By Elizabeth Stephenson
One of the humbling privileges of being a vet student is the opportunity to fully immerse yourself in a community whilst on placement. It gives you a perspective on places far beyond what is gained from merely visiting them. My time on North Ronaldsay was no different and learnt and gained so much from my experience.
My desire to visit stemmed from when I first heard about the seaweed eating sheep whilst on some pre-vet school work-experience at Flett and Carmichael a few years back. They sounded pretty awesome (can confirm they are) and it brought together my love of visiting wild and remote places with learning about an amazing breed. Fast forward a few years and I found myself in my second year of vet school, contacting Siân out the blue to ask if I could come stay, help her build the dyke and learn about the sheep. I thought it might be a bit of a long shot as it was before she set up her volunteering scheme, but to my delight she emailed me back and said yes! After the logistics of driving up in my mum’s 16-year-old mini, being seasick on the Aberdeen ferry and watching the car fly through the air I finally arrived a few days into July. Siân and Olly greeted me at the ferry terminal with many smiles and a no small amount of relief I’d made it safely and then it was swiftly back to the Schoolhouse to meet Norbert and Fang, their pet (and absolutely gorgeous) lambs!
Norbert and Fang are a good inlet into a further description of the North Ronaldsay sheep, who are confined to the shore, having been walled off by the dyke since 1832. The ewes come onto grass for their lambs in April but otherwise it’s seaweed all year, an amazing physiological adaptation which holds many potential advances in livestock feed for reducing emissions. Learning how the sheep shelter from storms, form ‘clow gangs’, groups that they stick to in a small section of the shore, some of the common issues such as vitamin B1 deficiency (thanks to Sinclair and June for educating me on that one) and many more facts about them I could provide was fantastic for my placement. (Really the moral of the story here is to all be a bit more like North Ronaldsay sheep…) A rainy walk along the Links on my first afternoon provided my first introduction to the sheep and allowed Siân and Olly to quickly realise what they’d signed up to with having a ridiculously excited vet student on their hands for 3 weeks… After recovering over the weekend, Monday was the first day of building, something I had been itching to get at. We headed over to Bridesness to re-build a section of the pund round there that had fallen down. The section was about 22 metres in total, and accompanied by beautiful weather and the lambs, we had it up within the week! Building turned out to be something I absolutely loved, after weeks of revision it was so refreshing to be using my brain in such a different way and puzzling out exactly where each stone ought to go. It is a skill I wanted to learn for several years and I am delighted to have done, though I will be building North Ronaldsay style walls everywhere… ;)
Other adventures during my first week included a fab dip in the sea with Siân for about 20 mins and seeing a seal close-up, Sid’s wonderful birthday do providing an amazing opportunity to meet some more people on the island, sea kayaking, putting up four new climbing routes in Inglass Geo and some lovely walks with the lambs. I also go stuck into ‘A Window on North Ronaldsay” by Peter. A. Tulloch and was fascinated by the immense history of the island, so much of which is still clearly visible. An evening fire with halloumi and sausages on the Westcoast solidified it as my favourite part of the island - the sunsets are stunning with the rocky coastline and watching the waves hurl themselves at the rocks is mesmerising.
One of the things that stood out most to me during my time was the peaceful and calming nature of the island, I felt more relaxed than I have in a long time and having lived near a motorway and on an ‘A’ road all my life the lack of traffic noise was just incredible. I woke up every morning, pushed the curtains open and I could see the sea glinting (or perhaps not!), hear the wind dancing and the birds announcing their existence to the vast sky. The smell of salt on the breeze is sorely lacking back home….
The beautiful and abundant garden at the Schoolhouse also inspired me to recreate a similar set up when I have the means. Eating fresh leaves everyday was something I got way too used to and I am very grateful for the skills in pasta, bread, cream etc… making imparted on me by Siân and Olly, many of which I hope to use later on to try and become more self-sufficient and environmentally conscious. It was certainly a shift from having shops so readily accessible back home and challenged me to think more about what I eat and how I could swap some things out for homemade versions.
Week two signalled the start of a new section of wall, this time over by Scottigar. With Siân and Olly’s car now off the island, it was up to the plucky little mini to squeeze the three of us and two lambs into the car! With minor poo damage to Olly’s jumper we safely made it about the island in the mini, much to my mother’s amusement and outrage. With the weather being slightly more temperamental the second week we ended up having a few days off building and put in a strong shift on the DIY front, building a chicken coop for the lovely scots-dumpys who had somewhat out-grown their inside home and a trip to the archive for me which was an incredible selection of local history. A trip out in the kayak to check the creels resulted in fresh crab for dinner which was delicious (until I managed to get it all over me…) and the week was finished off with helping the Bird Obs guys out with their punding and shearing on the southwest, my first lesson in how to shear a sheep, managing a not too shabby four though there is a lot of room for improvement!
My third and final week brought the much anticipated punding of the whole island. I was also doing a virtual 50 miles in a week too so it was quite full on in the end! Monday involved a 10 mile run round most of the island dodging being dive-bombed by terns, and accidentally running into fulmar chicks as a result….Tuesday we were punding over by Westness followed by a wonderful lunch with Alex (who bizarrely I had a connection with that neither of us knew about beforehand) as well as an delicious dinner with her and Jack later in the week! The final pund was by the Old Beacon and provided much entertainment running about after errant sheep before pitching in with the collective shearing effort. It wasso humbling to see everyone coming together as a community and all helping out with the punding, and it’s fantastic that the flock is still communally managed and that punding is such a gathering together event of some many families andpeople, I felt very welcomed and delighted in dashing over rocks after the sheep, my sure-footed fell running skills coming in handy! A shame that there are not more systems with a similar ethos to this still going and it was fascinating from a veterinary perspective to getto grips with the management of the sheep. During this week I was also invited out by the Bird Obs guys to watch ringing, starting at 11.30pm. I wasn’t totally sure what to expect having not had much experience of this, but it opened up this whole new world of bird life to me that I was utterly enthralled by! Their knowledge and care was amazing to see and I have departed with a new found love of birds (and an increased love for these amazing sheep).
To wrap up, I would like to thank Siân and Olly for the most incredible hospitality and generosity, they taught me so much and I will cherish my time on the island until I am able to come back. Siân you are a massive inspiration to me! Thanks also to all the wonderful people of North Ronaldsay who showed me so much humour and generosity. Being part of your community for a few weeks and learning what it is really like to live somewhere like North Ronaldsay, which is not without its hardships, was humbling and so insightful.
A final message of love to Norbert and Fang and all the other North Ronaldsay sheep, you were so worth the journey to this beautiful, wild, far-flung corner of Orkney.
I often find on vet placement that where you are becomes a little world of itself, you are so immersed in what you are doing and learning that it’s easy to slip into a new routine and way of living. Well, North Ronaldsay you were a beautiful and wild world to be part of and I’m so grateful to have got that opportunity.
Thanks for having me and I’ll be back soon.