The things we do for sheep, and the distances we travel.

By Hannah Vallin

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What do you say when your boss asks if you’d like to go to the one of the most remote islands of the British Isles in the Western Outer Hebrides of Scotland to catch sheep for work?! You madly jump at the chance and say yes of course!

But why do these sheep need catching I hear you ask?!

Back in April, Pwllpeiran received the great news that a large grant proposal submitted by the University of Edinburgh to collaborate on a long-term project on the Soay sheep of St Kilda had been successful. The Soay Sheep Project has been running since 1985, led by researchers at Edinburgh, who have been collecting a vast amount of data to study population dynamics and evolution genetics. It’s very exciting to be involved with the latest project, which is bringing together a range of disciplines to take a closer look at parasite infection and the impact of gut ecosystem dynamics on host fitness in the wild.  As for the Soay sheep, they are a unique little breed (emphasis on little). Soays are tiny compared to many of our domesticated breeds, mature ewes average at 24kg while mature males are slightly larger at 38kg. Don’t judge me for what I am about to say, but the lambs are extremely small and rather adorable!

IMG_6800                         A Soay lamb new to science this year, waiting for its ID tags.

Let me introduce the island to you. Hirta (or should I say Hiort in Gaelic) is the largest island in the St Kilda archipelago of Scotland. It really is ‘The island at the edge of the world’ as the book about its history so deftly describes it, I should know, as it took me three solid days of travelling to get there. After 675 miles, two trains, a mini bus ride, one ferry and a 55ft motor cruiser, I finally made it from Aberystwyth to Hirta, (commonly just called St Kilda nowadays). Hirta is a small island covering 8.5km² and the highest elevation at 430m. For those of you who have never heard of St Kilda, it has a truly amazing history with plenty of archaeological sites and ancient monuments scattered around the island to tell the story of St Kildans and their island life. Once inhabited for over 2000 years, the island was fully evacuated at the islanders’ request in 1930. The island is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and since 1957 the island has been designated a National Nature Reserve by the Scottish Natural Heritage. Oddly enough, there is also the presence of the Ministry of Defence who have a small base for radar tracking of missile firing. St Kilda is one of the few World Heritage sites to have a mixed status for both its culture and natural attributes, which is just one of the things that makes it such a unique and interesting island.

IMG_6921                  A view of Hirta from the boat with Boreray Island on the right-hand side.

The island is unlike anything I have ever seen, whilst approaching it by boat it rises out of the sea quite suddenly with extraordinary steep cliffs, the highest sea cliffs in the United Kingdom in fact; very impressive. The surrounding waters and cliffs are teaming with tens of thousands of nesting sea birds including auks, gannets, Manx shearwater, puffins, storm petrels and many more. It is a twitchers’ paradise! During the trip we were incredibly lucky and also spotted a pod of Risso’s dolphins, along with two minke whale and large colonies of Atlantic grey seals with their bellowing calls echoing around the island cliffs.

IMG_6936            Two Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arcticahaving a rest on the sea cliffs.

When I left Aberystwyth,  the Cambrian Mountains of Wales were looking like the Sahara Desert with fields of brown dead vegetation after the long dry summer spell we had been having. Arriving at St Kilda was a huge contrast, I was amazed at how green and lush the land was. A bright green landscape with clear turquoise waters in the bay; arriving on a beautiful sunny day it really was like a tropical island. I did fear the weather that day was lulling us into false security about what weather was to come during the rest of my time on the island. You probably won’t believe me when I say that actually we had good weather (most of the time), surprisingly warm and plenty of sunny days. We did have the occasional rainy spell but often the weather fronts would pass quickly over the island leaving behind interesting cloud formations forming over the hills. It was only on our very last day of catching and processing the sheep that it rained heavily, and yes, we were out in it all day long, I was very thankful that it was only on the last day!

IMG_2798                                         View overlooking village bay on St Kilda.

The reason for my trip to this far away island was for the summer catch, an attempt to catch as many sheep in village bay as possible. By catching, tagging and recording as many sheep as possible the research team have been following individuals from lambing, through the breeding season and recording any deaths on the island, building up a database of the sheep population over the last 33 years. At this point it’s worth reminding you that these Soay sheep are semi wild and are the most primitive form of our domestic sheep breeds today. There is no shepherd with a sheep dog or quad on the island to herd the sheep, oh no, meaning catching the sheep is a very interesting experience for sure!

A vast array of poles and netting are used to make traps and entrances strategically built around Village Bay, split between the West and East side of the village. This is not a quick or easy process. It took a good couple of days of building and carrying heavy netting up and down the hilly Village Bay (a good work out on the island!). Once the traps were in place it was a bit of a waiting game for the sheep to venture into village bay as they do during the day for grazing. When there were enough numbers, we made our move! What came next I can only describe as a fell running competition between man and sheep. Yes, the sheep outsmarted us on a few occasions, but with a good team (led by the experienced sheep catchers) and sheer determination we had many a successful catch whereby we pushed the sheep towards our net traps and enclosed them for processing. Now this may sound like an unconventional way to catch sheep, not sure it will be popular with sheep farmers on the hills of Wales but, it works for St Kilda. Don’t underestimate the method in the madness, it has been refined over many years and repeatedly successful for the island catch, and trust me, it works very well!

IMG_2896                                      Soay Ewe and lamb on ‘The Street’ in village bay.

Processing the sheep was a very much a team task and my favourite part, as we got up close and personal with this wild breed. Measurements such as limb length, horn type, coat colour, dental checks and weight were all recorded, along with a faecal and blood sample for every sheep. Think of it as their yearly health check.  In addition to this, there is a census count for the whole island population carried out every year.  This year’s total came to 1401, unfortunately this has declined on last year’s numbers, likely due to the harsh winter.  It is not unusual for these natural populations to fluctuate over time in response to environmental conditions, or the amount of vegetation available for grazing.  This highlights the importance of continued research to monitor population dynamics.

IMG_6783A catch of Soay sheep, mixture of ewes, rams and lambs displaying their variable appearance of coat colour and horn type.

Life on the island is very much a case of survival of the fittest, and that’s not just talking about the sheep.  A word of advice… this place is not somewhere to go if you suffer from vertigo, are prone to sea sickness, or if you have concerns being ashore a remote island with no communication with the outside world. For me however, it has been a trip of a lifetime, and it is somewhat difficult to portray the island when people ask me how was St Kilda?  I have learnt an awful lot, not only about the island but also about the long-term research of the sheep.  I had the opportunity to work with a great team of people and got to experience one of the most beautiful and surreal islands I have ever seen.  Believe me, I could carry on writing about my experience and happenings on the island for many more pages, but for now I shall leave you with a very appropriate quote by the naturalist James Fisher;

‘Whatever he studies, the future observer of St Kilda will be haunted the rest of his life by the place, and tantalised by the impossibility of describing it, to those who have not seen it.’

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If you want more….. take a look at this short video of my trip to St Kilda!

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