The North Ronaldsay or ‘Rollie’ breed of sheep pre-dates the Iron Age. These rare and unique sheep do not need humans to help them in any way. Although it is possible (if often frustrating!) to gather them by human activity, it is not advisable to try using dogs. ‘Rollies’ have no respect for any canine presence and have been known to jump over the heads of dogs in order to evade capture.
These sheep will shelter from the harsh conditions anywhere that they can find it: behind rocks, boats, long grass, or each other. They can even traverse precipitous cliff edges like mountain goats, so gathering them takes human ingenuity and bags of patience!
Rollies will eat almost anything that they can graze on: flowers, shrubs, tree bark, grasses and even wild bird eggs on occasion, but their favourite food is fresh seaweed. If they can go and eat at the edge of the low tide they will. If not they will happily graze on the newly washed up weed on the high water mark. If they are denied seaweed in their diet, they frequently die as they are especially adapted to the balance of minerals and nutrients found in seaweed.
Seaweed is very high in protein during the winter months, which makes these sheep ideally suited to this remote island life. During the winter months, grass on the island grows poorly, if at all, due to salty North Sea wind. They are so well adapted to their environment that they are able to sense when the tide is coming in and when it is going out. Therefore, there is no point trying to herd them when the tide is going out, as they know it is on their side and not ours. However, the sheep are sometimes so pre-occupied by finding their favourite food, they get cut off by the tide whilst feeding out on the ebb and have to swim back – the sheep equivalent of a red-faced moment!
Rollie lambs are on their feet within minutes of being born, and are able to outrun most humans well within 24 hours. The ewes always remain out on the island for lambing and very rarely have problems during labour. They find a secluded spot and make a nest by pawing the ground before lying down to give birth. Once the lamb is born, they consume the afterbirth so as not to attract any predators to the spot and to reabsorb the nutrients which help them to keep up milk production.
The ewes are very keen mothers, licking their lambs completely clean and dry within a short time. New born lambs are coaxed to move away from the birthing spot as any ewe staying in the same place for more than a few minutes will result in birds circling overhead looking for easy prey.
It truly is a wild and challenging start to life for North Ronaldsay lambs.
Once the lambs can follow their mother, she will re-join the flock and the lambs will sleep while she goes back to grazing. Within weeks, the lambs are trying, or at least pretending to try, the acquired taste of grass and seaweed. When the spring sunshine escapes the cover of the clouds, lambs can be seen jumping in the air and running about chasing other lambs until, of course, they are called by their mother’s bleats. Ewes can identify their lamb by its smell, and will butt away any lamb that is not theirs. Similarly, a lamb can recognise its distinctive mother’s call as soon as it is old enough to run.
The lambs are weaned off their mother’s milk naturally at the end of the summer and the ewes ‘come into season’ at the end of November, when they are ’tupped’ by the rams.
There are essentially two flocks on the island that live at either end of the island: separated only by their own natural instincts. There are no territorial battles, double agents or explorers – whichever flock their mother belongs to decides what area of the island a given lamb will roam for life.
The habits and characteristics of these wild and remarkable sheep have been evolving over hundreds of years.
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