North Ronaldsay sheep
Two sheep on the shoreline of North Ronaldsay
|Country of origin||Scotland|
|Wool color||White, grey, brown, black|
The North Ronaldsay or Orkney is a breed of sheep from North Ronaldsay, the northernmost island of Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland. It belongs to the Northern European short-tailed sheep group of breeds, and has evolved without much cross-breeding with modern breeds. It is a smaller sheep than most, with the rams (males) horned and ewes (females) mostly hornless. It was formerly kept primarily for wool, but now the two largest flocks are feral, one on North Ronaldsay and another on the Orkney island of Linga Holm. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust lists the breed as "vulnerable", with fewer than 600 registered breeding females in the United Kingdom.
The semi-feral flock on North Ronaldsay is the original flock that evolved to subsist almost entirely on seaweed – they are one of few mammals to do this. They are confined to the shoreline by a 1.8 m (6 ft) tall drystane dyke, which completely encircles the island, forcing the sheep to evolve this unusual characteristic. The wall was built as kelping (the production of soda ash from seaweed) on the shore became uneconomical. Sheep were confined to the shore to protect the fields and crofts inside, and afterwards subsisted largely on seaweed.
This diet has caused a variety of adaptations in the sheep's digestive system. These sheep have to extract the trace element copper far more efficiently than other breeds as their diet has a limited supply of copper. This results in them being susceptible to copper toxicity, if fed on a grass diet, as copper is toxic to sheep in high quantities. Grazing habits have also changed to suit the sheep's environment. To reduce the chance of being stranded by an incoming tide, they graze at low tide and then ruminate at high tide.
A range of fleece colours are exhibited, including grey, brown and red. Meat from the North Ronaldsay has a distinctive flavour, described as "intense" and "gamey", due, in part, to the high iodine content in their diet of seaweed. The meat has Protected Geographical Status in European Union law, so only meat from North Ronaldsay sheep can be marketed as Orkney Lamb.
The sheep are descended from the Northern European short-tailed sheep. Their arrival onto North Ronaldsay is not known precisely but it may have been as early as the Iron Age, which would make them potentially the earliest ovines to arrive in Britain. Because of their isolated location, they have evolved without much admixture from imported Roman and European breeds. They share some characteristics, including their colour range and short tails, with Scandinavian sheep introduced when the islands were under Norse control, between the 9th and 15th centuries.
In 1832, a drystane dyke was erected on the island. Its construction was part of the response to the collapse of the kelping industry, which was the production of soda ash by the burning of seaweed. To provide a livelihood for those previously employed in kelping, the inland farmlands were reorganized, and the sheep kept away from the fields or crofts. Since then, the flocks on the island have been feral. The wall also unintentionally reduced the chances of crossbreeding, which would have diluted the gene pool of an already vulnerable breed. The wall circles the entire coast of the island, 19 km (12 mi), and is 1.8 metres (6 ft) high, making it one of the largest dry stone walls in the world. In 1999, Historic Scotland described it as a "unique and important structure" and designated it an 'A'-list site requiring conservation. This status affords it special protection; any development has to be approved with conservation in mind.
Since the wall was erected, the human population of North Ronaldsay has fallen from 500 to around 50, and current residents lack the skills to maintain the wall. Successive storms, the most damaging of which was in December 2012, have created large holes in the structure and the cost of repairs has been estimated at £3 million, in part due to the lack of natural material and skilled labour. (In 1902, it cost only 4 pence per hour to repair the wall, using stone taken from the shoreline.) Stone is now imported for small repairs, but it was estimated in September 2015 by Historic Scotland that 4.9 km (3.0 mi) of the wall's 19.2 km (11.9 mi) needs repair and that the rate of damage is outstripping the pace of repair.
The punds, or pounds, also listed with Historic Scotland, are nine small enclosures situated across the island to contain the sheep for shearing, counting, lambing and slaughtering. The sheep are herded inside these punds twice a year, the only time they have access to grass feed. Even at these times, many of them prefer to consume seaweed. Between February and August, the sheep are brought into the punds, once for lambing and once for shearing. The lambs are born on the grass between February and May. At this time, the sheep are counted, lambs are given ear-tags, and records are entered with the island's sheep court to record ownership. Shearing takes place in July and August, and the whole island community is involved in herding and shearing the sheep. Slaughtering takes place only in winter when the meat is needed, and when the animals are fatter and yield more meat, since seaweed is more abundant in winter.
In 1839, just after the wall was erected, the North Ronaldsay sheep court was created. A group of eleven appointed islanders were responsible for the maintenance of the wall, the health of the sheep flock, and recording ownership of the sheep. Today, the sheep court remains the regulatory body responsible for organising ownership of the sheep, but European Union legislation has suggested that it may have to be reorganised into a Grazing Committee.
