Unique North Ronaldsay ‘seaweed’ sheep named first Slow Food Presidium in Scotland

A rare Scottish sheep that subsists entirely on seaweed, and whose meat is highly revered, has officially become the first Slow Food Presidium in Scotland. 

Published 27th Mar 2019
Updated 27 th Mar 2019

The North Ronaldsay Sheep, the oldest breed in Northern Europe and among the oldest and most rare in the world, was given the special status due to the fact that this high quality breed is currently under threat.

The closure of Orkney's only abattoir and problems with maintaining the special dyke that protects the sheep from other breeds has caused the sheep to be labelled as 'vulnerable'.

It is hoped that the Slow Food Presidia project, which support quality production at risk of extinction; protect unique regions and ecosystems; recover traditional processing methods; and safeguard native breeds and local plant varieties, will help to keep the breed going.

The Presidium, which today counts 12 producers, aims to conserve this island heritage as well as preserve the breeds and the traditional social system of “crofting”. The objective is to support and promote their story, the symbiotic link between the crofters, the dyke, the community and the sheep to enable them to nurture and grow.

According to a Danish investigation of old bones on Orkney, the breed's DNA is 8,000 years old, as old as the origins of island agriculture itself.

Living wild on the shores of the northernmost island of the Scottish Orkney archipelago, they are the descendants of the North European short-tailed sheep and are a closed flock.

In 1832, a local Laird ordered the construction of a 13.5 miles long Dyke around the island to keep the sheep on the shore and off the land.

The wall still exists but storms cause damage every year and the annual repairs require local support.

The breed has genetically adapted over the centuries to thrive on their foraged seaweed diet that imparts an exceptional and unique flavour.

Billy Muir, a third-generation crofter on his farm on the island said: "I am dedicated to ensuring that the North Ronaldsay Sheep remain as closely linked to their natural habitat on the Island as possible

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"The sheep are governed by the sun and the moon so when tides are low, they will go down to feed on the seaweed they thrive on and return to their fringes of turf when high waves crash upon the shore, creating a unique and natural link between the Island and the sheep."

• READ MORE: Saving the ancient seaweed-eating sheep of North Ronaldsay

Nowadays, there are a few chefs and cooks championing the breed, two of them from the Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance in the UK, namely Wendy Barrie, leader in Scotland for the Slow Food Ark of Taste, and Fred Berkmiller, chef patron of L’escargot bleu & L’escargot blanc, the latter recipient of the Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Award 2017 for Scottish Sourcing.

Despite the uniqueness and flavor of the meat and the several uses for the wool, the breed is declining due to depletion of the population on the island, lack of knowledge regarding small carcass size and how to handle it, access to market from the island, complicated abattoir logistics, and a dwindling number of producers.

All of which were reasons that led to Slow Food deciding to safeguard this unique breed.

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Edinburgh-based chef Fred Berkmiller said: “We serve North Ronaldsay Sheep because it is a fantastic meat with a unique flavour and texture and is a product with genuine authenticity.

“Judging from the feedback we get; our customers appreciate it. We are proud to serve this sheep and we are happy to support the North Ronaldsay crofters and help to preserve a breed that could all too easily disappear.”

Wendy Barrie, who has appealed to the local council for help in saving this rare sheep in the past, said: "This is a totally unique breed, forever linked to its community and place.

“For a small sheep it has distinctive characteristics. Its strong flavours can be a surprise to the uninitiated as the meat is naturally spiced and gamey. When slow cooked with local vegetables, even modest morsels of mutton will deliciously flavour the whole dish. Probably the most environmental ruminant we have in the world!"

In order to disseminate the importance of this local breed at risk of extinction, Wendy Barrie has written a booklet about its history, with some recipes to accompany it.

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• The booklet will be distributed to local schools. A downloadable version is available here.

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Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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