The seaweed-eating sheep of North Ronaldsay
The North Ronaldsay is a breed of sheep from the northernmost island of Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland. The rugged animals have evolved to live almost entirely on seaweed - one of few mammals to do so.
The North Ronaldsay sheep belongs to the Northern European short-tailed group of breeds. it has evolved without much cross-breeding, and is a smaller sheep than most, with the rams (males) horned and ewes (females) mostly hornless.
It was formerly kept for wool, but now the two largest flocks are feral, one on North Ronaldsay and another on the Orkney island of Auskerry. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust lists the breed as a priority for protection on its 2021–2022 watchlist, and they are in danger of extinction, with fewer than 600 registered breeding females in the United Kingdom.
In the 1830s the old pattern of land management on North Ronaldsay was beginning to change with the formation of the modern field system, and of new methods of managing the island's crofts. This opened up new opportunities to grow crops and keep cattle, and to bring in bigger breeds of sheep such as Cheviots and Leicesters.
On many islands the native sheep did not survive this ‘modernisation’, and were discarded. But in North Ronaldsay, a way was found to adopt new systems for the land without entirely abandoning the sheep which had served them well down the generations.
In 1832 a drystone wall was constructed above the high water line around the complete circumference of the island. The sheep were then confined to the seaward side. Here they have remained, save for a few months each year when ewes and lambs are brought inland to graze.
This unusual diet has caused a variety of adaptations to the sheep's digestive system. as they have to extract the important trace element copper far more efficiently than other breeds as their diet has a limited supply of it.
A range of fleece colours can be seen, including grey, brown and red. Meat from the North Ronaldsay has a distinctive flavour, described as "intense" and "gamey", due, in part, to the high iodine content in their diet of seaweed. The meat has Protected Geographical Status in European Union law, so only that from North Ronaldsay sheep can be marketed as Orkney Lamb.
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