Shetland Wool Week with Sarah Jane: Part Two of Three

For the next part of her trip, Sarah boarded a huge ferry in Aberdeen, Scotland, which took her to the Orkney Islands.

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Where in the world are the Orkney Islands? You can see on the map above, the Orkneys, along with the Shetland Islands, are quite close to Norway which explains their Viking heritage. It doesn’t, however, explain why Sarah chose to visit Orkney. Although the islands are known for their abundant wildlife, folklore, and designation as a World Heritage Site for well preserved Neolithic ruin, Sarah was there learn more about two extremely rare sheep breeds and spend time with friends.

To catch a glimpse of the North Ronaldsay sheep, Sarah boarded a tiny eight seater plane for a hair-raising trip to North Ronaldsay Island, the northernmost island of the Orkney group. The five mile long island has one main road, and Sarah found her way around North Ronaldsay using a souvenir tea towel given to her by her hostess that was map showing points of interest.

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This was Sarah’s view from the eight seater plane.

The island is mostly agricultural, and long ago a stone wall was built around the perimeter of the island keeping the good grass for the cattle. The North Ronaldsay sheep were forced to adapt and ate whatever they could find. They became one of the few land species which can survive by eating mainly seaweed.

The descendants of those hardy sheep are now owed by the island’s crofters who allow them to roam freely. The sheep are rounded up periodically to be shorn. It’s bad news for any sheep who escapes the sheering as the wool absorbs sea water during grazing, and the weight can cause the sheep to drown.

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So if you were wondering, Sarah’s tea towel map successfully guided her to the island’s woolen mill where she purchased her very own skeins of North Ronaldsay wool. She says it is similar to the wool of Shetland sheep.

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Sarah’s North Ronaldsay yarn

The second rare breed of sheep Sarah saw on Orkney was the Boreray. This breed has been given the status of Category 2: Endangered by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. With fewer than 300-500 found in the United Kingdom, the Boreray is the UK’s rarest breed.

Boreray sheep are small and short-tailed. Their coarse fleece is moulted making shearing mostly unnecessary. Boreray were feral on the island of St. Kilda until the 1970s. Since then some conservation breeding has begun to increase their numbers. Sarah’s friends on the main island of Orkney maintain one of those herds, affording her the opportunity to see these extremely rare sheep in person.

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Sarah meets some of the rare breed Boreray sheep.

Sarah travels next to the Shetland Islands for Wool Week. Part Three of Three of her adventure will be published soon.

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