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.