Nestled in the valley of Settisgarth is Burnside Farm, home to a flock of the UK’s rarest breed of sheep. Boreray, like North Ronaldsay sheep, are in the Northern European short-tailed group, and both are descended from Scottish Dunface or Old Scottish Shortwool (now extinct), but Boreray are the only remaining descendant of the Scottish Tan Face (extinct).
Borerays originate from Boreray island, in the St Kilda archipelago. An extremely steep sided island, there is no easy access. When the inhabitants of St. Kilda were evacuated in 1930 the sheep were left on the island of Boreray and have existed as a feral flock ever since. In the 1970s half a dozen of them were exported to form the basis of a breeding population on the mainland.
I went to visit Jane Cooper at Burnside Farm to talk all things primitive sheep. At first glance the flock is mainly a cream colour, with some hints of browns and greys. They are double coated and are able to naturally shed. They are a bit bigger than the North Ronaldsays, Boreray ewes come in at ~30kg and they all had horns. The rams are very handsome, with huge curly horns and pretty speckly faces. Jane has around 70-80 sheep which she uses in regenerative agriculture. The diversity and abundance of fungus in the fields are a testament to the health of the soil.
Jane made an interesting point that Boreray sheep don’t have a flocking instinct, which made me think about punding of North Ronaldsay sheep and how they really don’t want to be all pushed the same way. This instinct is lacking in other primitive breeds and would appear to be a relic of their evolution alongside wolves. If a pack of wolves are hunting down a flock of sheep, if the sheep all disperse different ways they won’t all get cornered and eaten - clever! There are many naysayers when it comes to the idea of rewilding Britain and the reintroduction of apex predators (ie wolves), but if farmers used primitive native breeds of sheep then perhaps loss of livestock wouldn't be such an issue? Food for thought...
Jane has been concerned with the loss of an abattoir on Orkney, an issue also facing the North Ronaldsay sheep farmers. A local abattoir is essential for local food supply and animal welfare standards, but currently livestock face a journey to Aberdeen or Shetland for slaughter. This year Jane took matters into her own hands and drove her sheep down to Dingwall; her Boreray mutton sold out within hours. Due to multiple factors no North Ronaldsay sheep were taken off last winter, what will happen to this “much sought after” delicacy if that happens again?
Back on North Ronaldsay the shore sheep were up to their usual tricks. a group of 20-30 had broken onto the fields and joined the caddy lambs at Westness. As mentioned above, the sheep don’t naturally flock, which is presumably why sheepdogs aren’t used. They respond much better to someone walking slowly behind them, hoping that they remember where they got in and they go back that way. After a couple of laps around the field it was obvious there wasn’t any dyke down that they had jumped over so I opened a gate onto the shore - cue more shore sheep coming in! Eventually they all were going the right way and all the sheep were back on the shore, and we could call our lambs (who had joined them) back in through the gate. After walking the perimeter of the dyke around Westness the question as to how they got in was no closer to being answered. They had potentially walked up a sloping edge of a concrete wall, which I covered with some wire... so far so good...
Earlier in the week I had been rebuilding a bit of dyke which had fallen down near an abandoned house called Seaside. The lambs joined me from Westness to feed on seaweed.