Soay sheepPosted: November 29, 2011
I have quite a few pictures of Soay sheep – the oldest extant domesticated variety in the world – having travelled several times to Holy Isle where there’s a population allowed to roam entirely without interference across the island.
It is believed to be a survivor of the earliest domesticated sheep kept in northern Europe, and it remains physically similar to the wild ancestors of domestic sheep, the Mediterranean mouflon and the horned urial sheep of Central Asia. It is much smaller than modern domesticated sheep but hardier, and is extraordinarily agile, tending to take refuge amongst the cliffs when frightened.
The 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.
This breed has extremely fine fleece and, in contrast to mouflon, the inner fleece is highly developed and it is difficult to distinguish an outer coat. This is a clear indication that the Soay are indeed the product of a domesticated breed in prehistoric times. The breed also lacks the flocking instinct of many breeds. Attempts to work them using sheep dogs result in a scattering of the group.
You can clearly see the wool in the process of being shed on the ewe’s shoulder, above.
They’re delightfully skittish and although used to the presence of humans on Holy Isle, don’t exactly hang around to be petted. They are often to be seen picking their way daintily along the pebbly beaches occasionally grazing on the seaweed as well as the sparse grass.
I’ve just got that inch or so too close to this fine looking ram – his head is down preparatory to getting up and stalking, either away or towards depending on the number of ewes around and the perceived threat I pose. I retreated.
The biggest group of Soay sheep in the UK is on the island of Hirta where the unmanaged population has been the object of scientific scrutiny for more than 50 years.
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 exceeded 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.
The population on Holy Isle is unmanaged too, and that means that dead sheep are also not an unusual sight, although I don’t know whether the group exhibits the same density dependence phenomenon.
This one took several hours to die, and was difficult to watch even for the briefest time. Its horn had gouged divots in the ground where it struggled on its side before finally being sheathed in the earth. Eventually the undisturbed corpse will disintegrate leaving the picked-clean bones the last to be recycled…
…becoming part of the assorted flotsam and jetsam of the beach over which its descendants will, we hope, still be grazing.