Soay and Its Sheep
The Island of Soay
The Isle of Soay, a name derived from the Norse word for Sheep Island, is near the North West corner of Hirta. A very dangerous, narrow channel and sea stacks separate the two. Soay is extremely difficult to access due to its steep rocky cliffs, boulder fields and lack of anchorage. It can only be approached when seas are very calm and quickly changing weather can make getting off the island nearly impossible, it is the least accessible of all the islands in the archipelago. It is believed that sheep have probably inhabited Soay since the Bronze Age and are the descendants of the very first domesticated sheep which populated northern Europe. They are the most primitive surviving livestock breed in the UK. The sheep on Soay Island were not owned by the St. Kildans of Hirta, but instead by the islands various lairds (landlords). Their feudal tenants were allowed to annually collect fleece from these sheep and were occasionally permitted to take an animal, for a fee, to kill for special occasions. While Soay is somewhat larger (244 acres) than its neighbour Boreray (189 acres) Soay supports fewer animals per acre because its high central plateau is a marshy bog with little vegetation suitable to grazing sheep.
The animals on Soay have never been managed and lived feral on the island for thousands of years, no one is certain how long or how they got there. There are dark and blond sheep with some ewes being horned and many others polled (no horns) or scurred (small or misshaped horns). Rams are either horned or scurred, none are polled. Over recent centuries some animals have been taken from Soay to estates on the mainland of the UK. Over a period of time starting in 1932, after St. Kilda had been evacuated and sold, 107 animals were captured and transferred to the vacant pastures of Hirta. This was a significant number taken from the small population on Soay Island. Today flocks survive in both locations.
Blond and dark Soay sheep on the island of Soay