Today, 25th August 2021 Orkney Boreray is recognised by Slow Food International as a Presidium

Product name – Orkney Boreray Sheep

Scientific Name – Ovis aries    Category – Breeds and animal husbandry

Country – Scotland – Orkney

Is it a product of an Indigenous group? Originally. Back in 1930 the folk on St Kilda archipelago – 64km west-northwest of North Uist, out in the North Atlantic – were evacuated… leaving their flock of sheep on neighbouring Boreray. The island of Boreray is virtually inaccessible – the agile feral sheep grazed the elevated rough land bounded by high cliffs with little refuge from the wild elements.

What is your estimate of the approx. quantity produced?  Approx. 100 Orkney Boreray presently in the genebank with approx.10 to market twice yearly at the moment. Numbers on the increase thanks to the breeding programme.

For what reason is this product or breed at risk of disappearing – small-framed heritage breeds do not sit well with commercial agribusiness where carcass weight and size of cuts are prioritised over breed and feed. These sheep will happily thrive on rough pasture in an extreme maritime climate, slow growing and maturing. There were endangered when taken off Boreray (see product history) and are now part of this breeding programme.

Product informationA primitive breed of short-tailed sheep, with a small, slender frame. Ewes weigh around 30kg and rams 45kg. Most Boreray have a cream fleece with grey or black & white face and legs and can have a darker area of wool on the rump. Sometimes they are darker and rams can have a ‘collar’ around their neck. They have a double-coat of wool, giving thicker fibres for throws and textiles plus a fine inner wool ideal for making shawls and knitwear.  All the sheep have heavy spiraling horns. Their meat is flavoursome and usually eaten as 2-3 year old mutton to allow the meat to mature. They are perfect for the environment in which they live, that could support little else.

Product History – Orkney Boreray Sheepare the last DNA link to the now extinct Scottish Dunface or Old Scottish Shortwool as it is also known, with a probable seasoning of Hebridean Blackface in the distant past.Forty years after the St Kilda evacuations, a small flock was taken to the mainland and the Orkney Boreray, reared by Jane Cooper on Orkney, are the pure-bred descendants of these original sheep. Known as the ‘Lost Flock,’ they were formally identified by RBST in 2017 and placed on a register separate to all other registered Boreray sheep, making them a unique DNA genebank. Jane has now (July 2021) formed the Orkney Boreray Community, currently with 4 established flocks, all born and bred on Orkney, a genebank and a common agricultural ethos, setting Standards to ensure high welfare and protection of the flocks and their genetics. The Community is not only for farmers but also includes a butcher and heritage food expert, chefs and weavers, bone and leather experts.

Personal Motivation – native heritage breeds of sheep are generally smaller in size producing small cuts that require – in the eyes of commerce – more labour for less muscle but this ignores the tastes and textures, environmental benefits and Slow Food ethics of maintaining, valuing and enjoying an ancient breed. Without an appreciation of these valuable genebanks they will be lost forever. Not only would this be an ecological disaster but the Orkney Boreray is also a beautiful animal with a delicious flavor that can command a premium prize. An increasing number of chefs appreciate rare breeds and value distinctive heritage flavours.

Contact details

Wendy Barrie & Bosse Dahlgren wendy@wendybarrie.co.uk – Ark of Taste co-ordinator for Scotland.

Image (c) Jane Cooper used with kind permission