Soay are unlike any other breed of sheep, being the most primitive breed with very varied characteristics, plus a history that evokes a romanticism back to the Bronze Age. They are similar to the mouflon seen wild in Corsica, Sardinia and Cyprus. How did they arrive on the St. Kilda islands and when, no one really knows. We do know that when owners talk about them, they talk of intelligent, nimble animals with excellent mothering habits, with quirky behavioural traits and that they are lots of fun to watch. They are excellent conservation grazers, being content in woodland and on hillsides. The coloured fleece is sought after for many craft uses and their carcass produces lean meat of a delicious flavour fetching premium prices for the gourmet trade.
Soay sheep are fine-boned and late maturing with prominent withers. They belong to the Northern short-tailed group of sheep breeds. Mature ewes weigh approximately 25kgs, while rams average 36-38kgs.
The texture of the wool can vary from soft and fine to more coarse hairy fibres (or ‘kemps’), usually interspersed among the wool fibres. The staple length is 5-8cm, and the Bradford Count is 44-50. The wool is either chocolate or fawn, and animals may be either whole-coloured or show the ‘Mouflon’ pattern. Rams develop a thick hairy mane. The fleece is normally shed naturally.
Some black animals occur and these are always self coloured. There may also be white marks on the face, poll and lower legs, and occasionally they are piebald. The face and legs are brown or tan, with lighter marks over the eyes, on the muzzle and lower jaw. The face is ‘dished’.
Rams are usually two-horned, although some scurred animals have been observed on Hirta, and occur occasionally in mainland flocks. Ewes can be either two-horned, scurred or polled.
Soay sheep are classified as ‘at risk’ on the RBST Watchlist.