The North Ronaldsay Sheep Fellowship is the primary organisation concerned with the survival of the breed. They maintain the flock book, established in 1974, which is the breed registry containing all purebred animals. This book reports that there are fewer than 600 breeding females and roughly 3700 sheep in total. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) lists the North Ronaldsay as "vulnerable".
There are only two main populations of the breed. One is on the island of North Ronaldsay itself; the other was established in 1974 when the RBST took 178 sheep off the island to establish new populations. One group of sheep was sent to the mainland, and 150 were relocated to the uninhabited island of Linga Holm, which was purchased by the RBST. The relocation was meant to protect the sheep from potential natural disasters, such as an oil spill; North Sea oil extraction was expanding at the time.
Modern DNA analysis has shown little crossbreeding with other sheep breeds from mainland Britain. Testing carried out under the National Scrapie Plan looked for the ARQ allele, which protects against the scrapie disease and is present in modern selectively bred sheep, and found it in only 1.3 per cent of North Ronaldsay sheep.
Further DNA studies comparing the bones of the North Ronaldsay with remains of North European short-tailed sheep found on a Skara Brae site dating from around 3000 BCE have shown a very close match, suggesting that the North Ronaldsay has not genetically mixed with other breeds.
North Ronaldsays are very small sheep, an adaptation to the harsh, cold environment. Rams typically weigh around 30 kg (66 lb), and ewes rarely exceed 25 kg (55 lb), both standing around 41 cm (16 in) high at the withers (shoulders). The sheep are slow growing and a full-size carcass may weigh only 13.6 kilograms (30 lb).
The North Ronaldsay is a descendant of the primitive European short-tailed sheep breed. As the name of the descent parent would suggest, they have naturally short tails. Their bones are finer than other breeds and their head is dished (sloping inwards). Rams are all horned; these horns are typically ridged and spiraled. Only 20 percent of the ewes are horned; the rest are polled (hornless).
North Ronaldsay sheep have a highly unusual diet consisting almost solely of seaweed. This has evolved due to their unique location, confined to the shoreline by a 1.8 m (6 ft) high dry stone wall, leaving only seaweed for food. Apart from the marine iguana, native to the Galapagos Islands, it is the only land animal known to have such a diet. Studies have shown that, due to preference and availability, the sheep eat mainly brown kelps. This discovery led to suggestions that kelp may be of use as an alternative food source for other livestock.
The grazing habits of the sheep have also adapted to their unusual diet: instead of grazing during the day and ruminating (digesting) at night as other sheep generally do, the North Ronaldsays graze as the tide uncovers the shore (twice in 24 hours), ruminating at high water. Feeding begins around 3.5 hours after high tide as the areas of kelp and seaweed are exposed. Four hours later, which is just after the low tide, feeding ends, allowing rumination to begin. This cycle reduces the chance of the sheep becoming stranded at sea by the incoming tide.
Unusually for sheep, the North Ronaldsay fattens in winter when storms throw larger amounts of kelp and seaweed onto the shore and food is abundant.
The sheep's source of fresh water is limited to the few freshwater lakes and ponds along the seashore. This has led them to become very salt tolerant, as their diet is salt-rich, and access to fresh water is limited. Compared with other breeds of sheep, they can far better handle elements present in the sea salt. These empirical conclusions were drawn in a 1997 study, but the underlying biological mechanism has yet to be understood.
The sheep have evolved a somewhat different physiology from other sheep, due to their unusual diet – their digestive system has adapted to extract the sugars in seaweeds more efficiently. A 2005 study at the University of Liverpool found that they have a greater susceptibility to copper toxicity, when compared with a more traditional breed such as the Cambridge. This is because seaweed has a chemical which inhibits the absorption of copper, so the sheep have to absorb copper more efficiently to obtain the required amount. The levels of copper found in typical sheep feed, including grass, are toxic for this breed. Studies at the Universities of Liverpool and Minnesota suggest that they can extract four times more copper from their diet than more traditional breeds.
Accelerator mass spectrometry has shown a higher ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 13 (δ13C) in this breed than in any breed of grass-fed sheep, 13 parts per thousand. In a 2005 study, enamel samples were taken from the sheep and analysed for this ratio, to determine the diet of the sheep. This study showed that some sheep fed exclusively on seaweed, whereas others had a diet half consisting of grass in the summer months.
Lamb meat and mutton from the sheep have been specially designated by the European Union, meaning that only pure-bred lambs can be marketed as "Orkney Lamb". The meat has a unique, rich flavour, which has been described as "intense and almost gamey", and has a darker colour than most mutton, due in part to the animals' iodine-rich diet.
