American RBST Foundation Flock USA0001
British Registered Soay sheep
Soay Sheep Horns
Do all Soay ewes have horns?
Are all British Soay ewes horned?.
Only one third of the ewes on Hirta are horned; the remainder are either polled or
scurred. (It is generally accepted that a
scurred animal carries less than 50% of normal horns, which can mean it has very small
horns or just small stumps. A polled animal has no sign of horn what so ever.)
Historically Soay ewes brought to the mainland from Soay were selectively bred for horns.
This has led many to the mistaken conclusion that all true Soay ewes are horned. In May
1963 a varied flock of twenty-four sheep was brought to Scotland from Hirta for further
study, it included six polled and scurred ewes. Remnants of this group eventually passed
into the hands of a small number of private enthusiasts
in Scotland, England and Wales, however, only a very few of them
keep polled Soay even today. At the present time all British Soay ewes in North America
are horned, however, one polled ewe and one scurred ewe were born to the flock in Canada
prior to importation into the US.
In 2007 and 2010 semen from
four Gaerllwyd rams in Wales,
three carrying polling genetics, was imported to the US. A breeding program
is now underway to try to produce polled ewes to make the American flock
more reflective of the population found on St. Kilda.
Scurred (l) Polled (center) Horned (r)
Gaerllwyd Flock, Wales
From our own observations in
the Village Glen of Hirta and the mainland of the UK,
horns are as varied as the sheep themselves. They generally
grow between March and September with little or no growth between November
and March. Most of their growth occurs in the first year
and slows by age five, by seven it generally stops. Horn genetics are
little understood; at this point the only thing researchers have been able
to agree upon is that the topic is a complicated one that needs further
study. From our own experience there has been little direct correlation
(predictability) in horns between father and son. Often the female seems to
have had as much if not more influence than the ram.
We have had wide horn rams produce narrow horned sons, who in turn
produced wide horned grandsons and half brothers, one with wide the other
with perverted horns. Clearly what we are seeing in these various
expressions is the widely diverse genetics of the Soay, its most valued
asset. A few rams have truly perverted horns which jeopardized the life of
the animal. In husbanded flocks
horns on these animals are cut. In a few cases only the tips are a
problem, gouging the ram in the neck or cheek in others
they rub too close to the face causing abrasions to the skin which can lead
to infection. This is easily remedied with bolt
cutters (for tips) or a wire saw when the horn
needs to be cut further up. Animals not needed for
breeding are either castrated (which stops horn
growth) or they are butchered.
On Hirta and Soay they die. Because the British Soay population
in North America is so small and the genetics of each one so important to a
national breeding program, such rams are usually
maintained rather than culled. In many cases this trimming is only needed
once but not always.
Variation in Soay ram horn
* Photo 5 Soay
ram on Hirta courtesy of John Love, South Uist,Scotland *
all others taken on Hirta or in Oregon by Kathie Miller, Southern
Oregon Soay Farms