North Ronaldsay Sheep: The Unique Seaweed-eating Sheep of Scotland

North Ronaldsay, is a hidden island nestled in the captivating Orkney Islands of Scotland. This quiet destination is renowned for its unique breed of sheep and offers an unforgettable experience for nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers alike.

North Ronaldsay sheep graze primarily on seaweed. These hardy creatures have adapted to the island’s coastal environment, creating a distinct flavour in their meat and becoming a part of the rugged landscape.

For wildlife enthusiasts, North Ronaldsay offers an abundance of wildflowers and birdlife, including rare and migratory species. Spotting seals basking on the shores or witnessing the playful antics of dolphins and whales in the surrounding waters are encounters that will leave you in awe.

A brief history of North Ronaldsay

The first known inhabitants of North Ronaldsay were the Picts, who arrived in the region around 2,000 years ago. The island was later ruled by the Norse, who gave it its current name. In the 16th century, North Ronaldsay was granted to the Earl of Orkney, who established a small community of farmers and fishermen on the island.

The island’s population peaked in the 19th century when there were around 500 people living on North Ronaldsay. However, the population has since declined, and there are now fewer than 70 people living on the island.

One of the reasons for the island’s declining population is its remote location. North Ronaldsay is only accessible by boat or small plane, and the journey can be rough and unpredictable. The island is also prone to storms, which can make it difficult to live there.

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Orkney Islands

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North Ronaldsay sheep – the seaweed-eating sheep

The North Ronaldsay sheep is an extraordinary breed that holds a special place in the hearts of the island’s inhabitants. Adapted to survive in the harsh coastal environment, these hardy creatures have become synonymous with North Ronaldsay itself. What sets them apart from other sheep breeds is their unique diet, as they graze primarily on seaweed found along the island’s shoreline.

This peculiar feeding habit has resulted in a distinct flavour and texture in their meat, making it a sought-after delicacy among food enthusiasts. The North Ronaldsay sheep’s meat is often praised for its tenderness and delicate umami flavour, reflecting the maritime influences of their diet.

The breed is vulnerable and it is estimated that there are only 600 breeding females.

The seaweed that the sheep prefer

The North Ronaldsay sheep have a natural affinity for various types of seaweed that grow along the shores of the island. Their diet primarily consists of three main species of seaweed: bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus), kelp (Laminaria digitata), and dulse (Palmaria palmata).

Bladderwrack, also known as black tang, is a brown seaweed with distinctive air-filled bladders along its fronds. It is rich in essential minerals and nutrients, providing a nutritious food source for the sheep. The bladderwrack’s texture and flavour contribute to the unique qualities of the North Ronaldsay sheep’s meat.

Kelp, a large brown seaweed, is another vital component of the sheep’s diet. Its long, thick fronds are highly nutritious and contain a range of minerals and trace elements. Kelp adds depth to the flavour profile of the sheep’s meat, giving it a distinctive and sought-after taste.

Dulse, a red seaweed, is also consumed by the North Ronaldsay sheep. It has a delicate texture and a slightly salty flavour, enhancing the overall flavour complexity of the sheep’s meat.

The availability and abundance of these seaweed species depend on various factors, including tidal patterns and weather conditions. The North Ronaldsay sheep have evolved to efficiently extract nutrition from these seaweeds, allowing them to thrive in their coastal environment and contribute to the island’s unique ecosystem.

North Ronaldsay fleece and wool

The wool of North Ronaldsay sheep is highly valued and utilised for various purposes. Despite the coarseness of their fleece, North Ronaldsay wool is sought after for its unique qualities and versatility.

The wool from North Ronaldsay sheep is known for its exceptional insulation properties, making it ideal for warm and durable garments. It has a naturally water-resistant quality, which helps protect the sheep from the harsh coastal climate. Due to the high lanolin content in their wool, it has excellent moisture-wicking capabilities, ensuring that the sheep stay dry even in damp conditions.

North Ronaldsay sheep have two layers of wool, so their fleeces can only be sheared when the new layer has grown in. This gap between the old and new layers is called the lith. Shearing is usually done by hand, and the fleeces contain both wool and hair fibres, which are separated during processing. The natural colours of the North Ronaldsay sheep’s wool range from creamy whites to dark browns, providing a diverse palette for artisans and textile enthusiasts.