Despite their slight size, North Ronaldsay sheep were historically raised for their wool. It comes in a variety of colours and is very similar to the Shetland breed, due to their common ancestor. More common typical colours are the whites and greys, but browns, beiges, reds (also called tanay) and blacks, with coarser hair, are all exhibited. A full fleece weighs about 1 kg (2.2 lb).
The North Ronaldsay is a double-coated breed, meaning they have a wool undercoat and overcoat. The undercoat tends to be finer and soft, suitable for garments that would touch the skin, whereas the overcoat is coarser, with long hair that protects the sheep from the cold, wet weather of their natural environment. This fibre is more durable and tends to be used in overgarments.
- Barbara Rischkowsky, D. Pilling (eds.) (2007). p. 138. List of breeds documented in the Global Databank for Animal Genetic Resources, annex to The State of the World's Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ISBN 9789251057629. Accessed August 2017.
- Watchlist 2017–18. Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire: Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Accessed May 2017.
- Hollweg, Lucas (3 February 2008). "The Virtues of North Ronaldsay Lamb". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 4 March 2017.
- Long, John L. (2003). Introduced Mammals of the World: Their History, Distribution and Influence. CSIRO Publishing. p. 527. ISBN 9780643099166 – via Google Books.
- Alderson, Lawrence (2016). "Sheep". In Porter, Valerie; Alderson, Lawrence; Hall, Stephen J. G.; Spoonenberg, Phillip (eds.). Mason's World Encyclopedia of Livestock Breeds and Breeding. 2. CAB International. pp. 872–74. ISBN 9781845934668 – via Google Books.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
- Vorwald Dohner, Janet (2001). The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds. Yale University Press. pp. 96–98. ISBN 9780300138139 – via Google Books.
- Ryder, M. L. (1981) . "A survey of European primitive breeds of sheep". Annales de Génétique et de Sélection Animale. 13 (4): 381–418. doi:10.1186/1297-9686-13-4-381. PMC 2718014. PMID 22896215.
- "The Dyke: Origin". Orkney Sheep Foundation. Retrieved 2018-02-21.
- Vorwald Dohner, Encyclopedia, pp. 96–97.
- "A historic Introduction". The Native Sheep of North Ronaldsay. Sheep-Isle. Retrieved 2009-04-23.
- Duke, Charile (12 October 2015). "Dyke under threat". Daily Record. Retrieved 2 December 2016.
- Ruggeri, Amanda (24 September 2015). "North Ronaldsay sheep eat seaweed and little else". bbc.co.uk. BBC. Archived from the original on 13 February 2017. Retrieved 21 February 2018.
- "Seaweed Sheep get their own festival". Press and Journal. 11 May 2016. Retrieved 2 December 2016.
- "North Ronaldsay Dyke Information". Buildings At Risk Scotland. Retrieved 2 December 2016.
- "North Ronaldsay, Sheep Dyke and Associated Punds – Listing". Historic Scotland Portal. Retrieved 1 January 2017.
- "What is listing?". Historic Scotland. Retrieved 1 January 2017.
- "Plans considered to preserve North Ronaldsay sheep dyke". BBC News. 12 October 2015. Retrieved 10 January 2017.
- Gall, Charlie (12 October 2015). "Scots islanders battle to stop flock of unique seaweed-eating sheep". Daily Record. Retrieved 10 January 2017.
- Fenton, Alexander (2015). "Sheep in North Ronaldsay". In Jenkins, G. (ed.). Studies in Folk Life (RLE Folklore): Essays in Honour of Iorwerth C. Peate. Routledge. p. 208. ISBN 9781317549901 – via Google Books.
- Fenton, "Sheep in North Ronaldsay", p. 210.
- Balasse, Marie; Tresset, Anne; Dobney, Keith; Ambrose, Stanley H. (2005). "The use of isotope ratios to test for seaweed eating in sheep". Journal of Zoology. 266 (3): 283–91. doi:10.1017/S0952836905006916.
- Vorwald Dohner, Encyclopedia, p. 97.
- Black, William (2006). The Land That Thyme Forgot. Random House. p. 155. ISBN 9780552152099 – via Google Books.
- Ekarius, Carol; Robson, Deborah (2011). The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook: More Than 200 Fibers, from Animal to Spun Yarn. Storey Publishing. pp. 176–77. ISBN 9781603427647 – via Google Books.
- Black, Land That Thyme Forgot, p. 155.
- Archer, Mark; Grantham, Mark; Howlett, Peter; Stansfield, Steven (2010). Bird Observatories of the British Isles. Bloomsbury. ISBN 9781408139066 – via Google Books.
- "FAO Livestock Database". fao.org. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Retrieved 3 December 2016.
- "North Ronaldsay Sheep Breed Fellowship". nrsf.moonfruit.com. North Ronaldsay Sheep Fellowship. Retrieved 2 December 2016.
