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American RBST Foundation Flock USA0001
 Premier Breeder of
British Registered Soay sheep

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                                           USA0001 Fyne  "Mr. January"
                                                      Steve Werblow

          The Following essay appeared as part of an article on Soay Sheep in the 
   January/February 2008 Issue of Hobby Farms magazine. It is the best description     we have seen in the decade we have been breeding British Soay for why we are so                    committed to the conservation of these very special historic sheep.

                                                  For the entire article please visit
                                                                         reprinted here with permission


It's Important.....
to conserve the world’s heritage breeds in America

                                                           By Sue Weaver

Most heritage conservators emphasize breeds with American roots and rightfully so. However, endangered breeds from abroad need us, too.

Breeds with a limited genetic pool to draw from are especially vulnerable when core groups are decimated due to disease, environmental disaster or acts of war, so it’s important to maintain satellite groups at a distance.

Consider Britain’s battle against hoof and mouth disease, in which entire flocks and herds of livestock, rare or otherwise, are destroyed to contain the spread of this modern-day plague—and needless to say, war can have devastating effects on entire breeds.

The Orlov-Rostopchin horse of Russia was nearly annihilated during World War I and the following Russian Revolution, but was carefully bred back up in the post-war years. Then during World War II, every horse at the state stud farm was killed; the only known purebred survivors were three horses stabled at the Moscow Agricultural Fairgrounds.

Numerous other European breeds fared just as poorly; for example, at the close of the war only three purebred Friesian stallions were left alive. These are now reconstructed breeds; had satellite herds been in place in North America, the original pre-war breeds would have surely survived.

So endangered international breeds need dedicated conservators, too. Soay sheep, Ancient White Park cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and Belgian hares—they all need additional steadfast breeders if they’re to survive. Or choose Catalina chickens, Aylesbury ducks or Shetland geese if poultry strikes your fancy.

There are hundreds of interesting, endangered heritage breeds from abroad that are crying for committed conservators. If that’s you, consider establishing a satellite group on your farm as a hedge against catastrophe.

                         How Does This Apply To Us?

The Soay has been imported from the UK to the New World
only twice. The first importation it was lost to conservation as a result of introgression and a lack of records but its remnant is now being developed into a new uniquely American breed. The second has allowed conservators interested in historic preservation to save a satellite flock at a distance. What is the difference between a British Soay and an American Soay and how does this apply to us as conservation breeders? To answer these questions we felt it useful to provide the following shorter histories of each breed here for those who don't want to wade through the more complete stories that appear elsewhere on this website. Which of the two you choose to work with depends entirely on your own personal interest and your reasons for raising sheep.

                        These essays first appeared in Cooking For A Good Life, produced by Carol Fraley of 
                                                                             Wind River Soay Farms
                                                                      reprinted here with permission

                     The British Soay*
                                             A Satellite Flock at a Distance

The Soay is a very historic breed, the most primitive and possibly the oldest surviving European domestic sheep. It may be a living relic of Neolithic man’s early attempts at domestication. Because of its isolation on a remote uninhabited island 100 miles off the western coast of Scotland, it remained untouched for thousands of years. And because of this long isolation it has arguably been pure breeding for longer than any other breed of sheep. As naturalist John Morton Boyd suggested it is Scotland’s “faunal treasure.” During the late nineteenth Century a number of Soay were removed from St. Kilda and placed on estates on the mainland of the UK. Many of these “park” flocks have flourished and the most well known of them at Woburn Abbey is about to pass its century mark. Over the years sheep from these flocks have moved into the hands of conservationists and breeders throughout the British Isles. In 1963 a small group of 24 animals was brought to the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland and Whipsnade Park in England from Hirta for study by the Soay Sheep Research Team led by J. Morton Boyd and Peter Jewell. The remnants of these two flocks were eventually passed on to a few breeders who today maintain them as true to their ancestral heritage as possible, retaining all the variation of color and conformation including horned, scurred and polled animals.

In the fall of 1997 Val Dambacher and Kathie Miller learned through friends in England of a flock of Soay sheep in Athelstan in the Quebec Province of Canada. It had been imported from England in 1990, with some of the animals originating from park land flocks and some from the 1963 group. Imported for medical research purposes it had been kept in quarantine for a decade and complete breeding records had been well maintained. This enabled the pair to trace ancestry in some cases back thirty years or more in England and Scotland and get them re-registered in the UK. The “Phoenix” six (named for the medical research company that imported them) was in fact one of a very few  flocks outside of Great Britain, the only one in North America, and is currently the only one recognized by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. These Soay are now referred to in the US and Canada as British or RBST Soay Sheep.

Over the course of three years Dambacher and Miller imported twenty-two remaining members of the Canadian flock into the United States. Since that time, through a strict conservation breeding program and working with other breeders, the flock has slowly expanded on a few farms around the country. The purpose of this project is to save this satellite flock at a distance as a safeguard against catastrophe in its native land and to conserve it as closely as is humanly possible to its ancestral heritage. Breeding plans are based on pedigrees with an emphasis on preserving diversity and conserving the genetics of all of the founder sheep. Presently live animals and embryos can not be imported from the UK and so those ewes (and their future offspring) that are here are all that breeders will ever be able to work with and they need to be protected. Because the British Soay is sanctioned by the RBST (and by the breed’s mother organization, the Soay Sheep Society in the UK) it is reciprocal with Soay in Great Britain and keepers here have been able to work with breeders there to develop an AI program with imported semen expanding the genetic diversity of the flock. When numbers have risen to a sustainable level and the security of a core population is ensured enthusiasts will then be able to begin breeding for phenotypic characteristics such as color, horn type, wool etc. Until then the temptation to cull for the sake of creating a more marketable sheep must be resisted. When an animal is culled for a particular trait, for example coarse wool or narrow horns, its entire genome is lost to the herd and genes which may be linked to characteristics such as rapid lamb growth, resistance to parasites, or increased survival rates are gone as  well. With primitive breeds especially, which have such limited numbers, these genetics may be gone forever. British Soay conservationists have been given a very unique opportunity and a responsibility to make certain that does not happen and that this direct link to our past will continue to live on as an ambling archive of the chronicles of domestication.

