There are ‘tribes’ within sheep. In Britain, our sheep are mostly divided into the long-tailed tribe which most of us are familiar with (the big white fluffy ones, although their tails are often docked so don’t look at the tails for clues as to tribal identity!) and the short tailed tribe, which are the ones the Vikings left behind on their travels. I’m using tribe intentionally when it comes to the short tailed ones as, having met some, I think it suits them!
Known more officially as the ‘North Atlantic Short Tailed’ breeds, Britain has surprisingly simultaneously stayed at the forefront of the modern sheep industry based on longtails, but also played host to a number of unique survivals of these short tailed brethren. They have survived peppered around the coast on our islands (and even the longtails have a primitive island survivor here too – the ‘Portland’ breed), having been dropped there by vikings and never taken away again. However, the mainland has played its part in influencing the survival in recent decades when island economies and habitation finally drastically changed, as we shall see…
This tribe of primitives is a treat for any sheep or fibre lover. In contrast to the white uniformity offered by modern breeds, these breeds offer a smorgasbord of colouring. The Manx Loaghtan and Hebridean breeds offer fawn and chocolate wool, with the Norwegian Spelsau, Icelandic and Shetland breeds being all manner of spots, splashes and shades and in the case of Shetlands at least, each has it’s own evocative ‘vikingy’ name such as ‘Bersugget’, ‘Emsket’ or ‘Smirslet’. The Gotland has long silvery curls like silk, and the Manx and Hebrideans are ‘Polycerate’, meaning they have four or even six horns on one head rather than the usual two or none! So in short, they’re colourful, freaky-looking, charismatic and tough little survivors.
In September 2018, I visited the Hebrides to attend the 8th North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool (NANSWOOL) Conference, dedicated to the glory of this tribe of sheep. I was excited to do so as I’ve always found bleak, rocky places romantic and the image of these wee hairy beasties clinging to life among the rocks up there has always been evocative – I couldn’t wait to see some in their ‘natural habitat’.
Basically, I had the time of my life. The talks were fascinating as Swedes, Norwegians, Australians, Icelandics, Dutch and Brits all came together to add their unique view of these sheep. Not only was the content fascinating, but the island setting was glorious and exploring it with such an appreciative bunch of folks was a new experience. I didn’t have to worry about boring people on the minutiae of sheep behaviour, and it was totally acceptable to ask ‘can I have a feel’, and then fondle whatever exquisite, jealousy-inspiring piece of 100% real wool handknitting they were wearing! At the goodbye Ceilidh, rumours flew that this was the be the last NANSWOOL conference and my heart sank – I had found my people, and lost them, all the same event! However, at Christmas the 9th conference was announced – October, in Norway!
Of course, being in the Hebrides at the 8th conference, the emphasis was on the 3 breeds present there (Soay, Boreray and Hebridean) and mostly the Hebridean. The Soay and Borerays are the MOST primitive of the group and now live mostly out on uninhabitated islands fending for themselves (although small flocks do exist throughout the UK if you want to see some without a boat being involved!). The Hebrideans represent a step towards civillisation, if you will, and are known for their uniform dark colour and very soft wool. They survived on the islands until droving and modern breeds to feed the industrial revolution further south really took hold, when they vanished from the Hebrides. Thankfully, the drovers had taken some to the mainland and swapped them with rich landowners as a curiosity in exchange for grazing for the flocks en route to slaughter. So they survived on parkland and have now been taken back to their island home where they are gaining ground as the commercial sheep industry falters and crofters look to low maintenance breeds to supply home and tourism needs.
We met flocks on the island, heard from ‘Birlinn Yarns‘ about the specially adapted ‘Birlinn’ boats which ferried sheep to and from the myriad of smaller islands they grazed on throughout the year in the past (the sheep up there are still seafarers but the boats are different now!). We visited Uist Wool, a newly built, community operated wool mill producing a unique range of yarns based on whatever blend of wool is being produced across the islands, giving a diversity of colours and textures unlikely to be found elsewhere. There was of course a lot of purchasing going on and I was no exception, nigh bankrupting myself on the trip but happy to do so to support the island economy! At Uist mill I felt I could hardly buy anything other than some pure, dark chocolate coloured Hebridean yarn and resolved to teach my daughter to knit with it when I got home (which I did, and she was delighted and has asked me to knit her a pure hebridean blanket now!). The hospitality on the islands was second to none and if you haven’t visited the Hebrides, just go.
