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What is a Boreray Sheep?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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The Boreray Sheep is an extremely rare sheep which originated in the St. Kilda archipelago of Scotland. This sheep breed is considered one of the most endangered breeds in Great Britain, with less than 300 sheep surviving today. Conservationists of rare livestock breeds have established several herds on the British mainland, with the goal of supporting the breed so that it does not disappear entirely.

These sheep were bred essentially entirely by accident, representing a cross between several sheep breeds which were raised on the island of Boreray in the St. Kilda group. By the 19th century, the Boreray Sheep had emerged as a distinct breed, and as a breed very well suited to the island environment. When the islanders were evacuated in 1930 due to increasing hardship, many sheep were left behind, and as a result much of the living Boreray Sheep population is actually found in a feral condition on the islands.

Boreray Sheep are especially small, with several traits which make them more like primitive sheep than modern breeds. Their fleece is creamy white to brown, and the sheep have no wool on their faces and lower legs. Instead, a coat of dense brown to black hair is present, which explains the alternate names Hebridean Blackface and Boreray Blackface which are sometimes used to describe this sheep breed. The wool of the Boreray Sheep is also very coarse, most suitable for carpeting, rather than clothing.

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Both the males and females have horns, with males having spiraling horns which can grow quite large. These horns are sometimes used in traditional crafts such as the manufacture of shepherd's crooks. The sheep also have short tails, which is somewhat unusual, and they shed their fleeces annually, which means that they do not have to be sheared for their wool. Given that many of the sheep are feral, this is definitely an advantage.

Although the Boreray Sheep is not exactly a desirable commercial breed of sheep, they are an interesting part of Scottish history, and this is the main reason people would like to see the breed preserved. The sheep are also extremely hardy, as they would have to be to survive in the harsh environment of their native islands. Potentially, Boreray Sheep could be crossed with more desirable breeds to bring their hardy characteristics to the match, generating a breed of sheep which could thrive in harsh climates and hostile environments.

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