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The Rare, Ancient Soay

Small, Tasty, Easy-Care Sheep


By Tony Brancato

Photos: Robert Waschbisch
www.trailsideexotics.com


Soay sheep are very hardy due to many centuries of natural selection on their native islands. The fiber ranges between 30 to 35 microns (spinning count: 44-50), with a staple length typically between two to three inches, though the rams' manes get over six inches long. The inner, shorter fiber is famous for being very soft to the touch.
Soay sheep are very hardy due to many centuries of natural selection on their native islands. The fiber ranges between 30 to 35 microns (spinning count: 44-50), with a staple length typically between two to three inches, though the rams’ manes get over six inches long. The inner, shorter fiber is famous for being very soft to the touch.

What makes Soay sheep so different than their domestic cousins? The Soay is a variety of domesticated sheep (Ovis aries) that actually descend from an isolated population placed on the island of Soay many centuries ago (some say 2000 B.C.; others say Vikings brought them in the 9th or 10th Century A.D.). The island is in the Saint Kilda group, a tiny archipelago 41 miles off western Scotland.

Soay rams have a "mane," and big handsome horns, valuable for making high-value items like buttons, traditional shepherd's crooks, specialty knife and tool handles, etc. Rams grow up to 80 lbs. in a primitive setting, but can top 90 lbs. if life is easy. Rams stand up to two feet tall at the shoulder.
Soay rams have a “mane,” and big handsome horns, valuable for making high-value items like buttons, traditional shepherd’s crooks, specialty knife and tool handles, etc. Rams grow up to 80 lbs. in a primitive setting, but can top 90 lbs. if life is easy. Rams stand up to two feet tall at the shoulder.




Like the wild Mouflon, Soays have naturally short tails, said to be a factor in their easy lambing abilities. Long tails indicate crossbreeding. The breed cuts labor: No docking, no shearing, 150% lambing rate. British breeders are cultivating the gourmet trade with small luxury hotels.
Like the wild Mouflon, Soays have naturally short tails, said to be a factor in their easy lambing abilities. Long tails indicate crossbreeding. The breed cuts labor: No docking, no shearing, 150% lambing rate. British breeders are cultivating the gourmet trade with small luxury hotels.




Soay ewes usually have small, feminine horns, and weigh around 50 to 60 lbs., standing 18 to 22 inches high at the shoulder. On the island of Soay, about 50% of ewes are polled. They yield 3 to 5 lbs. of wool.
Soay ewes usually have small, feminine horns, and weigh around 50 to 60 lbs., standing 18 to 22 inches high at the shoulder. On the island of Soay, about 50% of ewes are polled. They yield 3 to 5 lbs. of wool.

Due to isolation and limited grazing area, Soays gradually got smaller than mainland sheep. Undiluted by other sheep breeds, Soays are a treasure of a genetic archive, dating to Neolithic origins. The name “Soay” is said to be old Norse for “Sheep Island.” Soay sheep are similar in appearance to a wild ancestor of the domestic sheep, the European Mouflon. Rams and ewes are mostly horned; some ewes may be polled or scurred. Soays have interesting wool that they shed. By tradition it’s plucked instead of shorn (known as “rooing”) in late spring and summer. The breed is well known for its easy births.

Soay sheep disperse when frightened, rather than flocking. In the wild, rams entered winter in low condition after fall rut trimmed them down. So ram survival rates were uncertain, always influenced by the severity of frequent North Atlantic storms. Sissies didn’t survive to make more of their kind.

Soay colors range from blonde, black, dark brown, and various shades of tan, brown and black. White markings on the face and legs are not uncommon. Sometimes a white rump patch or a white patch under the chin occurs.

In the early part of the 1900′s Soay sheep were captured and raised in parks and reserves by English noblemen, it being fashionable to keep exotic breeds in those days.

We’ve found Soay sheep hardier and easier to work with than other breeds: So light and small, their feeds, housing and general care are like other sheep, only in smaller amounts. Our Soays are easy keepers, delightful and very intelligent; well suited for gourmet meat production on limited acreage.

Before buying Soays, inquire about pedigrees and ask lots of questions. Get to know the breeders to avoid disappointment.





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