The British Soay is an ancient, short-tailed breed of sheep that descend from a feral population on the island of Soay (Norse for Sheep Island – indicating a connection to the Vikings), in the St. Kilda archipelago of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. While the primary population remains on the islands, some of the sheep were brought onto the U.K. mainland, and there were later exports to Europe and North America. The population on the islands fluctuates between about 800 to 2000 sheep, and the population is now closed to emigration or immigration.
The first North American imports of the British Soay began in 1990 to Montreal and then south to the US. About 450 Soay sheep were registered in the U.K. in 2021, and about 90 British Soay were registered from North America. Registration occurs through the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) Combined Flock Book.
Soay sheep are small (50-80 lbs), nimble and almost deerlike sheep, with slender bones and clean faces and legs. Their small stature belies the breed’s hardiness, resilience and self-sufficiency. Isolated on Soay for thousands of years, the breed was shaped by the harsh North Atlantic environment into a cold-hardy, parasite and disease resistant, resilient sheep. Ewes can lamb easily for up to 10 years and they are good mothers. The breed can thrive on marginal pasture that would be inadequate for other sheep breeds, but they can become overweight quickly on lush grass or grain.
Soay wool is cast (shed) in the springtime and can be rooed by hand. Fiber quality varies from wooly to kempy with colors ranging from light brown to near black. Soay also produce a mild-tasting, low-fat meat. With their docile nature, small size and lighter impact on the soil, they are useful for ecologically-sound grazing programs, and could be especially useful in solar farm or vineyard grazing situations.
Two types of Soay sheep are present in North America, the British Soay and the American Soay. The latter is a larger sheep that is not listed on the CPL. British Soay sheep born in North America can be registered in the RBST Combined Flock Book if their parents were registered in that Flock Book.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.