Unique festival celebrates Orkney’s seaweed eating sheep

A unique festival celebrating a rare breed of seaweed eating sheep is to be held on a remote Orkney island this summer.

Sheep, North Ronaldsay - Colin Keldie
North Ronaldsay’s seaweed eating sheep. Pic by Colin Keldie.

The fortnight-long festival has been organised by the community of North Ronaldsay to raise awareness of its ancient breed of shoreline dwelling sheep and to give people the opportunity to learn practical skills associated with managing the 3,000 strong flock.

North Ronaldsay mutton is exported from the island and prized as a delicacy, thanks to its distinctive flavour. Wool from the sheep is also processed locally and sold to knitters around the world.

The sheep are contained on the rocky North Ronaldsay shoreline and prevented from grazing on local farmland – the breed is vulnerable to copper poisoning due to its diet – by a 1.8 metre high dry-stone dyke encircling the island. The dyke also reduces the chance of gene-pool pollution of the flock through cross breeding with other sheep.

Sheep Dyke damage
A damaged section of the North Ronaldsay sheep dyke.

Maintenance of the coastal sheep dyke, which gets damaged by winter storms each year, is a continual challenge for the small community on what is Orkney’s most northerly island. Festival goers will help repair fallen sections of the wall, learning traditional building skills from local experts.

Volunteers are also being invited to take part in a North Ronaldsay punding  – the process of rounding up the wild sheep from the beach in order to be clipped.

North Ronaldsay’s sheep pund is the last remaining example of community agriculture in the UK, with festival organisers saying it offers an “unrivalled experience” for visitors.

“The BBC’s Countryfile programme featured the sheep dyke earlier this year and highlighted our ongoing efforts to keep it maintained,” said festival organiser, Kate Traill Price. “Following that broadcast we were inundated with generous offers of help from people throughout the country, so we came up with the idea of the festival as a way of both utilising that assistance and highlighting what a wonderful place North Ronaldsay is.

“The festival is utterly unique and offers volunteers the opportunity to work alongside our community in conserving our rare and iconic breed of sheep,” she added. “It’s going to be a real hands-on experience, but also lots of fun, with many other activities planned during the two-week long event.”

The festival, which is supported by the Orkney Sheep Foundation, will run from 25 July until 5 August. Further information on the event is available at www.nrsheepfestival.com, or from Kate Traill Price at katetraill@theorkneysheepfoundation.org.uk



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