American RBST Foundation Flock USA0001
British Registered Soay sheep
USA0001 Fyne "Mr.
© 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
to conserve the worlds 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 its
important to maintain satellite groups at a distance.
Consider Britains 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 plagueand needless to say, war can have devastating effects on entire
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 haresthey all need
additional steadfast breeders if theyre 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 thats 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
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 mans 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
Scotlands 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 breeds
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 1990s 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 1990s 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
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.
Lawrence, A Chance to Survive, Rare Breeds in a Changing World
various editions are available used on the Internet and in used bookstores
D. Phillip, Christman, Carolyn, J.A. Conservation Breeding Handbook, 1995
American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Pittsboro, North Carolina ISBN1-887316-00-0
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
© Steve Werblow