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Soay Sheep

The Soay is one of the UK’s primitive breeds and part of the Northern short-tailed group.  They are possibly the earliest example of primitive sheep in the United Kingdom and also the smallest.  Mature ewes average 25kg and rams are about 35kg.

The name of the breed, Soay, is taken from the Island of Soay (from the Scottish Gaelic, Soaigh), a now uninhabited island in the St Kilda archipelago, beyond the Outer Hebrides.  The name originated from the Old Norse name Seyðoy, meaning ‘island of sheep’.

Soay have a wide range of fleece colours and types.  The colours can be a sandy tan or dark chocolate, with other shades of brown between these two colours.  Some of the lighter shades can have a fine fleece and the darker animals can have a coarse upper fleece with fine fibres nearer the body.  Most animals have a mouflon pattern which can be a pale white around the eyes, under belly, inside legs and under the tail, and some can be a ‘self’ colour without the white lining.  Occasionally, white occurs as a blaze or star on the head, or white feet or a white tip to the tail.  In recent years some breeders have concentrated on producing animals with more white, but this is not normal on St Kilda where Soay have lived feral for centuries.  Horn type is also very varied: the ewes can have horns or can be polled (no horns at all) or can be scurred (small, often misshapen horns).  Most rams have large spiral horns or a few are scurred (50% or less than normal horns).

Some Soay were taken off St Kilda in the 1800s to be kept in parklands of big estates, such as Woburn in Bedfordshire where they were selected for dark fleeces and horns.  Many were sent from here to other estates and islands. 

St Kilda is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and they do not allow any sheep to leave the island, but in 1963 Peter Jewell obtained permission to take 24 Soay from Hirta (the main island of St Kilda). These were a mixture of all the types of Soay: horned, polled, scurred and with the wide range of fleece types and colours. The descendants of this group are now widely spread in the national registered flock.

Soay are thrifty sheep, they will browse hedgerows and do well on mixed vegetation.  They can be flighty, but are very curious and quickly learn to come for feed.  In normal breeding situations they naturally shed their fleece in early summer.  Being lightweight, they do not suffer the foot problems that commercial sheep do. They lamb very easily and the lambs are up on their feet and suckling quickly.  Generally young ewes will produce a single lamb, but more mature ewes often have twins.  They are good mothers; as the lambs grow, the flock groups together and one or two ewes will keep watch as the lambs frolic.  Their fleece is short, and Soay quickly seek shelter when it rains, readily using small field shelters. 

The meat of Soay is lean and has a rich flavour.  As the carcass is small, they are best grown on to 18–20 months to make a viable size.  The meat needs to be hung and when cooked, treated more like venison. 

Soay sheep are classified as ‘At Risk’ on the RBST Watchlist.  Soay numbers have not changed greatly since 2008 and have stayed in the ‘At Risk’ category over this period. 

There are 20 flocks in the USA that register their stock through Grassroots Systems Limited (stock being registered in the last three years).

Soay 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. 

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. 

Our official breed sale is held as part of the Traditional and Native Breeds Show and Sale in September each year at Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire.  Soay 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. 

NOTES FOR JUDGES

Colouration varies, most commonly being dark to light brown mouflon patterning over the whole body with lighter patches around the eyes, the underside of the body, on the rump and under the jaw. Sometimes Soays are self-tan, brown or self-black (whole coloured). Sun-bleached tips will be evident as the fleece grows. Occasionally white patches occur, especially on the forehead, muzzle and lower jaw. White is a dominant gene and some breeders have intentionally bred animals for whiteness and piebald patterning. There is no breed standard for the Soay when it comes to fleece markings and colour.

The Soay fleece is the most varied of all sheep, ranging from soft, fine, silky wool to coarse, hairy fibres ranging from 9 to 48 microns. Some fleeces are distinctly double coated and some far less so. The double coats should be very easy to separate. Soay fleece may have significant crimp, but an indistinct lock structure. Rams may develop a thick hairy mane by their third year and have coarser britch fibres than the ewes. The staple length varies between 5 and 15cm and the Bradford Count ranges from 44 to 50. Soays shed their fleece naturally, allowing for it to be rooed (plucked off) rather than shorn.

Both sexes can be horned with the horns rising evenly out of the head and curving gently behind the ears, not too close. Mature rams have thicker, more impressive sets of horns. Some individuals are polled, and some can be scurred (with small, misshapen horns).

The face profile is attractively ‘dish’ shaped. They are late-maturing with fine bones and prominent withers. Their tails are short and thin.