Primitive Sheep in Orkney

Yesterday we featured an article about the need for more abattoirs to help save Orkney and Scotland’s protected food names and place of origin. Today we are introducing an article from a local farmer.

Before moving to Orkney Jane Cooper had kept hens for over 50 years: something she had done since a young girl of eight; she then moved to Orkney  five years ago to farm Boreray sheep of which she has 56 at her farm in Rendall. She farms the sheep for mutton but also to increase the numbers of this Britain’s rarest of breeds. Jane also spins, knits and weaves as well as working  as a volunteer to help promote British wool through

Boreray sheep originated in St Kilda with wool spinning as part of the local livelihood; as once the wool was turned into tweed it became a method by which the locals paid the Laird.

Hand woven tweed on St Kilda

Photo taken by Jane Cooper from a book by M L Ryder


As well as the online petition, Jane and her husband between them spoke to over a 1000 people at the local agricultural show about the petition and the importance of having a local abattoir, with positive comments from meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike with all recognising the importance of having a local abattoir for animal welfare, as the previous one had an excellent reputation in this regard.

Jane said that “With the launch of Food Tourism Scotland this week, the extra funding for that (got to be hopeful about Pillar 1 Action 1 and funding for the abattoir) and Fergus Ewing visiting Orkney next month, I’m not giving up hope that things could still get moving in time to save North Ronaldsay (what a headline that would be!) – and then of course to enable Orkney’s farmers & meat producers to make a much bigger contribution to Scotland’s food tourism”.

The following article was originally written for Keep Scotland The Brand.

Scotland’s primitive sheep – living history & cultural heritage

Scotland has a little recognised living cultural heritage in its breeds of primitive sheep surviving on Scotland’s islands. In Shetland the breed is Shetland, in Orkney it’s North Ronaldsay sheep, in the Western Isles it’s the Hebridean, while in the now depopulated St Kilda the breeds are Soay and Boreray. The latter is the last living link with the now extinct Old Scottish ShortWool sheep.

North Ronaldsay, Orkney’s tiny northernmost island, is home to an internationally significant ancient breed of sheep that are the only domesticated sheep still to be managed under a communal system of farming common until the early 1800’s. The North Ronaldsay sheep are a primitive breed virtually unchanged from Neolithic times.

The sheep dyke that keeps the sheep on the shore is Grade A listed, regarded by Historic Scotland as ‘probably the largest drystone construction conceived of as a single entity in the world’. The small, ageing population of North Ronaldsay has met the challenges of storm damage & deterioration of the dyke with resilient fortitude and created the Orkney Sheep Foundation and Sheep Festival that are having such a positive effect. There are now young people and families wanting to move onto the island and there is a new project to make derelict houses habitable again. The preservation of this communal farming system, a living example of Scotland’s cultural heritage, was looking promising until North Ronaldsay lost its only means, with the closure of Orkney abattoir, of having the sheep slaughtered to produce their renowned mutton.

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North Ronaldsay is both a living museum and an increasingly thriving community, uniquely still practising a way of life once common in Scotland, but now lost from our cultural heritage except on North Ronaldsay.

Some of these sheep are now kept in flocks elsewhere in the UK, but they have changed in behaviour and physiology from the sheep still on the shores of North Ronaldsay. The adaptation to enable the sheep to survive on seaweed means those from the island could die from copper toxicity if kept permanently on pasture. The genes could be preserved, but the cultural and behavioural heritage, once lost, will be gone for ever.

From prehistoric times Scotland’s sheep, essential to Scotland’s subsistence agriculture, was a little horned sheep with a short tail, called in historical literature the Old Scottish Shortwool or the Scottish Tanface. The sheep provided virtually all the clothing worn and much of the protein in the diet through its milk, often made into cheese for keeping. The wool was far softer than that of modern Blackface sheep and was obtained not by shearing, but by ‘plucking’ just before the sheep would naturally shed its fleece each year. The plaid cloth woven from the wool was the precursor of tartan. The sheep are naturally coloured, so by using different colours of wool, plaid patterns could be woven from the handspun yarn. (M.L.Ryder: Sheep & Man)

The sheep that featured in the Highland Clearances were the Scottish Blackface and the Cheviot, the latter predominating in the lower land areas of the Highlands. The Scottish Blackface sheep was developed on the Anglo-Scottish Border from the genetic umbrella of horned sheep that includes the Swaledale & Rough Fell sheep of Northern England. The Cheviot breed developed in the Cheviot Hills & were improved by Merino sheep bought from Spain in 1480 and large breed sheep from Lincolnshire.

