Visiting Soays (rare sheep!)

I'm still on the road—getting ready to leave a motel in Elko, Nevada—so there will be photos here but not much text.

A couple of days ago, I had the pleasure of visiting some folks who have Soay sheep. Soays are as close as we have to the original domesticated sheep. They were located only on one island well offshore of western Scotland, and may have been there for thousands of years. A small population on a rock out being battered by the Atlantic Ocean is vulnerable, so now there are satellite flocks elsewhere.

Priscilla and Steve Weaver at Saltmarsh Ranch have a large satellite flock and are working on maximizing genetic diversity within the breed. Steve is a geneticist. They have both British and American Soay flocks. They are in love with their Soays. It's very easy to see many reasons why.

Soays in the morning:

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Soays are tiny sheep, which doesn't exactly show in these photos.

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Their friend and guardian, Isaac, who is significantly larger than they are:

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He keeps coyotes away. There are four guardian dogs with the Soays at Saltmarsh Ranch. I fell in love with Isaac.

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Also Molly (Mollie?), the herding associate, who injured a leg recently and has to be on forced rest for a bit.

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Although, as you can see, she is always on the alert for a bit of work she might do:

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Maybe she could help????? With ANYTHING?????

These Soays are clearing underbrush: eating star thistle and blackberry vines in preference to the grass. They'll eat the grass if all the good weeds are gone.

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These are young Soays:

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We went out to look over and snap photos of the rams, several of whom are going to other farms fairly soon (with genetically diverse ewes). They are identified as to lineage by the tape on their horns (all Soay rams and many Soay ewes have horns).

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I have more photos, but I don't have more time at the moment. There's a great article on Soays in the January/February 2008 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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Yes, Soay wool is fine and spinnable. There isn't much per sheep each year and it tends to be on the short side, and it roos (sheds) instead of being shorn, which makes gathering it a challenge. The quality of the wool, however, is part of what makes Soays the link between wild sheep (which you can see in their coloring and some of their behavior) and early domestication.

And now I-80 calls me again.

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10 Responses

  1. Diana Troldahl

    Fascinating!
    Our landlord was a sheep farmer in southern Michigan. As a kid I was detailed to watch the lambs and make sure they got into the shade on hot August days. (I think George just saw that I loved the critters and gave me make work to do that kept me out of trouble.) But I still love sheep.

  2. Linda Cunningham

    Y’think the landlord would notice two or three Soays on our apartment balcony? I mean, they *are* small…. 🙂

    (And think of the view they’d get from being on an upper floor.)

    And I can see why you fell in love with Isaac: I would too!

  3. Susan J. Tweit

    After hearing you talk about Soays on your writing residency here, it’s great to see a bunch of them up close and get a better idea of the breed. So thanks for taking the time on the road to share this.

    Thought of you last night when I gave a talk at the first annual eat-in-the-fields appreciation dinner for our Backyard CSA farm. You would have loved the long tables set out in the “field” of one of the backyards used to grow the farm’s produce, and the diverse crowd gathered to celebrate the first year of our successful experiment in very local food production! (The meal was great too.)

  4. Deb Robson

    I keep wondering about a few Soays named, say, Rover and Fido. I had previously wondered about Shetlands by similar names. The trick with Soays is that they’re able to get out of simple enclosures. They dart around a lot.

    Isaac is a love. He blew one ACL and it had to be pieced back together, so he now protects the ewes closest to the house (smallest amount of running). Very effectively.

  5. Deb Robson

    There were about 80 Soays in different groups, each group with its set of pastures. A number are going to new homes soon as core breeding flocks: a ram, a few ewes, and a wether to keep the ram company when he’s not with the ewes. I think only one or two of this year’s crop of lambs has not been assigned a new home. Each group has maximized genetic diversity. It’s really cool.

    Your Backyard CSA farm sounds great! Yes, I would have loved it, having tried to instigate such a thing near where we live.

  6. Susan J. Tweit

    Ah yes, mixing genes by hand as it were. It’s critical with a breed so isolated in its natural range.

    Backyard CSAs will come to your area–eventually. Speaking of which, how’s the garden now that you’re back to it?

  7. Deb Robson

    It’s good to have people as knowledgeable as Steve and Priscilla Weaver doing the gene-mixing. They also have a database (open flockbook) that gives others the information they need to do the same, if they want to . . . for Soays.

    I’m not back at my garden yet. Tomorrow. I’m in Rawlins, WY, tonight.

  8. Deb Robson

    Yes. It was hard to stop that close to home, but wise. It would have been a 725-mile, single-driver day, and I would have arrived home exhausted.

    I’ve got the car partially unpacked.

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