- "Watchlist 2014". The Ark. Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Spring 2014.
- "Rare Breeds Survival Trust breed profile". rbst.org.uk. Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Archived from the original on 2 December 2016. Retrieved 2 December 2016.
- National Research Council (1993). Managing Global Genetic Resources: Livestock. National Academies Press. pp. 28, 101. ISBN 9780309043946. OCLC 44964564.
- Alderson, "Sheep", p. 873.
- Morris, June (September 2000). "The Case for Exempting Primitive Sheep from the National Scrapie Plan". Soay Farms. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
- Townsend, S. J.; Warner, R.; Dawson, M. (2005). "PrP genotypes of rare breeds of sheep in Great Britain". Veterinary Record. 156 (5): 131–34. doi:10.1136/vr.156.5.131. PMID 15715003.
- Blacker, Susan (2012). Pure Wool: A Guide to Using Single-Breed Yarns. Stackpole Books. ISBN 9780811760959 – via Google Books.
- Hall, Stephen J. G. (1975). "Some recent observations on Orkney Sheep". Mammal Review. 5 (2): 59–64. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2907.1975.tb00187.x.
- "Galapagos marine iguana videos, photos and facts – Amblyrhynchus cristatus". ARKive. Archived from the original on 2016-11-24. Retrieved 31 December 2016.
- Hansen, H. R. (2003). "A qualitative and quantitative evaluation of the seaweed diet of North Ronaldsay sheep". Animal Feed Science and Technology. 105 (1–4): 21–28. doi:10.1016/S0377-8401(03)00053-1.[permanent dead link]
- Smale, Dan A.; Burrows, Michael T.; Moore, Pippa.; O'Connor, Nessa.; Hawkins, Stephen J. (2011). "Threats and knowledge gaps for ecosystem services provided by kelp forests: a northeast Atlantic perspective". Ecology and Evolution. 3 (11): 4016–38. doi:10.1002/ece3.774. PMC 3810891. PMID 24198956.
- National Research Council, Managing Global Genetic Resources, p. 30.
- "Farm Animal Genetic Resources – Part 2" (PDF). fao.org. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Retrieved 14 January 2016.[permanent dead link]
- Hall, "Some recent observations", p. 60.
- Mirkena, T.; Duguma, G.; Haile, A.; Tibbo, M.; Okeyo, A.M.; Wurzinger, M.; Sölkner, J. (2010). "Genetics of adaptation in domestic farm animals: A review". Livestock Science. 132 (1–3): 1–3. doi:10.1016/j.livsci.2010.05.003.
- Ponzoni, R. W. (1997). "The Genetics of Sheep". In Piper, L.A.; Ruvinsky, A. (eds.). Genetic Resources and Conservation. CAB International. pp. 437–69. ISBN 9780851992006.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
- Haywood, S.; Simpson, D. M.; Ross, G.; Beynon, R. J. (2005). "The greater susceptibility of North Ronaldsay sheep compared with Cambridge sheep to copper-induced oxidative stress, mitochondrial damage and hepatic stellate cell activation". Journal of Comparative Pathology. 133 (2–3): 114–27. doi:10.1016/j.jcpa.2005.02.001. PMID 16099232.
- Haywood, S.; Müller, T.; Müller, W.; Heinz-Erian, P.; Tanner, M.S.; Ross, G. (2001). "Copper-associated liver disease in North Ronaldsay sheep: a possible animal model for non-Wilsonian hepatic copper toxicosis of infancy and childhood". The Journal of Pathology. 195 (2): 264–69. doi:10.1002/path.930. PMID 11592108. p. 265
- Alderson, Lawrence (1978). The Chance to Survive: Rare Breeds in a Changing World. Cameron & Tayleur. pp. 76–80. ISBN 9780715376324.
- Bowman, Sheridan (1995) . Radiocarbon Dating. British Museum Press, University of California Press. pp. 20–23. ISBN 9780520070370 – via Google Books.
- "Product Specification – "Orkney Lamb"" (PDF). gov.uk. DEFRA. Retrieved 2 December 2016.
- Hall, "Some recent observations", p. 59.
- Elewes, Henry (2016). Guide To The Primitive Breeds Of Sheep And Their Crosses On Exhibition At The Royal Agricultural Society's Show, Bristol 1913. Read Books. ISBN 9781473352018 – via Google Books.
- Ekarius and Robson, Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook, p. 176.
- Ekarius, Carol; Robson, Deborah (2013). The Field Guide to Fleece: 100 Sheep Breeds & How to Use Their Fibers. Storey Publishing. ISBN 978-1603429269 – via Google Books. p. 147.
- Ekarius and Robson, Field Guide to Fleece, pp. 146–47.
Media related to North Ronaldsay sheep at Wikimedia Commons