[UK] Islanders are facing a race against time to stop an invasion of seaweed-eating sheep .
Stormy seas have punched gaping holes in a 12-mile stone barricade built to keep the world famous flock grazing on the foreshore of Orkney’s most northerly island.
The North Ronaldsay sheep dyke was completed in 1832 to confine the native sheep to the seaside and protect the cultivated land and crops from their wanderings.
Encirling the island and standing 2m high in a bid to deter ‘loupers’ – jumping sheep – the dyke is Grade A listed by Historic Scotland as probably the largest drystone construction conceived of as a single entity in the world.
But the dyke was breached by the violent storms in December 2012 which caused what was described as the “worst damage in living memory”.
Now there are fears that the unique flock, which produces the famed North Ronaldsay Mutton for top restaurants around the globe, could run amok and starting breeding with other animals on the island.
With a dwindling population and a dearth of the skills needed to restore the sheep dyke to its original state, islanders are backing a campaign aiming to raise around £3m to repair the ancient barricade.
Peter Titley, secretary of the Orkney Sheep Foundation and founder of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, is worried about what the future holds for the seaweed sheep which date back to the 4th millennium.
He said: “The ever present danger is if they did escape there’s the potential for them to breed with other breeds of animals and that removes the purity of this ancient, historic breed.
“Once genes start to infiltrate you’d lose this pure-bred status which the sheep of the shore still have at this present time, and that’s the genetic conservation gone.
“That wouldn’t best please farmers who want to breed what they would see as more modern commercially-viable sheep.
“It would also destroy the unique quality of the Orkney mutton and they’re currently trying to get protected status for.”
Peter is aware of the magnitude of the task in front of them and welcomed the support of Scottish Business in the Community, one of the Prince of Wales’ not-for-profit organisations, in bringing together public and private sector interests to tackle the dyke’s deterioration.
He said: “It’s a big job but a job we believe is going to capture the imagination of people far beyond the shores of North Ronaldsay.
“I go around the country doing commentaries and whenever I say seaweed-eating sheep there’s always someone who knows something about them.”
The number of residents on North Ronaldsay has fallen from 500 to just 48 and there’s not enough skilled workers to repair and carry out maintenance on the dyke.
Peter said: “Conservatively we are going to have to raise between two and three million pounds. We’ve already had a professional survey done of the dyke.
“This isn’t a job which can be done by tinkering around the edges with £1000 here and £1000 there to repair 20 metres of dyke
“Quite honestly the sea could come along next day and take it all away. We have to look very seriously at how this job is going to be tackled.
“The island is facing an aging, reducing population. It doesn’t have the labour locally to tackle it or the resources in terms of money.”
Orkney Sheep Foundation have engaged with Scottish Business in the Community and a working group looking at a wider sustainable development plan for the island.
Peter fears for the future of the flock if the dyke is allowed the deteriorate further.
He said: “It could tip to the point to where recovery becomes beyond anyone’s reach but clearly we’re not at that stage yet.
“Our philosophy in the OSF is to say ‘Let’s act now while we can’ and let’s not get to the point where it’s beyond reach of people.”
Scottish Business in the Community deputy chief executive Mark Bevan said: “Remote and vulnerable communities are a key part of our country’s heritage.
“We hope to be able to find a solution that restores the historic dyke, protects the rare breed of sheep, and provides a sustainable future for the island.”
- The ancient breed is confined to the seashore by the drystone dyke that encircles the island surviving on an exclusive diet of seaweed apart from a few months each year when ewes and lambs are brought inland to graze.
- North Ronaldsay sheep belong to the ancient northern short-tailed group of breeds, and bones of similar animals dating from the Neolithic have been found at Skara Brae.
- A genotype survey organised by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 2009 demonstrated that the breed survives virtually unchanged from that original type.
- They are the only domesticated sheep to be still to be managed under a communal system of farming.
- The dyke is regarded by Historic Scotland as ’probably the largest drystone construction conceived of as a single entity in the world’.
- It is more than 12 miles long, and stands some two metres high – enough to deter a ‘louper’ (jumping sheep).
- It is listed Grade A by Historic Scotland and highlighted in the Buildings At Risk Register for Scotland.
- The rules of the island’s Sheep Court laid down procedures for sharing the responsibilities and tasks of maintaining the integrity of the dyke upon which the existence of the native sheep relied. This tried and tested system sufficed for many generations and the sheep dyke stood proudly as a symbol of vision and enterprise.
Photo: The famous North Ronaldsay sheep
View original article at: Scots islanders battle to stop flock of unique seaweed-eating sheep