Soay sheep are a rare breed originating from only two islands off the west coast of Scotland. They resemble primitive sheep of the Bronze Age and are believed to be the ancestors of the first domestic sheep.
From a distance, these heritage sheep are aloof, wary, and graceful, resembling small antelope or deer. Their fleece may be blonde, fawn, shades of brown, or black. Most have light markings on the belly, rump, over the eyes and under the tail and jaw. They have short clean tails and shed their wool naturally in the spring. Their hooves do not generally require trimming when living on rocky pasture, and only annually on less rocky environs. They are hardy, disease-resistant animals, shy yet curious. With continual gentle exposure to human keepers, they become familiar and tame, eventually eating from their shepherds's hand.
Rams develop beautiful full-curl horns that lend a majestic appearance. The ewes may either sport less dramatic horns, have button horns (called “scurs”) or be naturally polled. Wethers (castrated males) make good lawnmowers, fleece producers, and develop horns correlating with the age at which they were neutered.
Like antelope, Soay sheep “stott” (sprint-jump on all fours) when alarmed or exuberant. Soay do not require shearing since they will cast (shed) their wool in spring. Wool can be collected just before shedding by either plucking (“rooing”) or shearing if desired.
Soay are small, averaging 45-60 pounds for ewes and 60-70 for males. Their size makes them easy to handle, and feasible for a shepherd to handle them alone. Their small size and light weight impacts pastures less than heavier meat and wool breeds. Soay require reliable fencing, shelter from rain, adequate shade, and a safe-for-sheep (no copper) mineral supplement. Providing good quality hay and augmenting forage with alfalfa or commercial sheep ration during late pregnancy and lactation will keep ewes in good condition and help lambs to thrive.
Soay sheep are delightfully independent and present few husbandry problems. They manage on more meager pastures, and actually improve pastures by consuming Himalayan blackberry patches, young starthistle, poison oak and woody plants as well as grass. Soay should not have access to rhododendrons or azaleas, which are toxic to them.
Soay sheep are shy animals. They can be tamed, particularly exposed to gentle human presence when lambs. They also become quite comfortable with your presence if you simply walk calmly among them day after day. They are graceful, aloof, self-sufficient and wary of predators. Advantages of the breed are that they are small, hardy, lamb easily, do not require shearing or tail docking, require minimal hoof care, and tend to resist disease. We do not recommend taming of ram lambs (adult rams are not aggressive, but not predictable during breeding season), but wethers and ewe lambs can make sweet pets.
Soay are animated and on the move. They are a pleasing way to improve or maintain your pasture or yard. Their deerlike appearance attracts attention. Besides looking nice in the field, Soay meat is of excellent gourmet quality, very mild, similar to elk. The wool in its variety of colors may be spun to produce soft, naturally colored yarn without dyes. Fleeces vary in character, some having been compared to musk ox “quiviut.”
Kate Montgomery featured the original version of this essay on her sheep website. Like Madame Benoit's words on lifestyle, Kate's description of Soay sheep is “must reading” to give potential new breeders a feel for this special breed.