Soay are a primitive breed of sheep (Ovis aries). They take their name from the island from where they originally were found, the old Scandinavian name, Sauda-ey, meaning “Island of Sheep”. They are unlike any other sheep, being small (adult ewe weighs around 25kg); they have short tails, and under normal conditions, naturally shed their wool. Ewes may be 2 horned, scurred (small misshapen horns) or polled. Rams will be either 2 horned or scurred. They range in colour from black, varying shades of brown through to almost all white. Most mainland Soay are brown with a Mouflon pattern (light belly and rump), self-colour black and browns can also occur. Rams can also develop thick hairy manes and bibs.
Ideal Smallholder Sheep
Soay are extremely agile, hardy little sheep. They are excellent mothers who lamb with very little interference. Their feet require minimal trimming, and seem less troubled by parasites and foot rot. Their small size makes them easier to handle. They make excellent conservation grazers, being content with sparse vegetation, and being light will not poach the ground.
The carcass from a Soay produces very lean, meat that is low in cholesterol. It is very flavoursome, having an almost gamey taste.
The fleece has a staple length of 5-8cm and the Bradford Count is 44-50. It is usually shed naturally, but can be ‘rooed’ (plucked) in late spring for hand spinning and other wool crafts.
History of the Soay
Soay are thought to be similar to the domesticated Neolithic sheep and it is believed they were introduced to St Kilda at that time. Tests on wool and bones found in Bronze and Iron Age archaeological sites have found that Soay sheep are descendants of the type of sheep found. Due to the isolation of the island of Soay in the St Kilda archipelago they evolved with no interference from man.
In 1932, two years after the St Kildans evacuated the main island of Hirta, some Soay were brought from the island of Soay to Hirta as the lack of sheep on Hirta was causing the land to revert to scrub and endanger the diversity of wildlife on the island.
From 1963 Dr Peter Jewell began to conduct research on the Soay in St Kilda, which continues to this day. As they have no interference from man, they are an extremely important population for research purposes.
In the early part of the twentieth century wealthy visitors began to import small numbers of Soay sheep to the mainland, they were taken to private estates. The best known of these was at Woburn Abbey, where it is said that the Duchess thought a Soay should be chocolate and horned and culled all others. This could be the reason that, up until a few years ago most Soay were perceived as this, and other colours thought some how inferior. Fortunately, this is not the case today, were you will find a very diverse range of colours and horn patterns.