Unique North Ronaldsay ‘seaweed’ mutton under threat due to Orkney abattoir closure

A rare Scottish sheep that is the only animal in the world outside of the Galapagos islands to be able to subsist entirely on seaweed, and whose meat is highly sought after, is under threat after a local abattoir on the islands it calls home shut down.

Published 26th Sep 2018
Updated 31 st Oct 2023

The closure of Hatston abattoir has led to plans to have the native North Ronaldsay breed sent to Dingwall for processing, which could degrade the quality of resulting mutton because of stress and weight loss.

Food campaigner Wendy Barrie is calling on the local council to consider other options to protect the flock, which she describes as “incalculably precious”.

North Ronaldsay Mutton

The rare sheep's diet consists almost entirely of seaweed. Picture: Wendy Barrie

One of Scotland’s oldest breeds, the sheep have traditionally been kept near the shore of the northern Ronaldsay island and owe their unique heritage to a touch of good fortune.

A former laird on the island built a large dyke to keep them away from his pastureland, which inadvertently led to keeping their lineage pure.

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Nearly feral and listed as “vulnerable”, the special flock is maintained by the island community because of the high demand for its meat, and is already under threat from the falling population on the island and degradation of the coastal dyke.

Mrs Barrie believes that without the income from the mutton, the already “fragile economy” on North Ronaldsay will only become “more fragile”.

The Leader of Slow Food Scotland's Ark of Taste is currently writing papers for the mutton to be labelled Scotland's first Presidium; the "Rolls Royce of food standards", due to its unique "terroir, provenance, heritage and flavour".

She said: "Key to gaining the label of Presidium is a focus on community and what could sum that up better than this wonderful breed which has seen a whole island come together to rear it.

"North Ronaldsay Mutton is about to have SF Foundation Presidium Status, the absolute top level in Slow Food – and the first ever in Scotland! This is an incredible coup for Scotland and Orkney in particular – it would be a tragedy to lose this opportunity."

"The North Ronaldsay sheep have genetically adapted over the centuries to thrive on their foraged seaweed diet that results in an exceptional and unique flavour. It is spicy and a little gamey, highly valued by knowledgeable restaurateurs, chefs and cooks. Terroir, as the French say, is vital to this breed.

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"Sad to say the vast majority of Scotch Lamb is now cross bred, and we rely on the pure bred genebanks such as North Ronaldsay, to preserve native breeds in Scotland."

However the campaign to grant the breed special designation would be threatened with the closure of the council-run abattoir.

Mrs Barrie believes there are alternatives available, such as the Swedish method for reindeer culls which sees the animals killed in their natural environment using licenced vets and humane methods.

She added that there is also the option of a mobile abattoir which can be purchased from places such as Italy for as little as £100,000.

With the cull set to take place in November, as the flock needs to be reduced for the breeding stock to survive the winter, she added that the need for solutions to the problems is growing urgent.

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There is now a petition in place to push for a new abattoir to be opened but that could take up to two years.

A spokesperson for Orkney Council said that the current model “is no longer sustainable” and that any future provision of abattoir services on the island “needs to be industry-led”.

The council added that “up to £50,000” has been made available to support a range of pre-project development costs, such as market research, feasibility studies and business planning.

They added: "Earlier this month, a meeting of the Council’s Development and Infrastructure Committee considered a report on abattoir provision in Orkney.

"This now goes before a meeting of the Full Council on Tuesday October 9, after which we plan to issue a further update."

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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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