The wool industry in North Ronaldsay plays a significant role in sustaining the island’s economy and cultural heritage. It supports local artisans, spinners, and craftspeople, who work with this distinctive fibre to create a range of high-quality products that showcase the breed’s unique characteristics. The wool mill is close to the lighthouse where you can see the fleeces being processed.

North Ronaldsay sheep dyke

The North Ronaldsay sheep have played an integral role in shaping the island’s landscape and culture. The historic sheepdyke, a stone wall encircling the island, was constructed to keep the sheep on the shoreline, where they could graze on seaweed and prevent them from wandering into the fertile pastures.

The sheep dyke is a dry stone wall that encircles the entire perimeter of North Ronaldsay Island, stretching for approximately 21 kilometres. It serves a dual purpose: to protect the fertile grasslands from the sheep and to confine the North Ronaldsay sheep to the shoreline, where they primarily graze on seaweed.

Built in the late 18th century and now Grade A listed, the sheep dyke was constructed by hand using the traditional dry stone walling technique. Skilled craftsmen carefully selected and stacked stones without the use of mortar, creating a sturdy and durable wall.

The design of the sheep dyke allows for the free flow of seawater and provides gaps or “lunks” at intervals to enable drainage and passage for wildlife. There are also a number of circular ‘punds’ where the sheep are gathered for shearing during the summer months.

The sheep dyke requires ongoing maintenance due to the constant exposure to the elements and the eroding effects of the sea. Local residents and volunteers are involved in regular repair and restoration work to ensure the integrity of the wall.

How to see the sheep on North Ronaldsay

Travelling to North Ronaldsay is an adventure in itself and needs careful planning. Flight and ferry schedules as well as weather conditions will all play a part in visiting the island.

Travel to North Ronaldsay

Start your journey by reaching the Orkney Islands in Scotland. The most common way to access Orkney is by ferry or plane. Ferries operate from various mainland ports such as Scrabster, Gills Bay, or Aberdeen, while flights connect from major Scottish cities like Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, or Glasgow to Kirkwall, the main town in Orkney.

Once you reach Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, you have a couple of options to travel to North Ronaldsay. The most direct way is to take a flight from Kirkwall Airport to North Ronaldsay Airport. Flights to North Ronaldsay are operated by Loganair, and the journey takes approximately 20 minutes.

Alternatively, you can take a ferry from Kirkwall to North Ronaldsay. Ferries depart from Kirkwall’s Hatston Pier, and the journey time is around three hours. Ferry services are operated by Orkney Ferries, but please note that they have limited schedules, so it is advisable to check the timetables in advance.

Getting around North Ronaldsay

Once you arrive in North Ronaldsay, it is easy to experience the unique sheep population. Take a leisurely walk along the beach or hike along the edge of the sheep dyke to observe the sheep in their natural habitat.

They graze along the coastline so they tend to move around. Enjoy the landscape and eventually, you will find them. Keep a respectful distance and avoid disturbing them, while they are domesticated animals they are very much wild animals.

The island is just a few miles long so it is possible to complete the coast of the island in a day or two. From the airport, it is an easy walk to the north of the island where the lighthouses and wool mill can be found. You will usually find some sheep close to the lighthouse and the lochan nearby.

North Ronaldsay Sheep brief

North Ronaldsay sheep are a unique breed of sheep that are found on the remote island of North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. These sheep are known for their distinctive mottled fleece and their unusual diet, which consists primarily of seaweed.

North Ronaldsay sheep are thought to have been introduced to the island by the Vikings over 1,000 years ago. The island’s harsh environment, which is dominated by windswept beaches, has made it difficult for other types of livestock to survive. However, North Ronaldsay sheep are well-adapted to the island’s conditions and are able to thrive on the seaweed that washes up on the shore.

The seaweed diet gives North Ronaldsay sheep a distinctive flavour, and their meat is considered to be a delicacy. The sheep are also prized for their fleece, which is used to make woollen garments.

North Ronaldsay sheep are a unique and fascinating breed of sheep. They are a testament to the adaptability of animals and the resilience of nature.

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