Soay sheep are a primitive breed of sheep whose origin can be traced to a population of feral sheep on a 250 acre island called Soay, in the St. Kilda Archipelago off the coast of Scotland. It is unclear how they got to the island, but some suggest they arrived during the Bronze age or were brought by Vikings in the ninth or tenth centuries. In 1932, the island of Soay was evacuated and 107 Soay sheep were brought from the island and released.
Their history in the U.S. is traced to sheep that were brought to Canada and purchased by breeders in the northwestern part of the country. Breeders in Washington state and Oregon were among the earliest to develop the breed in America. The sheep on CWA farm were purchased from one of the founding breeders in Camas, Washington.
The Soay sheep are small framed animals with good legs, short tails, and they naturally shed their wool. Wool can be pulled (rooing) from their hides in the spring and early summer. The fleece is extremely fine with the inner fleece and outer coat being very similar. The fleece is used for hand knitting. The wool quality is 44’s to 50’s with a weight between 3 and 5 pounds and a staple length between 5 and 15 cm. It is said that the wool is so fine it was used to knit islander’s under garments. To that, my brother, the grandson of a Scottish immigrant said, “Remember what stoic and hardy folks the Scots are….”
The fleece colors range from light to dark brown, tan with a white belly and rump with a white patch under the chin called Mouflon or wild pattern. They are rarely solid color black or tan.
These animals are not like most sheep in that they lack the flocking instinct of other breeds. They are exceptionally agile, frighten rather easily and take refuge in the area most familiar to them. As feral animals their flight instincts took them to high cliffs and crevices. With effort and care, they can become less anxious and more approachable. Many breeders find them to be friendly and easy to manage. The females are good mothers with adequate milk for single or twin lambs.
The rams have well developed horns, heavy shoulders and chests. The females are polled or horned. Some females have well formed horns though smaller than the rams.
They are hardy, healthy and easy keepers in terms of adapting to varying climates and environments.
Soays are used for their wool, meat and ability to graze weeds and brush. Their carcasses are said to be lean and their meat is considered a delicacy by some. (We do not eat the animals raised on our farm.) Their size makes them excellent animals for small acreages and homesteads.