Beginning with Boreray rare breed sheep

Back in May 2003, following an overly successful lambing, I decided it was time for a serious stock reduction exercise and very reluctantly parted company with my entire flock of Jacob sheep. They had been lovely sheep – placid and easy to round up – basically everything that the Soay are not, but they were just a little too big to manage single-handedly and this had become an important consideration. It wasn’t long however before I found myself gazing sadly at some very empty fields and contemplating what sort of new creatures I could acquire to fill the space. The selection criteria were relatively simple – small, easy to manage, hardy and preferably low-maintenance. This immediately discounted pigs and cattle and led me back to sheep. Since purchasing my first 8 Soay ewes at Stoneleigh several years ago I had found primitive sheep to be strangely addictive and so it seemed that the only sensible option was to add to my existing flock of Soay sheep. I put forward this suggestion to the committee (husband John) for discussion but it was instantly rejected with cries of “boring”, “no imagination” and “I’m not rounding them up ever again – they do my head in!” so it was back to the drawing board and more research….

Boreray are rated critically rare by the Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST)

A while later, having trawled internet for what seemed like an eternity I came up with what appeared to be the ideal breed – the Boreray sheep. Everything suggested that they shared the same endearing qualities as the Soay – small, low maintenance, able to survive on poor pastures – so after careful consideration I began the task of locating some stock for sale. Unfortunately, their rarity meant that locating a “supplier” proved to be considerably more difficult than I thought as the nearest breeder to me appeared to be located several hundred miles away in Scotland. Christine Williams also pointed me in the direction of several “unwanted” specimens being cared for by a farmer in Cumbria but that was also several hours drive away. Eventually, as a result of many emails and telephone calls I managed to secure myself a small flock of 6 ewes and a ram from Scotland, and 4 ewes from Cumbria.

Finally the BIG day arrived and in due course a small livestock trailer appeared outside carrying my first 7 Boreray from Scotland. They had all been recently sheared and looked very smart if not a little tired from the long journey but the sight of a nice fresh bale of hay and some particularly delicious sheep mix was more than sufficient to lure them swiftly from the trailer and into their new home. Every morsel of food soon vanished and they settled down contentedly to an afternoon nap. John, eager to see the reason for my excitement, rushed down to the barn to view the new arrivals then firmly announced “they are UGLY – you’ve bought a bunch of Uglies!!”. I gathered from this outburst that he did not consider them to be a good buy! A week later I collected the remaining 4 ewes from a very relieved farmer in Cumbria who announced that it had taken him all morning to round them up and that he was glad to see the back of them because they were far too troublesome! At this point I began to wonder what hideous creatures I had encumbered myself with but nevertheless I took them home proudly and introduced them to the rest of the flock.

Boreray are hardy creatures

Despite having done copious amounts of research, nothing had really prepared me for these sheep. The ewes are actually much prettier than any picture would suggest and the ram, with his large spiralling horns, is quite stunning. Their fleeces are very thick and, unlike the Soay, they seem totally disinclined to use the shelters that I have painstakingly prepared for them.

I soon discovered that their feet need regular attention and, being particularly inept in this department despite having all the correct tools, I contemplated asking the farrier to lend a hand when he attends to my donkeys but he has a particular hatred for my little “stick” sheep as he likes to call them. They are as easy (or as difficult) to round up as the Soay so the “yellow bucket of sheep mix” is an essential piece of equipment for bribery purposes. I have learned over the years that rounding up primitive sheep can be a real battle of wills and that the secret is to be kind and calm and, above all, devious. Chasing them wildly around a field with limbs flailing wildly achieves absolutely nothing except to make you look very foolish and at the end of the day you will still not have rounded up a single sheep! They are very nervous when caught but their small size makes them quite easy to handle although the ram seems to have the strength of an ox and is well aware of the offensive weapons that nature has chosen to equip him with. After a couple of weeks and rather a lot of sheep mix we all became very good friends and even John, whose initial reaction was one of total indifference, has become very fond of them and believes I should add to the flock.

Rams love to bash and head butt the fence posts

In October the ram began to show serious interest in his ewes. They, on the other hand, did not appear to share his enthusiasm for romance but he was extremely persistent and delighted in putting on amorous displays whenever we went into the field. By December, having become totally bored with all his girls, he began to focus his attention on the demolition of the stock fencing .This activity was positively encouraged by Conachair Kafka (Soay ram) who insisted on standing on the other side of the fence gazing lustfully at the ewes. Over the years I have frequently witnessed these exhibitions of destruction from the primitive rams which always seem to begin with a gentle rub of the head on a fence post, gradually building up to a full-blown charge from 20 paces. It seems that the only way to curb this unsociable behaviour is to erect miles of electric fencing all round the perimeter fence in true “Jurassic Park” style.

It is now February and despite the harsh weather and sparse vegetation the flock is looking remarkably well. The annual preparations for lambing have begun in earnest and hopefully in a few weeks time we will be hearing the patter of tiny hooves. I am praying that the Boreray will all give birth without the need for any human intervention as my midwifery skills are as yet unproven and at lambing time the one thing I can be sure of is that John will be nowhere to be seen!!