As these two sheep breeds were moved up through Scotland to the Highlands, it wasn’t just the people that were ‘removed’ and replaced but also their little primitive sheep and their way of life, preserved in documents in Scotland’s museums and archives, but living history in the few surviving sheep.

The Old Scottish Shortwool was driven to extinction in mainland Scotland, but a few remained on the tiny island of Boreray in St Kilda, uninhabited since the Bronze age. The St Kildans visited Boreray once a year to take the wool off the sheep, climbing the cliff to get to the sheep. The Laird of St Kilda sent over some Hebridean Blackface rams in the 19th century to ‘improve’ the sheep in St Kilda. The sheep on Boreray

island are a unique breed, being direct descendants of the now extinct Old Scottish Shortwool with some infusion of Hebridean Blackface.

When St Kilda was depopulated in 1930 the sheep on Hirta, St Kilda’s main island, were removed with the people. The flock on Boreray Island was left behind though, preserving the isolated last link with Scotland’s extinct little horned sheep. They are the UK’s rarest breed of sheep.

The Boreray sheep now in Orkney are the last from a flock that was in Assynt for many years, allowed to retain their primitive behaviour and a completely separate line to other mainland Boreray sheep. (P21) They exhibit all the primitive behaviours that the extinct Shortwool sheep are described as having and still naturally shed their fleece so that we can take their fleece off in the traditional manner by plucking it. Interestingly a few of my sheep have quite a different fleece to most Boreray sheep. It’s not a traditional double coated fleece with a very fine undercoat, but shorter, and is very soft to the touch. I do wonder if this is actually the fleece that the pure Shortwool sheep had from the few descriptions of it in historical documents.

While the whole population of UK Borerays outside St Kilda numbers just over 500 ewes, here in Orkney we have just 33 ewes & ewe lambs, and 4 rams representing different lines from the Assynt flock.

Our work over 5 years has been to secure this fragile living link with the pre-Clearances Shortwool sheep by having the surplus castrated males slaughtered for mutton when they’re fully grown at 3 years of age. By making the breed a niche commercial product we were hoping to give farmers in Orkney subsidised breeding flocks to breed them profitably for mutton, and thus increase the numbers of breeding sheep.

I’ve been working with raising awareness of this living link to Scotland’s ancient subsistence farming culture and heritage since 2011, in which time we’ve been able to increase total UK numbers enough to move from Critical to ‘merely’ Endangered on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust Watchlist.

The climate and conditions in Orkney are similar enough to St Kilda that the sheep are thriving. The mutton was selling very well, with mainland customers travelling some distance to buy the mutton from Inverness Farmers’ Market. It was voted ‘favourite’ in the Scottish Breeds Mutton Tasting in Edinburgh last year.

We had established contact with an Edinburgh restaurant and interest had been expressed from London once numbers were high enough. We wanted to use our personal resources to make a real contribution to Orkney and to Scotland’s premium native meat sales, as we all face the uncertainty of Brexit, and to secure the long term future of Scottish Boreray sheep here.

Boreray sheep in Orkney, together with North Ronaldsay sheep, are part of Scotland’s living heritage. They were contributing to Scotland’s economy by bringing money into Scotland from the rest of the UK.

The North Ronaldsay system of farming is unique and part of Scotland’s living history & culture.

Without a small abattoir in Orkney none of this is now possible & the unique genes & behaviour in the Orkney Boreray sheep may be lost forever.

North Ronaldsay is described as a fragile community (, but the islanders have repeatedly shown great self-reliance by setting up The North Ronaldsay Trust, a mill, marketing wool and mutton, and getting outside helpers through the Orkney Sheep Foundation to rebuild the dyke. The internationally important construction that may become a ‘dead’ historical artefact if the sheep it was built for no longer exist on the shore. Without the vital infrastructure of a local abattoir to produce mutton, without taking off over 200 sheep a year to maintain the maximum population the island shores can sustain, I have no idea how North Ronaldsay and its living cultural heritage can survive.

Earlier this year North Ronaldsay was able to send sheep on the to the small Shetland abattoir for slaughter.

Shetland’s Animal Health Scheme means they can no longer accept livestock coming into Shetland for slaughter. There is currently no possible way I can find for North Ronaldsay and Boreray sheep to be slaughtered for mutton for sale.

By Jane Cooper

related link

More Abattoirs needed to Save Protected Food Names




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