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St. Kilda trip to meet the Soay sheep

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St. Kilda trip to meet the Soay sheep

Meg Rodger

In mid May, I was very lucky to get a trip out to St Kilda with Gotostkilda. The weather was perfect and I was able to sit out on deck all the way watching diving gannets and keeping a look out for the enigmatic St Kilda islands as they slowly rose out of the horizon.

Other than the excitement of landing on an island so steeped in history, I was particularly looking forward to meeting the relatives of our Hebridean sheep - the Soay. Both breeds share genetic ancestry with the Northern short-tailed breeds that include Shetland, North Ronaldsay, Manx Loughtan, Icelandic and Nordic sheep. They have in common the physical traits of short tails (of course), darker and coarser hair, a moulting coat and the potential for both horned males and females.

Since the 1950s the Soay flock on the island of Hirta, the main St Kilda island, has been left feral. The flock has been monitored by scientists and it is a strictly closed flock without any animal husbandry intervention. Population crashes occur when the flock exceeds it's carrying capacity but winter weather conditions and intestinal parasites also have an impact.

It was good time to visit Hirta, just after lambing. On the whole, the Soay breed is smaller and lighter coloured than the Hebrideans with particularly cute faced lambs. 

Soay ewe and lamb ... I think she was keeping an eye on me!

Soay ewe and lamb ... I think she was keeping an eye on me!

Soay lamb.

Soay lamb.

View along Village street.

View along Village street.

Iron Age souterrain on the edge of the village.

Iron Age souterrain on the edge of the village.

View back down to Village bay with gathering pens. A large barge had docked and was off loading materials for the start of the rebuilding of the MOD base. It was actually quite a busy and noisy day down there!

View back down to Village bay with gathering pens. A large barge had docked and was off loading materials for the start of the rebuilding of the MOD base. It was actually quite a busy and noisy day down there!

Clouds flooded in across Village bay engulfing me in drizzle as I climbed to the summit.

Clouds flooded in across Village bay engulfing me in drizzle as I climbed to the summit.

Just below the summit I realised I was not alone as I found myself surrounded by nesting pairs of Arctic Skua. They are like a very large brown seagull and can be extremely aggressive. So I tip-toed along hoping that in my grey sweater I might be overlooked as a small boulder. I nearly made it through until this pair took to the skies and harried me off their patch. Luckily I made it down with my hat.

Just below the summit I realised I was not alone as I found myself surrounded by nesting pairs of Arctic Skua. They are like a very large brown seagull and can be extremely aggressive. So I tip-toed along hoping that in my grey sweater I might be overlooked as a small boulder. I nearly made it through until this pair took to the skies and harried me off their patch. Luckily I made it down with my hat.

One of the many cleits used for drying and storing food and peat. There are around 1260 of these structures on Hirta and are unique to St Kilda.

One of the many cleits used for drying and storing food and peat. There are around 1260 of these structures on Hirta and are unique to St Kilda.

A beautifully structured cleit down in Village bay. The tunnel pointed South towards the prevailing wind, while sheep were sheltering from the sunshine inside that day, it would have been an excellent funnel for drying food sources such as fish and birds.

A beautifully structured cleit down in Village bay. The tunnel pointed South towards the prevailing wind, while sheep were sheltering from the sunshine inside that day, it would have been an excellent funnel for drying food sources such as fish and birds.

Back on board we were treated to a circumnavigation of Boreray island another of the St. Kilda group. I was surprised by the number of Boreray sheep which you can just pick out in this photo as white dots. Boreray sheep also belong to the Northern Short tailed sheep group but originate from the Scottish Dunface, hence why they are white with mottled brown faces. They are in fact the rarest UK breed "Category 2: Endangered" by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, because fewer than 300-500 are known to exist. Most of them seem to live on Boreray!

A final look back at Stac Lee off Boreray as we head home. It is home to the largest gannet colony in the UK with around 60,000 nesting pairs. Thank you Derek and your Gotostkilda team for a fantastic day out.

A final look back at Stac Lee off Boreray as we head home. It is home to the largest gannet colony in the UK with around 60,000 nesting pairs. Thank you Derek and your Gotostkilda team for a fantastic day out.