|one day old Soay lamb in camouflage|
The rare sheep breed in the spot light is the very special soay sheep of the Scottish Islands of St Kilda and Hirta ! It is a very, very rare ancient breed, with roots going back all the way to the bronze age !
The Isle of Soay, a name derived from the Norse word for Sheep Island, is near the North West corner of Hirta. A very dangerous, narrow channel and sea stacks separate the two. Soay is extremely difficult to access due to its steep rocky cliffs, boulder fields and lack of anchorage.
It can only be approached when seas are very calm and quickly changing weather can make getting off the island nearly impossible, it is the least accessible of all the islands in the archipelago. It is believed that sheep have probably inhabited Soay since the Bronze Age and are the descendants of the very first domesticated sheep which populated northern Europe. They are the most primitive surviving livestock breed in the UK.
The sheep on Soay Island were not owned by the St. Kildans of Hirta, but instead by the islands various lairds (landlords). Their feudal tenants were allowed to annually collect fleece from these sheep and were occasionally permitted to take an animal, for a fee, to kill for special occasions. While Soay is somewhat larger (244 acres) than its neighbour Boreray (189 acres) Soay supports fewer animals per acre because its high central plateau is a marshy bog with little vegetation suitable to grazing sheep.
|the Island of sheep|
This archipelago consists of four small islands and some large rocky outcrops which are all that remains of a long extinct volcano. The islands are remote and spectacular with the highest cliffs in the UK and are the home to large colonies of seabirds.
There is evidence that the main island Hirta has been inhabited for thousands of years but the habitation might not have been continuous. There is also evidence of human activity on the other three islands of Dun, Soay and the more remote Boreray.
The island of Soay has been the home of the most primitive form of domestic sheep in the UK for thousands of years which have remained as a relic of early domestication due to isolation and inaccessibility. The islanders, known as the St. Kildans were the tenants of various owners of St. Kilda, they had limited resources other than the vast seabird colonies. They caught thousands of these birds and used their feathers and extracted their oil as a currency to pay their rent and to buy meagre provisions.
The most remote island of the archipelago is Boreray which was used by the St. Kildans to harvest sea birds and their eggs and also keep a reserve flock of their unique domestic sheep, now known as Boreray Sheep.
As more communications with the mainland improved the life of the islanders changed, they were subject to diseases brought by contact with outsiders which caused heavy mortality. There was movement to the mainland and immigration to other parts of the world until in 1930 the population became so low with so few able bodied men they could no longer sustain themselves and they chose to leave. In 1957, the entire archipelago was bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland and has been in their ownership and protection ever since.
|Tourists flocking around a spinner showing them spinning soay (1900s)|
|now the same street is deserted... except for the grazing soay sheep that have been there for centuries|
There are dark and blond sheep with some ewes being horned and many others polled (no horns) or scurred (small or misshaped horns). Over recent centuries some animals have been taken from Soay to estates on the mainland of the UK. Over a period of time starting in 1932, after St. Kilda had been evacuated and sold, 107 animals were captured and transferred to the vacant pastures of Hirta.
This was a significant number taken from the small population on Soay Island. Today flocks survive in both locations.
Visitors to St Kilda will immediately notice three striking features of the sheep.
First, Soay sheep are tiny. In August, mature females average around 24kg in weight while mature males are around 38kg, making them about one third the size of most modern domestic sheep.
Studies have shown that the dark/light colouration is due to a gene called tyrosinase-related protein 1, or TYRP1 which is on sheep chromosome 2 and genetically dark is dominant to light, while the wild/self colouration is due to the locus Agouti on sheep chromosome 13 and wild is dominant to self.
There are however, very cute Soay sheep with white patches as well. (note: in angora rabbits for example there is the agouti on chromosome 13 as well, making the off spring able to have all different colours. Agouti is a gorgeous thing to have in the gene pool !).
It was these counts that revealed that Soay sheep on St Kilda have rather unusual population dynamics. The Soay population rises to maxima and then crashes, at irregular intervals. It is this population dynamic behaviour that makes Soay sheep so interesting for ecologists. The sheep exhibit a phenomenon known as overcompensatory density dependence, in which their population never reaches equilibrium.
The population growth is so great as to exceed the carrying capacity of the island, which eventually causes a dramatic population crash, and then the cycle repeats. For example, in 1989, the population fell by two thirds within 12 weeks !!
In brief, it became clear that the population dynamics of Soay sheep happen because virtually all mature females conceive each year, regardless of density, and as a result, the population can increase in one breeding season to a size which greatly exceeds the winter carrying capacity, when it may crash. Crashes are more likely to occur when there is bad winter weather, and when the population contains a large proportion of vulnerable sheep such as lambs and males. The population then increases again, over several years, before another crash.
As ecological research proceeded, it became clear that the Soay sheep population also offers remarkable opportunities for understanding the progress of natural selection and evolution in real time. Population crashes are a period of intense selection, could they have anything to do with the maintenance of genetic variation, for example in coat colour and horn type? Does the low life expectancy of most individuals select for early reproductive effort? Likewise, the population dynamics research inspires numerous questions about the relationship between the sheep and their biotic environment, including the plants on which they feed and the parasites. The Soay sheep have short tails and naturally shed their wool, which can be hand plucked (called rooing) in the spring and early summer. About one kilogram of wool can be obtained from each animal per year.
The breed also lacks the flocking instinct of many breeds. Attempts to work them using sheep dogs result in a scattering of the group: no use entering them at the Bendigo sheep and wool show dog trials: it would be extremely frustrating for the sheep and dogs. They obviously are the rebels among sheep !
|Soay sheep fleece|
IxCHeL Rare Sheep Breed Fibre Adventure Sign up
----the last Rare breed fibre adventure sold out in under 24 hours !!!! this one sold out in under two ! I have created a waiting list, so contact me if you want to be put on that ---
Outlander Batts and matching Outlander Tops!
Sign in to receive your Outlander batts and tops, Shipping date: mid March in a very special super limited release !
a very RARE SHEEP BREED !!: Soay Sheep
Muga silk !
Sign in on the Outlander batts and tops will close March 1st OR until the amount that I can make runs out, whichever comes first !!!
Only the ones who sign up for the Outlander will have these exclusive IxCHeL Outlander Batts and tops!
the batts will each weigh appr 150grams each! AU$36
the tops are a 100g + each ! AU$25
There will only be a very very VERY limited supply!!
You will have to sign in before March 1st!
Pm on Ravelry or facebook or email me
Single double or combined serves will be available !
All the tops and the batts will have a limited amount of bronze fillament in them.
I have added “inspiration photos” and the view of the “naked Outlander” below. Enjoy !
New IxCHeL Club sign ups Open now (til quotas are reached or until March 31st)
Clubs April, May and June 2015 !
IxCHeL Fibre Club April, May and June
The IxCHeL Sock Yarn Club April, May and June 2015
IxCHeL Funky Bunny Batt Club April, May and June 2015
Dates to put in your Calendar !!
Monday 16th of March, 10am-2pm
2. message me on facebook or ravelry where I am Ixchelbunny.
I will email you right back with all your order details and payment methods.
Any questions? Any custom orders for yarn or dyeing fibre? Please don’t hesitate to ask! Always happy to enable.