The "Lost Flock"

A remarkable tale from the Orkneys

Story and Photos by Linda N. Cortright

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Stunning Boreray rams at Settisgarth

Within scientific communities it is not only bad form to anthropomorphize, it is verboten. Fortunately, my love of animals rarely involves the scientific community and thus I make no apology for my anthropomorphic tendencies. Afterall, Walt Disney built an entire empire on it, and I don’t remember hearing him say, I’m sorry.

 

Admittedly, my dreams are not as lofty as Walt’s but invariably when I look at an animal—any animal—I begin mentally writing cartoon bubbles above its head. The dog that gives me a pleading look at super time as if to say, “Could you take any longer getting my dinner?” The cat that delivers a half-dead mouse to my pillow is not saying, “Look, I brought you a present.” No, the cat is saying, “I bet this will scare the bejesus out of her.” Of course, I have no idea if what I am thinking is true. Then again, no one has proven otherwise. And so, when I finally met my first Boreray sheep in person, I am all but certain they are thinking, “Well, lady, it’s about time!”

 

A few months back when I began writing about St Kilda, the westernmost archipelago in the Outer Hebrides, I marched down the path of the Soay sheep with zeal. The Soay are not only the most primitive breed in the UK, but it is also believed they have inhabited the island of Soay since the Bronze Age. Owing to both their ancient lineage and strong connection to the St Kildans, the Soay typically grab the headlines, leaving the Boreray (who live on nearby Boreray island) feeling very much like the often overlooked “second child.” And because this is not a scientific community, I am not going to apologize for assuming the Boreray feel this way, but I also confess to having contributed to the problem by bringing them to the fore only now. Thankfully, Jane Cooper is making it her life’s mission to ensure the Boreray are not just recognized but basking in the limelight for perpetuity.

 

Jane reached out to me this spring via email when she noticed I was leading fiber-ly tours to St Kilda. "Perhaps, I would consider bringing one of my groups to the Orkneys," she wrote. “My Borerays are part of the ‘Lost Flock.’” This was good news and bad. Good, because I had no idea there were Borerays living anyplace but on Boreray Island, and bad because the likelihood of the ship’s captain agreeing to a wee detour in order for a few passengers to see some sheep (mind you, there are thousands of sheep to be seen even without a detour) was not just unlikely, call it impossible.

 

And then, the impossible happened. Through a series of misfortunes, mostly perpetuated by Putin, several weeks after receiving Jane’s email not only do I find myself on a completely different ship than originally planned, but a completely different itinerary. And so, the story begins.

 

Just after 5:00 a.m. I am sitting in my cabin reading the daily program, which is printed and tucked under everyone’s cabin door the night before. I notice we are scheduled to stop in Kirkwall in just a few hours. Kirkwall is in the Orkney Islands! But the Orkneys are comprised of seventy islands. The odds of finding Jane seemed remote. It’s not as if I could hop off the ship and catch a train, a bus, or even a taxi. Like all island chains, they are connected by a system of ferries, not all of which run daily—some only once a week.

 

I quickly located Jane’s email. I Googled her address. And then typed in “Directions from Kirkwall to Settisgarth.” Having no idea where Settisgarth was, let alone its proper spelling. The ship’s egregiously slow internet spun for eternity until the answer finally popped-up. Jane was just eleven miles away— eleven! I could get there by car in less time than it would take to finish my coffee and get dressed. The very last thing I had written to Jane was a note of thanks along with the suggestion that I “might” be able to arrange something for 2023. Now, it is 5:50 a.m., it was still 2022, and the subject line of my email reads: I’m in Kirkwall!

 

Five minutes later Jane replies, and a few hours later I am standing on the pier in Kirkwall with a handful of my Wild Fibers tour group as Jane pulls up in her little brown car and we all pile in. Not many folks are online answering emails before dawn, and even fewer would kindly offer to fetch five strangers and bring them back to their farm. But Jane isn’t most people which is decidedly part of her charm.

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The view from Jane Cooper's farm

As we turn off the main road, which is surrounded by enviably green pastures and sheep roaming along both sides of the fence, Jane indicates that her croft is near the top and to the right. This announcement instantly makes me sit up in my seat and stare. I am officially on Sheep High Alert. We turn into the driveway and I notice a sign that reads, Eggs for Sale, resting against a red plastic cooler with an honesty box on top. I’m not sure if the chickens support Jane’s sheep habit, or the other way around. But two legs or four, Jane loves her animals. And then, in the field off to the right, I see several pairs of big spiraling horns. I only see them for a moment but that’s all it takes. Soon, I will be face to face with my first Boreray. It’s all I can do to wait for Jane to stop the car before jumping out and see them.