I haven’t always been so enamoured with primitive sheep however. When I kicked off my farming career over a decade ago I was all about making a profitable sustainable system and although I knew these short-tails were hardy, I also knew that due to their small carcasses, lacking the big juicy thighs and pumped up loins of modern breeds, the mainstream market would never accept them, so I opted for other native breeds which were more of a compromise between hardiness and plumpness, namely The Kerry Hill.
Things changed due to chance. At a time when I needed to expand my flock, Daylesford Organics, run by millionaires, decided they too wanted in on Kerry Hills. They outbid everyone at all the Kerry Hill sales, much to established breeders’ fury. There wasn’t a Kerry Hill of any quality to be had without a wallet to match Daylesford’s – I didn’t have a hope. yet my branding depended on sticking with my breed, because I sold direct to my customers. As such, my eye turned to crossbreeds. I have tried Kerry crosses before and been pleased so I felt confident that a 50% Kerry going to a Kerry tup and therefore rearing a 75% Kerry lamb would serve my needs and not upset customers or my brand too much. I spotted some Kerry Hill x Shetlands at a sale, going very cheap as most were put off by the shetland element, and took them home out of desperation more than anything.
I’ll be honest, they made me nervous. We had called the primitives ‘rat sheep’ for some time (which is really weird and inexplicable because we were devoted to the little ‘rat sheep’ of cattle, Dexters, which I will blog about soon). All we knew was that they were practically wild and were likely to be problematic to handle. Over time though those initial 6 sheep were to prove me very wrong and you’ll never hear me call them rat sheep these days! Or if you do, it’s with pride, a reference to ratlike breeding powers and survivability!!!
As far as handling goes, I just had to get to know them. They acted very differently to the Kerrys. They did NOT like to be rounded up one little bit which is something they had in common with the Kerrys but they expressed it in a different way – whereas the Kerrys can jump like stags and our fencing has to be correspondingly high, the shetland X kerrys (Sherrys) preferred to stay earthbound but could easily outrun us; fast and maneouverable. This made things crazy for a while…Where they differed from the Kerrys however was their attitude to humans – although they disliked being ‘bossed around’ and will react badly to rounding up, they are far more curious and friendly with people than the Kerrys. Once I found that they responded better to being led (which the Kerrys would just ignore) than pushed, handling of the entire flock, kerrys and all, became easier. With the shetlands befriending me and leading the way, the kerrys began to follow with confidence.
This curiosity was explored at the conference, with a talk about Icelandic ‘Ledersheep’ which are proposed to be a unique personality type within the Icelandic breed, utilised by the Icelandic farmers to lead their flocks to and from grazing. I am certainly unsure this is unique to icelandics, or even short tails. I have had the odd Kerry which will be open minded to people and serve to lead the flock, but for sure the trait is more widespread among the shetlands.
The trait also began to become dominant among my flock and as each year passed and more shetland infused youngsters joined, things kept on improving. This was aided by how bloody good at their jobs the sherrys were, and our move to harder and harder grazing as we took on more conservation work. The sherrys were tough and thrived on the poor grazing, and they were unsurpassed mothers. I had never had an issue with the Kerrys’ mothering, but it didn’t really matter which way I measured it – number of lambs, number of lambs weaned, weight of lambs – the Sherrys, although significantly smaller, equalled or bested the Kerrys when put to larger ram. They also lived longer, suffered fewer health issues and therefore stayed in the flock and producing lambs so in a short space of time, the flock was shot through with shetland blood (Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ in action even in domesticity) but rather than this being a terrible fate, upkeep was easier and they were more productive. I even found them easier to clip, being quieter and easier to handle for me as they were smaller. There was no denying it, the short tails were outperforming the longtails.
Now, my flock is gone altogether. We stopped producing lamb commercially in 2017 and in 2019 I am moving away and not a farmer-owner anymore. However, I still have 3 of those original crossbred Sherry ewes. They performed so well for me, I owe them a retirement and so I keep them as sort-of pets, producing lambs, fibre and milk for household use but under no pressure to do it, really. I also keep a small team of pure Kerry rams to cross on a number of primitives in future should I ever want to get back into the game of commercial sheep production again…