All British Soay sheep are registered (or birth notified) with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in Great Britain on behalf of the Soay Sheep Society which is also in the UK. If they are not registered with the RBST they are not British Soay.
*Note the term British Soay is only used in the United States to describe Soay sheep recognized by the RBST , it is not an accepted term in the UK

                The American Soay
                                                   A Breed Apart

The American Soay is a North American original, it was developed in the United States in the 1980s, it does not originate from St. Kilda and is not a conservation breed. It is instead a composite/crossbreed and one that is ideal for people who want to play with the genetics of color, horn width, pattern, etc, raise organic meat or use it for clearing land without chemicals or bulldozers. For these reasons it is popular with breeders who enjoy working with a developing breed but have no interest in historic preservation. lt. has a colorful but rather short history beginning in the US in 1983 with the exotic animal trade. Its saga actually began in 1974 when four unregistered Soay Sheep (twin ram lambs and two of their half sisters) were shipped from Scotland to the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg Canada. The Winnipeg Zoo only kept these sheep until 1981. Small numbers were sold over the seven years to game parks and a few farmers who often crossed them with other breeds. They were especially popular for training sheep herding dogs. Of three groups that entered the United States only two survived. The first consisting of a few pairs that were purchased in 1983 from a broker in Canada by a miniature horse breeder in South Carolina. He sold them as companion animals to his miniature horse customers. Five years later what remained of this flock, a group of mostly rams and a few ewes, were sold to Robert Johnson in Georgia. Johnson, a rare breed sheep and goat breeder was fascinated by their story, however, he also kept them for just a few years. In early 1992 Johnson sold them to a developer from Nantucket Island in Massachusetts who let them run as a wild flock nature dictating which ram bred which ewe and it is at this point other breeds may have been introduced to the flock. He in turn sent them to Ridgeway Shinn about 1995. Shinn sold them to several east coast breeders and disbursed the last of his flock about 2005, only one small group ever made it west. With no histories or pedigrees (and clouded Canadian and US backgrounds) ALBC (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) never added them to their priority list.

The other small group went to a private zoo in Alberta and when this zoo filed for bankruptcy and reorganization in 1985  Dean Lewis an exotic animal broker in Oregon purchased the single remaining ram. Eager to save this breed of rare and exotic sheep he out-crossed his ram with 50 hair sheep (breeds that originate in hot, dry climates), a mixture of Barbados, Barbado, some hair crosses and Mouflon among them. He retained the resulting 31 ewe lambs and sold or butchered the males. Pleased with the results, the following year he began to line bred these lambs to his ram, an upgrading program he continued for a several years. Three years into his project he began to sell his animals to a few friends and neighbors, including a trio that went back to British Columbia in Canada, as purebred Soay Sheep.

Several of his initial customers became suspicious of their authenticity  when some ewes began to lamb twice a year (common among Barbados). Disillusioned they sold or traded them to yet other breeders or took them to auction. A number of this next group of keepers crossed the sheep further with Barbados, Mouflon and Jacob and Lewis himself added more mouflon in an attempt to widen their horns. By now few  looked like the original Soay sheep of Britain. The practice of crossing them with other breeds was generally discontinued by the mid 1990’s and not until the importation of RBST Soay from Canada between 1998 and 2000, did it begin again when British Soay rams began being used on American ewes. These animals are now referred to as American-British Soay.

Since the late 1990’s a number of dedicated breeders have worked tirelessly to further develop and promote what came to be called the American or North American Soay. As a result these unique sheep are now gracing pastures around the country and supplying small organic farmers, homesteaders and hobbyists with a low maintenance, gentle and easy to care for sheep. Many are used as estate sheep - for grooming property, for wool production - their wool is finding a growing market with hand spinners and artisan weavers, and as a source of low fat, tasty meat - both for personal consumption and for gourmet meat markets. Others simply enjoy living with these neat little creatures and being involved with the refinement of the breed.

American Soay are registered with MNSBAR, SOA and/or the Open Flock Book Project in the United States.
  They are not recognized by the RBST.

Conserving the Worlds Heritage Breeds-a resource list
If you are interested in the conservation of endangered domestic livestock breeds the following three books are a very good place to start.

  • Alderson, Lawrence, A Chance to Survive, Rare Breeds in a Changing World
    various editions are available used on the Internet and in used bookstores

  • Sponenberg, D. Phillip, Christman, Carolyn, J.A. Conservation Breeding Handbook, 1995 American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Pittsboro, North Carolina  ISBN1-887316-00-0

  • Sponenberg, D. Phillip, Bixby, Donald, Managing Breeds for a Secure Future, Strategies for Breeds and Breed Associations, 2007 American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Pittsboro, North Carolina  ISBN  978-1-887316-07-1     

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                                                                 Steve Werblow              


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