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North Ronaldsay Sheep Conservation at Howar

The historical isolation and the hostile environment have ensured that there has been very little successful cross breeding in North Ronaldsay sheep.

A Genetic Treasure

North Ronaldsay sheep are one of the last surviving remnants of the native British Sheep. In other parts of Britain they were replaced by improved breeds from Europe. On North Ronaldsay they were, instead, excluded onto the foreshore, and the descendants of the survivors are able to exist on a diet of seaweed. At Howar we aim to protect these unique survivors, from the threat of environmental disaster, by keeping them on grass and supplementing their diet with seaweed collected from the shore every day. In this way we hope to avoid the loss of the genes that give them the ability to survive on seaweed.
As a result we have a collection of very friendly seaweed eating sheep who are happy to provide visitors with photo opportunities. They have even been willing, by special arrangement, to return to the foreshore, temporarily, and give demonstrations of seaweed eating, on the shore, for visiting film crews.


There are several suggestions of the route by which the ancestors of North Ronaldsay sheep arrived in the British Isles. The Vikings are often invoked, or the Celts, either through continental Europe or along the Atlantic seaboard. However recent advances in molecular archaeology indicate a much older route through Russia and Scandinavia.
There is strong archaeological evidence that sheep were first domesticated, 10,000 years ago, in the Caspian region of present day Iran. Research in Finland compared changes in the DNA of Northern Short-tail sheep, presently found from Russia to Scandinavia and Northern Europe. The results imply a route, from the Caspian Sea, along the Volga river. The earliest remains of sheep of sheep found in Finland are dated at 5000 years ago. Although 5000 year old remains of sheep have been found in Orkney at the Scara Brae Neolithic settlement, no British sheep were included in the study. At Howar, we have obtained funding from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust to extend the DNA study to North Ronaldsay sheep. The results may be a link in a chain extending back to the first domestication of sheep 10,000 years ago.


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