Hebridean sheep

(Ovis aries)

The mainstay of our smallholding is  our breeding flock of Hebridean sheep. We sell meat, wool and woolen products at the farm gate and always have pedigree breeding stock available for sale. We have a mixture of 2 and 4 horned sheep and are trying to increase the number of 4 horned sheep, which are increasingly rare. We are now also expaning our trade sales of meat.

Our ancient ancestors
Way back in the mists of Britain’s past, our Iron Age ancestors lived in wooden round houses and stone wheel houses. They were farmers, and among their livestock they kept sheep. Archaeological digs have shown that these early northern domestic sheep were smaller than the modern commercial sheep seen grazing in our fields today. They had short tails and many were horned – some even multi horned. The bones, including multi-horned skull fragments, of these ancestral northern short-tailed sheep have been found spread over Britain and Northern Europe, including Scandinavia, areas of the world which are not home to wild sheep.

These little sheep would have been hardy and able to withstand the poor conditions and minimal management of the Iron Age and would have adapted to the climate of Britain, which is wetter than the cold desert of the Zagros mountains of Western Asia, the native homeland to the wild sheep hunted by Man in the Stone Age and the probable origin of our British domesticated type.

Those wild sheep were not woolly in the way we associate with sheep today, but had a hair coat with a short warm undercoat which could be shorn or plucked. The tendency to have wool rather than hair has been bred in by thousands of years of selection by Man.

Wild sheep tend to be brown or ‘mouflon’ pattern, but under the influence of domestication sheep developed many colours, including rarely white, as can be seen in the descendants of the British Iron Age animals, including the Hebridean breed of sheep we know today. Hebrideans are related to the other Northern Short-tailed breeds (such as the Shetland, North Ronaldsay, Manx Loaghtan, and Icelandic) which, between them show many colour variations.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, this variety of small, thrifty sheep, known by then as the Scottish Dunface, still provided the mainstay for subsistence farmers in these regions. But gradually the agricultural revolution of the period, the development of new breeds of sheep and the clearance of many farming families from the land began to push the Dunface type to the rocky outlying areas of North and West Britain. With government and landowners’ support, the sheep were replaced by ‘improved’ long-tailed breeds such as the Blackface and Cheviot. By early in the twentieth century, these little sheep, which had been present in the region for thousands of years, had all but disappeared.

At home with the aristocracy
The black colouration in Hebridean sheep is a recessive characteristic, so once black sheep had been selected, all their future lambs would also be black, or occasionally brown.

It is easy to understand how these attractive additions to the parkland in front of the large country house would have been coveted (and subsequently bought) by other estate owners, at a time when it was fashionable to keep ‘exotic’ animals such as Zebra roaming within sight of the family and guests. Perhaps, though, the selection of black animals had already begun before the sheep found their way to estates. The celtic peoples of the west of the British Isles have always had a liking for black domestic animals. This is probably not just cosmetic. Black horned feet are harder, grow more slowly and are more resistant to rot. They are thus particularly suitable for the boggy, peaty conditions to be found over large parts of the west of Britain. Had it not been for the existence of these parkland flocks, the breed would not have survived into the mid-twentieth century.

In 1973 the Rare Breeds Survival Trust identified Hebridean sheep as a breed in danger of extinction. Only a few parkland flocks remained and there were none of these sheep left in their homelands of the west of Scotland. Fortunately, these parkland flocks had been virtually feral, with little if any management, and so the characteristics of the sheep had probably changed very little since their arrival.

An old breed for new times
Over the centuries, Hebridean ewes have been selected by natural systems for hardiness in all weathers, ease of lambing, milkiness and good mothering instincts. Today, when extensification provides the only viable option for many of our harsher regions, the Hebridean ewe is, once again, finding a role in European agriculture. Because Hebrideans have not been modified by artificial selection they remain a small, economically efficient breeding ewe with a surprising ability to produce quality cross-bred lambs.

Text reproduced with permission from the Hebridean Sheep Society.