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The hardy little Soay sheep is a living relic of the Bronze Age and has survived in isolation for at least a thousand years. It is the most primitive breed of domestic sheep in Europe.

Until the late 19th century it was only found on the tiny, windswept island of Soay. Part of the St. Kilda archipelago in the north Atlantic, Soay lies about 110 miles west of the mainland of Scotland. It is not known precisely when the sheep arrived on Soay, but evidence indicates it has certainly been there for 1000 years and possibly as long as 3000 or more. Perhaps it was abandoned by the Vikings on their raids of the area? Beginning in the mid nineteenth century, small numbers of sheep were captured and removed from Soay to the Scottish Mainland. In 1932 a flock was taken from Soay to the neighboring island of Hirta where its descendants remain today. Eventually sheep from Scotland and Hirta made it into private hands and from those populations have come the animals now found in the United States and Europe. While no longer considered endangered by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in the United Kingdom, its numbers worldwide still remain very limited.

Historically feral Soay sheep were used by the neighboring St. Kildans for their wool, which was hand spun and woven into tweed. Once a year, during the summer, the most nimble men of the village on Hirta were rowed to Soay. Packing supplies to last a week or more, barefooted they scaled the sheer rock walls of the island which rose nearly perpendicularly from the sea. The wool gathering was extremely hazardous work. Both man and sheep could fall or be blown over the high cliffs into the ocean below. With the aid of dogs, the animals were run down and caught. Their fleece (which is naturally shed at this time of the year) was plucked and they were then released. The collected wool was ferried back to Hirta where it was stored until winter. During the long, inclement days of December and January it was picked clean of debris, often by the children, carded at community gatherings and divided among the households. The women spun it into yarn which they used to knit gloves, socks, stockings and scarves. The men wove the yarn into tweed cloth on very simple wooden looms. The resulting fabric was used domestically for clothing, sold to summer tourists from the mainland, and exported for sale in Scotland. For two months in the spring nearly every man in the hamlet wove cloth.

In 1930 the island of Hirta was abandoned and the domestic sheep and cattle kept by the St. Kildans were evacuated with them. Two years later 107 Soay were transferred from the island of Soay to Hirta and for the first time the sheep inhabited both islands. Today the offspring of these feral sheep still roam the isles of St. Kilda, now a National Nature Reserve. On the mainland, a number of farms presently raise Soay for its lean meat to supply restaurants and accredited specialty butchers shops.

This unique animal is a direct link to our neolithic past and remains important for the immunological contributions of its closed gene pool. Its mere survival under the extraordinarily harsh conditions found on its 244 acre "iceberg" of wind, rock and weather has made it very hardy. Unlike most domestic animals, the Soay sheep is not dependent on man for anything.

Generally dark brown or tan in color with a white belly, it seems to be less troubled by parasites, foot rot and other ailments that so often afflict other more domestcated sheep. It is thrifty and very low in maintenance, sheds its wool, lambs easily and does not need its tail docked. This makes it an ideal livestock animal for the organic small farmer. Although it is naturally shy, when kept in small quarters and handled from a young age it becomes quite tame.

The wool is soft and fine, but hairy fibres are usually interspersed among the wool fibres.The staple length is 5-8cm (2-3 inches), and the Bradford Count is 44-50.   The fleece is shed naturally. Rams develop a thick hairy mane.The wool is either chocolate or fawn, and animals may be either whole-coloured or show the 'Mouflon' pattern. Chocolate brown and the 'Mouflon' pattern are dominant. 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 piebald.

For more information, have a look at the Soay Sheep Society web-site.