Soay sheep are a small short-tailed primitive sheep from Scotland that are thought to be be the oldest surviving domesticated sheep going back to pre-historic times. The sheep lived feral on an uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland called Soay which is part of the St. Kilda island groups. The island of Soay translates to Sheep Island. More information about St Kilda can be found at: http://www.kilda.org.uk/frame5.htm
Importation of Soay Sheep to North America
Soay sheep are a native sheep in Britain and are registered with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST). Soay sheep are an at-risk group and cannot be exported from Britain to North America any longer. Only two groups of Soay sheep were ever imported from the UK to Canada. A few from the first importation in 1974 were brought into the US in the 1980s , but nearly all were bred with other types of sheep, Barbados, Mouflon, Jacob,among them and were sold as exotic animals. Their decedents are referred to as American Soay.
In 1990,a second group was imported from Scotland and remained in Canada as a closed flock for a decade.
What was left of this flock was imported into the USA by Kathie Miller and Val Dambacher about 2000.
Very careful records had been kept in Canada which allowed Miller and Dambacher, with help from friends in the UK, to get the RBST to accept the sheep back into its Combined Flock Book (registry). This is presently the only flock outside of Great Britain to be so recognized. These sheep are now referred to in the US as British Soay to distinguish them from the earlier American hybrid. The importance of this registration cannot be understated. It certifies that the British Soay in the USA is a pure Soay sheep and can be linked back to the original Island flock in the UK. RBST registered Soay sheep have had their lineage authenticated and have not been crossbred with other types of sheep.
At this time there are currently less than 300 registered British Soay ewes in the USA and in Canada. Creating more breeding groups in the USA will increase the survival of this very unique breed of sheep. Increasing the number of sallelite farms in the USA involved in the conservation of British Soays will help to protect them from extinction due to natural disasters, disease, war, etc. Are you interested in being part of this conservation effort?
If you are interested in becoming a Shepherd or Shepherdess to Soay sheep, take a look at photos of UK and St Kilda Soay sheep and compare them with the Soays you see for sale. They should look the same or very simliar. If they don't, chances are the Soay sheep for sale are American Soays.
American Soays will often have massive horns, hairy throats and longer legs. Soays of all types can be registered on the Open Flock Book. However a 'registered Soay' is not a pure-bred Soay UNLESS it is registered with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in the UK. That is the only guarantee that the Soay sheep are decendants from the St Kilda Island sheep. Without the RBST registration, a sheep offered for sale is most likely a composite of Soay, Mouflon, Barbados, and Jacob, crossbred as part of the exotic animal trade. The survival of the Soay Sheep is dependent on the conservation efforts to breed and sell RBST registered Soay sheep. The following video clip is from a BBC series on British sheep and shows a Soay flock in the UK.
Soays are shy, curious and light on their feet. They are excellent browsers and can improve pastures by eating underbrush. British Soay are generally slightly smaller than the American hybrid with ewes weighing around 50 lbs and, rams approximately 70 lbs. The British Soay fleece varies from light (tan) to dark brown and sheds naturally in the summer. The fleece can be hand-plucked (rooed) in the spring. The harvested wool is prized by hand-spinners and weavers. The fleece is very fine. The wool quality is 44's to 50's, and staple length is 5 to 15 cm.
Both ewes and rams have horns. British rams sport more dramatic horns
that vary from tight to wide curls. They are much larger and heavier than the ewe horns and can do a lot of damage if they decide to 'ram' - I think their heads are like concrete when they decide to bash something. (Just make sure it's not your leg!). Scurring (short, misshapen horns) or polling (no horns) are characteristics of Soay sheep in the wild, however these characteristics have not occured in British Soays (in the US).....yet. With the introduction of aritifical insemination (with semen from UK Soays) we hope to see these characteristics in the British Soays in the US in the near future.
Sometimes ram horms grow tight to the neck and face and need to be trimmed. Although there is a blood flow in the horns, it usually does not extend to the tips so they can be trimmed without any bleeding. There also isn't any nerve endings, so it's like trimming nails - except with a horn saw.
Soay sheep 'stot' (sprint-jump on all fours) when excited or exuberant. They are a low maintenance sheep that lamb easily, require minimal hoof care and tend to be disease resistant. This makes them ideal for people who have little experience with sheep. They are a delightful addition to a small farmyard.
Soay Sheep are very hardy and handle the Wisconsin winters just fine. We keep them in the barn at night during the winter months, but allow them the opportunity to go outside during the day.