Orkney Specialities: North Ronaldsay Sheep

Trying the local produce is advisable when you visit any new place, but it’s particularly necessary when you visit island communities.

Much like the endemic species of Orkney Vole that live on five of our islands, the food produced here by artisan craftsmen and chip-shop owners alike has been allowed to evolve over the years – isolated from the rest of the world. Although you could argue that Orcadian food has a distinct Scottish bent to it, you’ll find many ingredients and dishes here that you simply won’t be able to eat anywhere else on Earth.

One such example is a breed of sheep unlike any other in the world:

The North Ronaldsay Sheep

Probably the most instantly recognisable animal from Orkney; North Ronaldsay Sheep have a look, temperament and flavour all to themselves. They take their name from the region that they are reared. Each and every North Ronaldsay Sheep is a descendant of the sheep that were natives of the island. They roamed freely for over 5000 years until 1832 when the ruling Laird decided to banish them to the Northern-most shores of the island.

Whilst other breeds of sheep can be used as a way of getting rid of Japanese knotweed, the North Ronaldsay herd have developed a particular taste for another kind of vegetation. Kept at bay by a dyke, the sheep had nothing else to graze on other than seaweed, which has now become their only source of sustenance. They are one of only two animals in the world known to be able to do this and in doing so they have irrevocably altered their genetic makeup.

Their digestive systems extract copper far more efficiently than their mainland counterparts, as seaweed is so low in that particular mineral; if fed on grass they run the risk of developing copper toxicity. Their fleece also appears in a wide range of colours including reds, browns and greys. Perhaps most significantly, their meat is distinctly flavoured by their unique diet which lends it a rich, gamey flavour despite having a tougher texture than your average sheep.

Whilst other sheep varieties on Orkney have come and gone, the North Ronaldsay flock has been able to prevail thanks to their self-sufficiency and ingenuity. They’re such independent creatures, in fact, that they’re considered to be technically semi-feral. Whilst they’re hardly dangerous, their wild nature is indicative of their undomesticated pedigree. In order to keep the herd healthy and to ensure their numbers are well controlled a group of Orcadians, known as the North Ronaldsay Sheep court preside over their care and the North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival takes place each year to mend the drystone dyke, said to be the longest of its kind in the world.

Orkney-local and food expert Rosemary Moon suggests stewing North Ronaldsay Shoulder with Seville oranges, whilst chef Cyrus Todiwala OBE incorporates the meat into his unique take on a classic Shepherd’s Pie which he calls ‘Country Captain’. Although joints are limited, you should have no trouble procuring some North Ronaldsay Mutton from butchers on the Orkney Mainland, if that fails you should be able to find it served in a number of Orkney’s stellar restaurants.

Despite its popularity amongst foodies and chefs, the North Ronaldsay Sheep was classified as a ‘vulnerable’ breed in 2017 by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust – a cautionary reminder that regardless of how tasty a creature is, it might still need protecting.

5 Facts About the Orkney Vole

The Orkney Isles are home to huge number of different creatures.

However, it could be argued that none are quite as interesting as the Orkney Vole.

We’re rather proud of this special little rodent. It’s a cunning survivor, a cheeky napper and is also full of surprises! A great deal of research has been undertaken on this tiny critter, with biologists as far back as the 19th Century. John Guille Millais is credited with ‘discovering’ the Orkney Vole back in 1886. He first spotted the creature whilst on his way back from a fishing trip on Mainland Orkney. At first he mistook what he saw for a darker coloured Water Vole, but after requesting for specimens of that animal he soon became convinced that what he had seen was a completely different beast.

Millais’ discovery of the Orkney Vole, along with G. E. H Barrett-Hamilton’s publication on the finding of the Skomer Vole (on the island of the same name), kick-started a vole-based discussion that snowballed into a full-blown mania. Soon taxonomists and biologists alike were racing to the Orkney Isles, as well as other British island communities, to make the next big discovery. Unfortunately, this flurry of interest led to many over-excited would-be scientists ‘discovering’ their own sub-species of Orkney Vole on each island. Thankfully, this mess was cleared up by a series of genetic studies in 1951 which proved that, despite the significant distance between each island, the Orkney Vole was a single sub-species of vole.

However, as much as these studies have helped us understand more about these furry creatures, they’ve also raised even more questions about where they come from, how they behave and what they get up to.

Here are a few of the facts that we’ve discovered along the way:

They’re not as local as you might think!

It can be easy to get misled by the name, but it’s recently been found that the Orkney Vole, although endemic to the Orkney Isles, has some striking similarities to many voles found on continental Europe. Original theories suggested that the Vole could have travelled from the continent via giant glaciers that would have bridged the landmasses, but it has since been proved that the vole could not have survived such cold extremities. More recent research claims that the vole would have travelled here some 5000 years ago via early trade routes.

You can only find them on 5 of the Orkney Isles

Despite its name you’ll only only be able to spot the Orkney Vole on five of the islands: the Mainland, South Ronaldsay, Rousay, Westray, Eday and Sanday.

Other species of voles might well exist on the neighbouring isles, but these won’t have the trademark features of the Orkney Vole!

If you’re keen on spotting one for yourself then your best bet is to head out to one of the aforementioned isles and tread carefully around the underbrush.

Our ancient ancestors loved them more than us.

A great deal of the information that we have on the Orkney Vole today is thanks to research conducted by archaeologists who have been digging up settlements sites all across the Isles. A common feature that they use to identify these settlements is a concentration of animal bones, such as those of the Orkney Vole. It’s thought that our Orkney ancestors buried many of the bones of the animals that they hunted or farmed as a form of ritual. Hundreds of bones have been discovered on the mainland suggesting either a well-fed settlement or one big party!

Bigger than your average vole

One of the easiest ways of setting the Orkney Vole apart from other Voles is by its size. Thanks to its isolation on the Orkney Isles our Vole has remained more or less the same size since it first came here over 5000 years ago. To make an quick comparison, the common vole (a direct relative of the Orkney Vole) has a much larger population in the UK and has significantly diminished in stature to around half the size.

Struggling in numbers thanks to a certain predator…

Despite having prospered for thousands of years, the Orkney Vole has most recently come under threat from a new threat. Traditionally prey of the Short-eared Owl and the Hen Harrier (a bird that is fast becoming endangered itself in the UK), numerous sightings of Stoat have been reported since 2010 who have proved particularly adept at cutting down Vole numbers. The source of these stoats is still unknown, but action will need to be taken in order to protect the Orkney Isles’ longest inhabitants.