The uncertain future of North Ronaldsay’s seaweed-eating sheep

[UK] North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of Scotland’s Orkney Islands, shares several properties in common with the country’s other remote northern isles. There’s the Neolithic-era standing stone, for example, and the lighthouse built by members of the famed Stevenson engineering clan. But look out to the shoreline and you’ll spot something altogether more particular to this island. Small sheep—wrapped in thick fleeces of brown, black, white, and gray—nimbly pick their way across sand and wet rocks. As waves break close behind them, they pass basking seals and munch on seaweed, thick pieces of brown kelp trailing from their mouths.

A primitive breed, part of the North European short-tailed sheep group, and smaller than most modern breeds, North Ronaldsay sheep have evolved in isolation since their arrival on the island, possibly as far back as the Iron Age. There are currently around 3,000 on North Ronaldsay, grazing all along the coastline and eating seaweed at low tide. Aside from the Galapagos marine iguana, they are thought to be the only land animals able to survive solely on seaweed. This is not just a quirk, but the result of necessary evolution.

The sheep’s seaweed diet means they are susceptible to copper poisoning and must avoid eating too much grass. KAREN GARDINER

In 1832, the island’s laird, or landowner, cleared the land for more valuable cattle and crops. He banished the sheep to 271 acres of shoreline, encircled by a roughly 13-mile-long stone wall known as the sheepdyke. Left with no choice but to adapt to this new stark environment, the sheep survived by feeding on the abundant seaweed they found. They have remained on the sea-facing side of the dyke ever since, fattening up in winter when storms throw plentiful seaweed onto the shore.

Semi-feral, they roam freely but tend to keep to their own patch, or “clowjoung.” For a few days each summer, when the moon is full and high tides limit the space to which they can flee, the island’s sheep are rounded up to be shorn in an event called “punding.” Thought to be one of the last examples of community agriculture in the U.K., the punding sees the islanders help one another to chase their sheep off the shore and into the nine stone “punds,” or pens, dotted around the island.

Once thought to be a burden, the sheep are now crucial to all three main strands of North Ronaldsay’s economy: wool, meat, and tourism. Wool from their double-layered fleeces—coarse on the outside, fine and soft on the inside—is spun at the island’s mini mill and sold around the world as yarn or knitwear. Succulent North Ronaldsay mutton is considered a delicacy for its strong, gamey flavor, even making it onto the Queen’s plate at the start of her Diamond Jubilee tour. Tourism marketing for the island invariably mentions the “iconic seaweed-eating sheep.” The animals are mutually dependent upon humans for their survival, as the U.K’s Rare Breeds Survival Trust lists them as “vulnerable.”

 

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