Keeping Soay Sheep
I first came across soay sheep at a local wildlife park when the kids were little. Off one of the beaten paths, just past the car park was a wooded enclosure where these flightly beasts were kept- you couldn’t even approach the fence without them running up the hill. At first look, they appeared to be goats or deer and it wasn’t until I read the info board that I realised they were, in fact, sheep. It was love at first sight.
Every so often I would tell Kevin about my desire to keep Soays. We had the land, but didn’t quite know how to source any that would suit us. The needed to be bucket trained - well handled sheep that would come to the rattling of a bucket - for us to be able to manage them without dogs or a. larger set up and that seemed unlikely given their wild nature.
I mentioned this desire to get soay sheep to a good friend whose partner is a livestock dealer. A few weeks later, in the dark of the night, they pulled up with a trailer of pregnant soay ewes. In they went to the field and my dreams became our reality.
About the Breed
Soays are very small sheep, originally from the Island of Soay in the St. Kilda island group off the west coast of Scotland. They have never been improved for wool or meat, so they are slow growing, healthy beasts with wool that naturally comes off in the spring. They are, on the whole, a great animal for small holders as they need minimum intervention - birth easily, there is no need to hire a shearer and thrive on marginal ground. Their only drawback is that they aren’t terribly tame. They are still very close to wild and have a tendency to escape (if you follow me on Instagram, you know this is an understatement). When I tell farmers and vets that we keep soays, we are usually met first with laughter and then regaled with tales of when they or someone they know tried keeping them and they just kept escaping. And it is true. I am certain that the escaping raptors in Jurrasic Park were based on the way Soay sheep will relentlessly test their fencing until they find a weak spot.
That wildness means that they are healthy though - without any intervention and cross breeding in their history and the breed’s development on tiny windswept islands in the Atlantic Ocean, mainland Scotland is basically the tropics. They have good feet, lamb easily and rarely face any problems with parasites, fly strike or illness.
The flightiness is a problem. Where our Jacob and Shetland sheep will amble up and say hello to anyone with food, soays take a long time to gain our trust. We feed them once a day with hard feed - a mix of grains and sugar beet - to keep them used to us and get them to come to the sound of a shaking bucket. We also keep a few commercial ewes in with them so they have more tame sheep to follow. I know other folks choose to separate the lambs and bottle feed them from birth to help them bond with humans, but we find bucket training is enough to keep them tame enough to manage.
Lambing soays is my favourite. In 3 years of lambing them, we have had only one small problem where the mum needed assistance with a mal-presented lamb. They tend to only have singles, with the occasional twin, but the lambs are small, often weighing less than 500g.…I always describe them as guinea pigs with long legs. They are good mothers and the lambs really are the most beautiful things.
As I mentioned above - soays don’t need to be shorn. Every year in late spring, the sheep lose their fleeces naturally. On the islands, they would have collected the wool from the brambles and fence lines for spinning, but we work over the course of a few weeks to gather in the wool.
Soay wool is very fine, with occasional guard hairs, with a very short staple length. Staple length is basically the length of the wool from root to end and it does require some specialist equipment to get it spun into yarn. We have recently had yarn spun and finding a mill that can handle the soay proved to be a bit tricky (more about that soon!!).
With their small size and short wool, you don’t get a lot of wool from each sheep. Most mills will need between 20-50kg to make wool worth spinning into yarn. We get an average of 200g of wool from each sheep…our Shetland (another small breed of sheep) gave us 2kg of wool last year from one fleece. Our Country Mile yarn that is launching in April is a blend of Shetland and Soay to get enough weight and length for our mill to spin it.
I have never liked lamb. It was too fatty and strong tasting for me. In fact, I once told a family member who was about to serve me lamb that I thought it “tasted like dog food”. Soay lamb is a completely different meat, in my opinion. They are browsers, rather than grazers so will eat a range of things, rather than just the grass that commercial sheep it. All in, it makes for a leaner and more gamey meat - more similar to venison than lamb or mutton in my personal opinion. Also, because they are so small, meat is usually only harvested when the sheep are at least a year to 18 months old, making them Hogget rather than strictly lamb (many commercial breeds of sheep are harvested at 8-10 months old).
It is really an incredible meat. Since keeping soays, I have been utterly converted to lamb and hogget and have made it my mission for others to love this delicious meat as much as we do.