Soay Health and Keeping
The following is intended as a very basic guide to caring for your Soay sheep and any advice given is based purely on our own experiences. Keep in mind that all sheep are different and so what works for us with our own flock may not necessarily work for you.
The Soay Sheep Arrive
Transportation and relocation are very stressful for any animal and Soay sheep are no different. When your sheep arrive it is important to allow them plenty of quiet time to acclimatise themselves to their new environment. Remember that everything will be strange to them – sights, sounds, smells, even the food – and they are likely to feel frightened and insecure.
It is highly advisable to keep them confined for a few days if possible after arrival in a clean, dry, well ventilated building where they can be monitored for any signs of stress or illness which might develop as a result of the journey. It also acts as quarantine - minimising the risk of introducing illness into any sheep which you may already own.
Feeding regular small amounts of food* and avoiding any rough handling during this initial period will condition them to associate you with pleasant experiences and will help to ensure that your sheep do not fear you. After a few days, If you have other animals which are likely to come into contact with the sheep (such as other sheep or dogs) it is worth introducing them to each other BUT keep a barrier between them initially (such as a fence or gate) to minimise any risk of fighting. All animals can be territorial and your new sheep will be seen as intruders. After a few more days it should then be safe to release them onto pasture.
Establish a Daily Routine for your Soay Sheep
Try to maintain a daily feeding* routine with your sheep as they are essentially creatures of habit. A small handful of proprietary coarse sheep mix, sugar beet pellets, or ewe nuts fed once or twice daily is a tasty snack to tempt even the fussiest Soay and they will quickly learn to associate you and your feed bucket with treats. Eventually you should find that the slightest rattle of the bucket will summon the entire flock and this is particularly helpful when you wish to move them into a new pasture or round them up.
* Feedstuffs suitable for Soay sheep include hay, haylage, coarse sheep mix, sugar beet shreds or pellets, ewe nuts. Always ensure that your feed manufacturer does not add any copper to any of their products as primitive sheep like the Soay are particularly susceptible to copper poisoning. It is also important to avoid any feeds with added magnesium if you are keeping wethers (castrated males) as this can cause urinary stones to form.
Observe your Soay Sheep
Spend time observing your sheep as any changes in their behaviour can be indicative of a problem. Individual sheep will display different behaviours and will establish their own daily routines and any deviation from this is worth further investigation. Any animal separating itself from the flock, spending a lot of time lying around, not eating, or simply behaving in an unusual manner may have a problem which requires assistance and any symptoms such as coughing, nasal or ocular discharges, or scouring (diarrhoea) should definitely not be ignored. Although Soay sheep appear to be less prone to health issues than their commercial counterparts this does not mean that they never become ill and speed is of the essence when dealing with a sick sheep.
Routine Maintenance for Soay Sheep
Soay sheep are described as low maintenance but this does not mean that they are maintenance free. Most sheep will require worming at some point** and some owners may also wish to establish an annual vaccination routine. During the Summer months it is important to take precautions to prevent flystrike - a condition which develops when flies lay their eggs on the fleece and the hatching maggots then burrow into the sheep’s flesh. This is fatal if left untreated.
Shearing should not be necessary as most animals will shed their fleeces naturally under normal breeding conditions. However, there will always be the odd animal which fails to shed completely and which requires ‘rooing’ (plucking by hand) or clipping with hand shears.
Foot trimming may not be necessary if animals are allowed access to a hard, rough surface which effectively wears the hooves down. However, if they are kept purely on soft grass it is highly likely that some animals will periodically require a pedicure. Hooves that require trimming are best tackled when the ground is wet as the hooves become softer and easier to cut.
Lambing is normally trouble-free and it is extremely rare for a Soay ewe to require any assistance. Very occasionally an overly large lamb may prove difficult to pass (this can happen when ewes are overfed during pregnancy or if they are in-lamb to a much larger breed) or a lamb may be mal-presented but this is not a common occurrence and the majority of births will take place without the need for any human intervention.
**Current advice suggests that sheep should not be wormed too often as this can lead to drug-resistant strains of worms. It is therefore suggested that sheep should only be wormed when necessary (i.e. when they are showing symptoms of worm infestation such as scouring, coughing, or ill-thrift) and that the anthelmintic chosen should be appropriate for the species of worm being treated.
Relax and Enjoy your Soay Sheep
Soay sheep respond far more favourably if the atmosphere remains calm and relaxed. Any attempts to rush them will result in panic and a stressed Soay sheep is likely to use every means in its power to escape. These sheep CAN jump and WILL jump if they feel threatened so calm and quiet handling are essential. In the early days, spend as much time as possible with them, sit quietly amongst them so that they get used to your presence and gradually they will learn to trust you. This will pay dividends in the long run and will avoid an awful lot of frustration further down the line….