine.  The mixed coat yarn has good definition for textured knitting.

They have a close geographical and social link with Soay sheep, but the two breeds are genetically distinct with differing origins.  What are now known as Boreray sheep are direct descendants of the Scottish Dunface sheep that were taken to St Kilda from the Highlands of Scotland, to the main and inhabited island of Hirta.  Some were placed on the uninhabited island of Boreray as a feral flock.  This was before 1697 when a flock of around 400 was recorded on Boreray.  There was thought to be an infusion of Hebridean Blackface genes from rams sent to St Kilda in the late 19th century. 

Recent genetic research has shown that Boreray sheep are almost pure Dunface with a tiny input from the Soay and Hebridean / Scottish Blackface sheep. 

When the inhabitants evacuated Hirta in 1930, all their domestic sheep were evacuated with them.  The feral sheep on Boreray were left behind, and with the Scottish Dunface having been recorded as extinct in 1880, the genetic findings have given them an even greater importance for Scotland.

In 1971 the first small group of seven Boreray sheep (four ewes and three rams) were taken off the island and brought over to the mainland.  The descendants of these are now registered with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST).  There is talk of other sheep coming off at other times and some likely contributed to the registered flocks.  There is a supplementary register for a group of Boreray sheep that come from a completely separate line.  Boreray sheep are classified as ‘At Risk’ on the RBST Watchlist.

The RBST website shows Borerays as the rarest sheep breed in the UK categorised as ‘Critical’ (fewer than 300 registered breeding ewes) between 2008 and 2015 (looking at the RBST Watchlists from 2008).  In 2015 they moved to ‘Endangered’ (between 300 and 500 breeding ewes) and in 2017-2018 they moved to ‘Vulnerable’ (between 500 and 900 breeding ewes). 

In the 2020-2021 RBST Watchlist Borerays were categorised as ‘At Risk’.  Breeders of Borerays should be congratulated in helping to increase registered breeding numbers considerably over the last eight years, while keeping a close eye on inbreeding.

The RBST Watchlist numbers were based on estimated numbers of registered breeding females producing pure-bred offspring in the UK, up to the 2020-2021 Watchlist.  The following year the Watchlist reflected RBST’s new approach to breed prioritisation with a methodology that compares population size with measures of inbreeding, and takes into account both females and males, and the internationally recognised effective population calculation.

Borerays are one of the eight Combined Flock Book (CFB) breeds, under the umbrella of the RBST.  Registrations are carried out through Grassroots Systems Ltd.  Joining the RBST allows you to view your flock, and other flocks, on a national database (the CFB online), which is also necessary for birth-notifying / registering any lambs which are born in your flock. 

Our official breed sale is held as part of the Traditional and Native Breeds Show and Sale held in September each year at Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire.  Borerays have their own classes at the Three Counties, Malvern (mid-June) and Gransden, Cambridgeshire (last Saturday in September), otherwise they are categorised as primitive, rare or native in breed show classes.  Our AGM is held on the first or second Saturday in October, usually with a visit included. 

We are all keen to share our knowledge on how we keep, breed, and show our sheep, and we are always delighted when someone new joins us.  They are the most delightful little sheep, full of character and can become quite tame if they know there are nuts in your pockets.


Colours range from white to light grey, and cream to light to dark tan, with spots and patches in several areas, especially around the face, collar and rump, often on a white background. Some animals are born completely black or with large patches of black and may change to cream or light tan; occasionally some stay black. They can have a darker area of wool around the neck or on the rump.

The fleece is double-coated, with an undercoat as fine as cashmere and a coarser hairier outercoat – a variable fleece, both between individuals and within different parts of one animal. Borerays shed their fleece naturally, allowing for it to be rooed (plucked off) rather than shorn. Generally, the finer fleece is found around the neck and shoulders while the fleece on the britch (lower thigh) is considerably coarser. The outercoat may be 15cm or more in length, and longer around the mane and beard of mature rams in their winter fleece. The undercoat may only be 5cm or less in length. Some fleeces can be separated by hand for the undercoat and outercoat and some fleeces have a clear crimp in their wool fibres, usually found in sheep with less outercoat.

Both sexes are horned, with rams having heavily spiralled horns; neither sex should have horns that are too close. Occasionally females may be scurred (with small, misshapen horns) or even polled.

The Boreray profile is round and the muzzle broad.