On the shores of the northernmost island of the Scottish Orkney archipelago, the North Ronaldsay sheep lives wild. This sheep is the oldest breed in Northern Europe and among the oldest and most rare in the world. According to a Danish investigation of old bones on the Orkney Islands, their DNA dates back 8,000 years, as old as the origins of island agriculture itself. Descendants of the North European short-tailed sheep, the North Ronaldsay is smaller and lighter than modern breeds, weighing on average 35kg (live weight) and adapting in very peculiar conditions.
On Orkney, as in the rest of the Scottish Highlands, the traditional social system is known as “crofting”: a form of land tenure and small-scale food production characterized by its common working communities. In 1832, the crofters wanted to rear cattle on their land instead of sheep as it was deemed more profitable. The Laird (the lord of the local manor) at that time, however, had worked in India and had developed an interest in sheep farming. He suggested that the crofters built a sea dyke (a dry-stone wall) in order to keep both cattle and sheep. The 13.5 mile dyke was duly built around the island to keep the sheep on the shore and off the land. This separation resulted in the preservation of the North Ronaldsay breed by preventing cross-breeding, the downfall of many other sheep breeds.
North Ronaldsay sheep have adapted over the centuries to thrive on their unique diet of foraged seaweed. On the wild and windy foreshore, their thick coats keep them well protected against winter storms. The sheep sleep when the tide is high and eat when it ebbs, grazing on the lashings of damp kelp left behind by the receding tide. This unique, natural link between the island and the sheep results in an equally unique farming system. Crofters own their sheep collectively, grazing them on the foreshore with communal rights to this marginal land. A few times each year there is the “Punding” –during which crofters work together to gather the flocks and check their health, clip their wool, and select those to be slaughtered. Shearing takes place in summer and slaughtering in winter or early spring. Lambing is normally from May onwards. Lambs are with their mothers for one year until the ewes are about to lamb again. Sheep are not slaughtered until after three years old. The Shetland abattoir is a community owned abattoir, where North Ronaldsay sheep are taken together to be slaughtered.
The breed is renowned for its variety of natural fleece shades: black and white, light and dark greys, and ‘tanny’ shades of brown. Each sheep yields around 1 kg of wool. It is ideal for clothes, rugs, scarves, and outdoor wear. Each fleece needs to be cleaned and this is done off the island, but then the fleeces are sent back, and the rest of the processing is done on North Ronaldsay in a refurbished lighthouse building owned by the North Ronaldsay Trust.
The Presidium aims to conserve this breed, as well as preserve the island’s heritage, the traditional system of “crofting”, the symbiotic link between crofters, the ecosystem, the community, and the animals.
The Presidium includes chefs and cooks who are championing the flavour of the breed in their menus, but are struggling with the depletion of the island’s human population, the logistics of distribution, and the dwindling number of producers.
North Ronaldsay island, Orkney islands, Scotland (UK)
William Muir, Hooking
Isobel Muir, Hooking
Marion Sholtisquoy, Hooking
Irene Cutt, Gerbo
Kevin & Alison Woodbridge, Twingness
Sinclair Scott, Cruesbreck,
Ian Scott, Antabreck
Winnie Scott, North Manse
Jane Donnelly, Purtabreck
Sarah Moore, Waterhouse
Ian Deyell, Vincoin
Sandra & Brian Mawson, Roadside