Friday, 3 October 2014

Wildplace 6: Boreray Sheep

Boreray Sheep
One of the minor but more curious stories in the complicated history of Britain is the story of St Kilda. Located in the Outer Hebrides, it is the most isolated of the archipelago, and today at least is uninhabited except for sea birds, which have the largest colonies in Britain. Up until the 1920’s it had been continually inhabited since at least the Bronze Age, if not earlier, but contact with the outside world for the few hundred (at most) inhabitants was only every few months at best, and in the winter storms they were cut off for much of the year. By historical times they were Gaelic-speaking, living a subsistence=level existence based around small farms, a few sheep, and harvesting young from the vast seabird colonies that are still a feature of the island and its associated offshore sea stacks.

St Kilda Field Mouse
St Kilda is sufficiently isolated that there are several endemic subspecies, notably the St Kilda Wren, Troglodytes troglodytes hirtensis, which has a population of only a few hundred pairs, and the St Kilda Field Mouse, Apodemus sylvaticus hirtensis. The mouse probably arrived with Viking ships over a thousand years ago, and is basically a local form of the widespread Wood Mouse. One seabird that once bred in the islands but does so no longer (or anywhere else) is the famous Great Auk – by historical times St Kilda was its only known colony in the British Isles. The species became extinct in the early 19th century, but I am not sure when the St Kilda colony became extinct.

Great Auk
A decline in fertility of the islands fields, together with emigration to the Scottish mainland and further afield – a suburb of Melbourne, Australia is called St Kilda – together with an increasing awareness of easier lives elsewhere, eventually resulted in the islanders petitioning for evacuation, and the last residents left in 1930. Since then it has been left to the birds and visiting cruise ships. When the islanders left they took their sheep with them, but could not remove some from the neighbouring island of Boreray, which is where the Wildplace animals come in. Boreray sheep derive from crosses between the native Scottish Dunface, a breed derived directly from Iron Age sheep kept across northwest Europe, and the Scottish Blackface, a more productive form introduced in the 18th century. After the islands were abandoned the sheep on Boreray were left behind until a few animals were removed for research in 1971, and from these all the Boreray sheep kept outside the islands derive.

Boreray Sheep
Having been left to their own devices on a highly exposed island in the North Atlantic for many generations, they are extremely hardy, agile, and disease resistant. Unlike more selected breeds from the mainland, they shed their wool naturally each year. The wool is not of as high quality as that from other breeds, and tends to be used for tweed or carpet yarns. They are a very small breed, standing around 60cm at the shoulder with ewes weighing around 30kg. The islanders used them mainly as a meat breed, and they are now being used for conservation grazing, although most are just display animals. Being alert, agile, fast, and fairly intelligent (for sheep anyway) rounding them up sometimes is a chore, but they suffer few diseases or lambing problems.
 (Great auk and field mouse images from Wikipedia, others my own)

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