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Exquisitely spiraling Boreray horns

For me, and for many others, what makes Borerays so special is not just the rams, boasting a profile that would make even the wildest of Big Horn sheep proud, but their connection to the Scottish Dunface, a breed that has fallen extinct. Boreray genealogy reads a bit like your grandmother’s recipe for meat loaf. The basic ingredients are all there, but a variety of flavorings have been added that make them the same—but different. In this case, the “flavorings” are the introduction of other breeds.

 

The Boreray descends from the North Atlantic short-tailed sheep. (Other breeds include Shetland, North Ronaldsay, Faorese, Icelandic, and others.) They are double-coated, and naturally shed their fleece in the summer. They were also prized by the Vikings using their wool to sails. Over several thousand years, these short-tailed sheep gradually evolved into the Scottish Dunface, the predominant breed in the Scottish Highlands providing wool, dairy and meat, and noted for its dun (tan or graying brown) colored face Simply put, North Atlantic short tail -->Scottish Dunface

 

But it’s not that simple.

 

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Scottish Dunface began populating some of the Hebridean Islands, including Boreray. Life would have continued largely uninterrupted had “someone” not decided to change the recipe and introduce a few Hebridean Blackface rams to St Kilda. The real flow chart looks more like North Atlantic short tail-->Scottish Dunface-->Hebridean Blackface.

 

Earlier, I confessed my relief at not being part of the scientific community but tracing the Boreray’s lineage comes perilously close to crossing that line. For most, give them a good fleece and a handsome sheep and call it a day. For Jane Cooper, it’s so much more.

 

In 1970, seven animals were taken from Boreray (I am so sorry there isn’t a YouTube of this event). They were sheep-napped so that the Animal Breeds Research Organization (now a division of Edinburgh University) could study their wool. Of those seven original sheep (three rams and four ewes) one ewe did not survive long enough to produce a lamb. The remaining six were divided into four groups. These "new" sheep, along with their brethren back on the island, officially became the Boreray breed, North Atlantic short tail-->Scottish Dunface-->Hebridean Blackface-->Boreray.

 

Are you still with me?

 

Now, the “recipe” gets even more complicated. In the past fifty years, the owners of those flocks maintained varying degrees of breeding records, some not at all. In 2017, Jane and her husband had recently moved to Orkney, and Jane decided she would acquire a small spinning flock. (Famous last words by many a spinner turned farmer.) By chance, the very animals Jane brought home (five wethers and a ram who “was just too good to castrate”) were genetically unlike any other Boreray now registered with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. The flock’s previous owners, Bob and Ann Cook in Assynt, had kept truly meticulous records, but the animals were never registered. A few blood tests and a look through the microscope proved that Jane’s sheep were the closest match to the now extinct Scottish Dunface. In scientific terms, which I refuse to dwell on, this is just super exciting. Jane is now the guardian of the “Lost Flock.”

 

North Atlantic short tail-->Scottish Dunface-->Jane!

As we get out of the car and walk over to the fence, Jane begins rattling a can of grain and calling out to the sheep, quickly explaining that “Helen follows me everywhere.” When the ewes and lambs come barreling over the hill, I wonder which one is Helen? Without any prompting, Jane points her out.

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Jane Cooper in the pasture with some of her rams. 

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Jane Cooper enthusiastically talking about her sheep

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Both Boreray rams and ewes have horns although some ewes may be polled

During our impromptu but wonderful visit, Jane shared not only her sheep (oh… those gorgeous rams) but what she has done to secure their future. Reverting to their roots from long ago (millennia to be exact) Jane has established Orkney Boreray, a community of like-minded individuals with diverse talents, working in collaboration to promote and preserve the Boreray, including Nathan McTaggart, a local craftsman, whose Etsy store reads, “Hand crafted Viking Jewellery and pagan home décor.” Nathan is making buttons and knife handles using Boreray horns. India Whitwell, a handweaver in Orkney who is dedicated to small-scale, sustainable textiles is part of the program using Boreray wool, along with Jock Gibson, the “local” butcher, who ensures the Boreray don’t have to be shipped (as in ship) hundreds of miles to an abattoir on the mainland. Food writer and Scottish Thistle Award Regional recipient, Wendy Barrie, who keenly promotes Slow Food Scotland, and Fred Berkmiller, owner of L’Escargot Bleu Restaurant in Edinburgh where you will often find Boreray lamb featured on the menu.

 

This list is by no means complete. Jane’s efforts are ongoing and far reaching. But thus far, Orkney Boreray has been given the prestigious Slow Food Presidium Award, only the second one awarded in Scotland. The Presidium Award is more than just meat, it is about establishing a collaborative community involvement. And might I also add, running a taxi service from sheep to ship.

 

I desperately hope I can include a visit to Settisgarth on next year’s Wild Fibers Tour. Not only I am looking forward to spending more time with Jane, but I suspect Helen will no doubt be saying, “Oh, it’s you again.”

 

For more information, please visit: www.orkneyboreray.com

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