North Ronaldsay Native Sheep
at the edge of the Ocean  

A Shepherds visit to North Ronaldsay,
in the Orkneys, March 2006

by Berit Kiilerich

Introduction by sheep-Isle  

An invisible chain of mountains running under the Ocean connects the North Atlantic Islands, The Orkneys, Fair Isle, Shetland, The Faeroes and Iceland. At some places the surface of the Ocean is broken and land is visible – the above-mentioned countries. Sheep relates them all to each other. The North Atlantic short tailed sheep is visible everywhere in numbers which far exceeds the human beings!

This year Sheep-Isle highlights on the Faeroe Islands in a series called “ Sheep and Friends in the Faeroe Islands” This article is a greeting from the sheep holders on North Ronaldsay to all sheep holders in the Faeroe Islands.

In 1978 Stefan Adalsteinsson wrote: The color genes found in Faeroe Islands sheep are the same as those found in Orkney Sheep, which is an indication of a relatively close affinity between the two populations”

(Color genes in Faeroe Islands Sheep, 1978  S. Adalsteinsson and H. Wardum)

This article is a story by a Danish shepherd, Berit Kiilerich, visiting North Ronaldsay in March 2006, for the second time. Here comes Berits article from a little island, where the ratio between sheep and man are 3000 to 60!


North Ronaldsay Native Sheep at the edge of Ocean  

Sheep-Isle would like to thank June Morris and Peter Donnerly for photos.


North Ronaldsay is the northernmost island in the Orkneys, about 4 miles long and 2 miles wide. Even with a rough and stormy position between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, the climate is mild and the soil relatively fertile. Due to the Golf stream snow is rare in wintertime.


On the island there are very special sheep which mainly are eating seaweed. The breed is called North Ronaldsay Native Sheep. They are believed to have lived on the island before the Viking age. On the mainland Orkney, at Scara Brae, there have been excavated bones from the Iron period, which are very similar to the Native sheep of today. They grazed all year long all over the island on the so called common land. At wintertime they got a good feed at the edge of the Ocean eating seaweed. Slowly, during thousands of years, they developed into what they are today – properly the toughest herd existing in the North Atlantic Area.

The frequent storm washes large amounts of seaweed ashore. After a storm, you can see flocks of “Natives” having a good time chewing the cud. With their different colours of soil, they are mixed up extremely well with the stony shores.

Wintertime means frequent storms, which means a good feed for the “Natives” – even slaughter time is during the winter.



The Drystone Dyke

The decade 1830–39 was a very important decade on North Ronaldsay. Partly because the sheep dyke was build, partly because regulations between the Laird and the tenants, the so-called “Land-squaring”, was implemented. Since that time a lot of regulations has seen the daylight. The first regulations opened up for the more valuable cattle. The Native Sheep was thrown outside the dyke, and since then they have been living at the foreshore eating only seaweed, except for a short lambing period in the late springtime. Paradoxically the dyke saved the native sheep from extinction! Their disappearance elsewhere in Orkney has been caused by crossbreeding with larger breeds such as Merinos and Cheviots to improve the body-size and wool-yield – exactly the same story as in the Scandinavian countries. But outside the dyke the native sheep survived!  

Description of the breed

The North Ronaldsay Sheep belongs to the Nordic Group of Short-Tailed Sheep. They have all the colours and markings typical for this group of sheep.

The sheep is double coated, with a very coarse outer-wool, and an extremely fine and soft inner-wool.

The ewes can be with or without horns. The rams always have horns of the same type as in the Faeroes and in Iceland.

The  North Ronaldsay Native Sheep is shy, small and very agile. When threatened, they are capable of a very fast escape on the slippery stones at the edge of the Ocean! They have a relatively weak flock instinct.

The ewes are collected inland during the lambing periode in April. For these agile sheep, lambing is really “a peace of cake”, and their mother-instincts are very good.

Farmers only wish for one lamb. If an ewe gets two lambs, one of them are killed. Inside the dyke there are smaller fencings with grass, where ewe and lamb live more protected. Before being placed outside the dyke again in July the lamb is getting earmarked.  

In 1881 there were 587 inhabitants on North Ronaldsay. At that time farming was absolutely necessary for the daily life on the island. Today 60 people are living on the island compared with approx. 3000 sheep! They are divided into ewes, rams, and castrates in the common flock. Most of the ram-lambs are castrated and live as wethers until they are 3 – 5 years. Because of this they will slowly obtain dark coloured meat – ready for slaughtering! 


A slaughtered wether weighs around 17 kg. The slow growth, the seaweed, the salty sea and the outside life all year long, has given the mutton a famous reputation all over England. Especially in London you can find North Ronaldsay mutton on the menu as an exclusive gourmet experience!


The common sheep holding has going on for a very distant past. Customs and traditions have been preserved for generations, and many daily doings are naturally connected with the sun, the moon and the stars. 

The “native” is sheared by hand blades at new moon in July or in the beginning of August. Machine shearing has never caught on, properly because the machine cuts too close to the skin, leaving the sheep unprotected in the cold and windy showers coming in from the Ocean. The content of lanoline in the wool is very high. Shearing with hand blades will just leave 3 – 5 cm. of greasy lanoline wool – enough to protect the sheep.  

Communal Farming

All people living on North Ronaldsay can keep sheep in the common flock outside the dyke. There is a law called the N. R. Native Sheep Regulation telling how many ewes each sheep holder is allowed to keep. When gathering the sheep everybody participates.

Gathering the “natives” is always done at high tide – leaving just a narrow strip between the dyke and the edge of the Ocean. In connection to the dyke there are “punds”, also build of stones, where the sheep, by means of earmarks, will be divided into small flocks, owner by owner.

The act of “punding” is perhaps one of the last remaining elements of Communal Farming in the Orkneys. Similar systems have been in use in the Shetlands, Faeroese and Iceland.

On North Ronaldsay sheep holders are aware of now a days dangers due to an eventually oil catastrophe or contagious sheep diseases.

High quality wool!

The North Ronaldsay Yarn Compagny has recently started a little spinning mill supported by EEC funds. The main part of the natural coloured raw wool is turned into a delicious wool, for knitting and weaving. 

By means of a “dehairings machine”, which is able to select the outer longer and coarse wool and the kemp from the inner wool, the latter will end up as an exceptional soft wool quality. 

The North Ronaldsay Native Sheep – A classic cultural heritage

In our times when intensive production and standardization is the Alpha and Omega, it’s a contrast to visit North Ronaldsay and perceive how close sheep and man are living to nature, on North Ronaldsay – the Ocean.

The North Ronaldsay Sheep goes well together with the environnement, nature and people - A great cultural richness, not only to the island of North Ronaldsay itself, but also to the whole North Atlantic Region. A richness which ought to be shown the highest consideration – even in the future.

In “sharp air” the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse can be seen as far as from Fair Isles
Half the way to the Shetlands!



Visit North Ronaldsay Native Sheep and their clovgang on:
Lighthouse Trust. Knitting from North Ronaldsay wool. The North Ronaldsay Native Sheep – a historical introduction. Tourist farm, open for public showing Nordic Sheep live and their crafts.