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The last wild sheep in St Kilda

For those of us who are involved in sport with a rifle, much seems to have changed in the past 20 years. Now, along with our native species and naturalised animals, we have a growing list of so-called quarry animals, some of which have escaped from captivity, some which have been “improved” by our efforts, and others which have been elevated to a status which only their distant relatives should have. In the past few seasons, advertisements have appeared online offering the opportunity, if indeed it can be considered to be so, to shoot exotics, including bison, and wild sheep. While the former clearly are captive, the latter are most probably registered with our agricultural authorities as domestic livestock. As a CIC trophy judge, I have been approached to ask if I will measure “wild sheep” from various areas of the UK. I have always declined to do so, but do wild sheep exist in Britain?

Far out in the Atlantic, 41 miles west of Benbecula, lies the archipelago of St Kilda. These small islands abandoned by man as a place to subsist in 1930, provide a safe environment for our only possible claimants to the title of British wild sheep. Here they prosper under the protection of a World Heritage Site, where no shooting is permitted. The small brown form of the Soay sheep, living as it has done over the centuries, its gene pool unaffected by introductions and improvements, provides a direct link to our ancestors, and the livestock which helped sustain them, and offers an insight into how our larger fauna might survive in a landscape less influenced by man.

After a period of human habitation lasting two millennia, from the mid-Victorian period onwards the world increasingly encroached on St Kilda. Like those tribes in the modern-day Amazon, its isolated people were affected not only by the illnesses modern man brought, but also by the aspirations, goods and chattels he shared with them. By the end of the 1920s, the struggle proved to be too much, and they asked the government to evacuate them. A fishery protection vessel, HMS Harebell, was duly despatched and on 30 August, 1930, the St Kildans left, taking their domestic livestock with them.

Left behind, among other unique fauna, were two populations of sheep, one on the inaccessible island of Soay and another on nearby Boreray. The Boreray sheep is thought to have its origins through interbreeding of native Scottish sheep, including the Dunface. It is a white sheep, which still lives on its remote stronghold, having been untroubled by man for the past eight decades.

By contrast, the smaller Soay has become more widely known. Animals brought from the island in the early 20th century have prospered and it has become well known to smallholders, zoos and keepers of hobby sheep. The core stock, however, has remained out of reach on Soay, where it was the property of the Steward of the islands and not the inhabitants. In 1931, the then owner of the islands, sold them to the 5th Marquess of Bute, to whom credit is due for moving a group of the native Soay sheep across the treacherous channel to the newly abandoned island of Hirta. These 100 or so animals provided the basis for the current population, which still exists on the island in an unmanaged, but well-researched, state. The Marquis bequeathed the archipelago to the National Trust for Scotland in 1957, and since then it has been successively managed as a nature reserve, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The animals have been the subject of study since the 1950s. They are a closed population, and with neither emigration nor immigration they have been left to their own devices. There is plenty of opportunity to study population dynamics, and how the age structure develops and affects the flock.

One noteworthy feature is in the way that the population dramatically crashes. With a finite carrying capacity, a point is reached where this tops out and a major natural reduction occurs, before the cycle starts again. As with deer, they have a rhythm to the seasons, with the rut taking place in November and lambs born in April. Ram and lamb mortality tends to be greatest in the winter months when weakened by the rut, males and the young succumb to the harsh Atlantic climate, pregnant ewes tend to be most vulnerable towards the end of winter when prolonged wet weather takes its toll.

With its darkcoloured fleece and simple horn structure, the Soay in its natural environment certainly has the appearance of the primitive breed it is. Looking like a small mouflon, it is perhaps understandable why some speculate that they could be seen as a potential quarry species. However, those on the archipelago are protected, and those on the mainland are not recognised as being wild. But no doubt given their agility,and reluctance to be herded by dogs, frustrated owners may view them as being so and some mainland flock owners admit to having to resort to the rifle as a means of gathering them from time to time.

The island population is plentiful, and visitors are sometimes surprised by the numbers hefted around the village area, and the grazing pressure they exert. The remains of the village are surrounded by an ancient wall with some sheep resident inside, with others hefted out on the open hill and clifftops. Hirta is now has now become far more accessible to tourists, with daily trips from Harris.

Hirta was abandoned in 1930, but human influence remains through the presence of National Trust staff, MoD, contractors and visitors. But it is a remote place, as much at the mercy of the elements now as it was 80 years ago. Its sheep offer a link to all our pasts, so when you find yourself in pursuit of a deer this autumn, give them a thought as they forage for a living around and above village bay during the short winter days.