Soay Sheep History

A view of the sea from Hirta one of the Islands in the Saint Kilda archipelago

The Saint Kilda archipelago is one of the wildest, most isolated places in Europe. This tiny cluster of islands lies very far from the Scottish Mainland, and for centuries the inhabitants of Saint Kilda have managed to survive under the most extreme conditions imaginable.

The islands are treeless, windswept, and rocky; the livestock that populate these islands are, out of sheer necessity, extremely hardy. The last of Saint Kilda's permanent human population left the islands in the 1930s. Life on the islands had always been brutally hard, and after influenza swept through Saint Kilda, islanders came to the conclusion that it was time to leave.

The inaccessible island of Soay

The departing islanders left behind some of their sheep; the animals that remained on the islands became feral and formed a self-sustaining population. One of the most inaccessible of Saint Kilda's islands is Soay. The island's name comes from the Norse word for sheep. It was on Soay that a particularly hardy and unusual breed of sheep managed to survive the millennia. This unique strain of sheep was later introduced to the nearby island of Hirta, and sheep from both islands are known as Soay sheep.

It is widely believed that these primitive sheep have been present on the islands since the Neolithic period (4,500 -2000 BC). Soay sheep look very different than other breeds of sheep: they have a strange, deer-like appearance and naturally shed their wool as temperatures rise. They also behave differently: Soay sheep cannot be managed using sheep dogs because they scatter when threatened instead of flocking together therefore, groups of Soay sheep are always called a herd rather than a flock.
British Soay Sheep in North America

British Soay Rams

     
Given the remoteness of Saint Kilda and the rarity of Soay sheep, it may come as no surprise that only two groups of Soay sheep have ever been imported from the UK to North America.

The first herd arrived at Manitoba's Assiniboine Park Zoo in 1974, and consisted of four six-month old Soay lambs from Highland Wildlife Park in Kingussie, Scotland. However, because of the difficulty involved in importing additional Soays from the UK and the need to make room for another group endangered ruminants, the zoo had entirely disbanded its soay herd by 1981. Some of these Soays made it to the east coast of the United States and were sold by exotic animal dealer, Eugen Hutka.

All of the sheep from this herd were crossed with other breeds, and records on these animals were, for the most part, simply not maintained. As a result, tracing the pedigrees of these animals and determining the amount of Soay genetics remaining in the survivors is now impossible.

Some of the descendants of these Soay sheep are now termed "North American Soay" (NAS.) This term is used to describe sheep with a percentage of Soay genetics mixed with that other sheep breeds. While these animals are often attractive, well-constructed creatures, they do not contribute to the preservation of the breed of sheep that originated on Saint Kilda. Ultimately, North American Soays are an admixture of domestic sheep breeds which are transforming into an entirely separate breed.

In 1990, a second group of purebred Soays was imported from the UK and was maintained in Canada (as a closed flock) until 2000, after which the remainder of this flock was imported into the United States by Kathie Miller and Val Dambacher. The enthusiasm of these two women for Soay sheep led them to embark in the first serious effort to conserve pure British Soays in North America.

Miller and Dambacher kept meticulous records on their herd of Soays and succeeded in convincing the RBST (Rare Breeds Survival Trust) to accept the sheep into its Combined Flock Book (the only accepted registry for British Soay sheep.) Miller and Dambacher continue to work for the preservation of British Soays in North America. Their website contains some of the most exhaustive information about the breed available.