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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.