Soay

Soay Ram credit Vicki Beesley

Key Characteristics

The Soay is exceptionally hardy and can survive in the most adverse conditions. Anecdotal evidence suggests few footrot problems, low incidence of flystrike (Soays can shed their own fleeces) and general resistance to most health problems affecting more developed breeds.  Ewes can produce lambs at up to 10-12 years old. Depending on the location, lambing percentages range from 80-90% when left to their own devices but can reach 150% in the lowlands with good management. Lambs are small, born easily and are quick to rise. 

History

  • The Soay has the most primitive appearance of any British sheep breed and takes its name from the island of Soay in the St. Kilda group.
  • Soay means “sheep island” in Norse which suggests that there have been sheep on the island since at least the time of the Vikings.
  • 107 Soays were transported to the island of Hirta in 1932, two years after the last human inhabitants had left and have been maintained as a feral population ever since numbering around 1500 sheep nowadays.
  • Over the years Soays have been imported on to the mainland but remain rare.

Appearance

  • A small, athletic looking sheep that has something of the look of a gazelle about it.
  • Ewes weigh around 25kg and rams, 40kg.
  • They are brown in colour (tan to chocolate) with lighter patches around the eyes, the underside of the body, on the rump and under the jaws.
  • Ewes are either polled or horned, ram usually horned. Some individuals are scurred (small, misshapen horns).

Uses

Cross Breeding

The Soay ewe lacks prolificacy to be used as a purebred in a crossing system but when crossed with another breed and the resulting cross put to a terminal sire can contribute thriftiness and hardiness to the mix. An example is run at the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust where a grazier runs a flock of ¾ Wiltshire Horn, ¼ Soay ewes put to the Southdown in an extremely low input system.

The Soay ram can be used on commercial type ewe lambs to ensure an easy first time lambing

Meat

The Soay is generally slaughtered as hogget or mutton as the lambs lack size. A carcase of around 12-13kg can be achieved at a year old. Putting a ram of a Down breed on the Soay will produce a faster growing lamb and a carcase of around 15kg. Although the purebred Soay grades poorly the meat is known for an unusual flavour typical of the primitive breeds and with marketing can command a premium.

Wool

Wool is shed naturally each year and is used for speciality hand knitting. Staple length 5-15cm. Fleece weight 1.5- 2.25kg. Quality 44s-50s.

Did you know?

The feral population on the island of Hirta is the subject of a longterm scientific study, researching evolution, population dymanics and demography. 

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust is the leading national charity working to conserve and protect the United Kingdom's rare native breeds of farm animals from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants and donations from the public to raise the £700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare UK native breeds of farm animals. Visit www.rbst.org.uk to see how you can help.

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