North Ronaldsay Sheep

On the rocks and beaches of the tiny island of North Ronaldsay live herds of rare breed sheep.
Their diet of seaweed and the harsh weather conditions produce a fleece which is warm and thick,
with a long staple. The yarn spun from these fleeces is both soft and hard wearing.

No one knows exactly how and when sheep came to North Ronaldsay. Excavations at the Broch of Burrian
on the south-east tip of the island uncovered many spindle whorls and weaving combs, indicating a
thriving wool-based industry two thousand years ago. DNA tests show that these Iron Age sheep are
genetically identical to the modern sheep, showing that they have remained unchanged.

North Ronaldsays are a primitive breed, genetically the most primitive in the UK. They are small,
fine-boned sheep with small heads. Ewes have a dished face, and rams have big curly horns: some
ewes have smaller, backward-facing horns. Fleeces can be any colour, from white to very dark brown,
with a staple of about 10cm/4". Unlike most sheep, North Ronaldsays have a double coat, the inner
being as fine as cashmere and the outer being thicker. The outer coat, or guard hair, is structured
to encourage water to run off the hair rather than soak into the undercoat.

In the Nineteenth Century, a wall was built round the island to confine the sheep to the shore,
leaving the good grazing land for cattle. The sheep changed their biology and behaviour to adapt
to live on the seaweed brought in by the tide. They can be seen on the rocks and sandy beaches
eating fronds of their favourite laminaria like spaghetti.

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