Hebrideans are a European short-tailed breed, their ancestors walking across the land bridge from Europe with some of the very first humans. They’re very hardy, thriving on what some would call ‘poor’, but we call ‘mixed native’ grazing, which has helped them survive in Scotland’s rough terrain for thousands of years. They have a double coat of wool, high in lanolin, which sheds rain and insulates them from cold, as well as heat. All of which makes them perfectly suited to the vagaries of northern Scotland’s weather, and for a mixed-terrain Highland farm like the Hirsel.
This formerly multi-coloured breed nearly went extinct during the agricultural reforms of the 1800’s, when the locals and their livestock were cleared from their hereditary lands in favor of large flocks of imported (white) sheep. But thanks to breed enthusiasts, a small number of animals were collected and bred, and all Hebrideans are now descended from a flock of black sheep kept as an oddity on an English estate. The breed is becoming popular again, both as show animals, and as a highly valued choice for small farmers and crofters across the Highlands. The ‘little sheep’ has come home again.
At the Hirsel, we keep a mix of ‘modern’ HSS (Hebridean Sheep Society) registered Hebrideans, which have been bred by collectors since the early 1800’s to highlight their small stature, black wool, and (most commonly) 2-horns. But we also breed ‘traditional’ Hebs: those which hark back to their ancient attributes by exhibiting a wider range of colors (white, grey, reddish/brown), wool qualities, sizes and horn confirmations. We call these traditionals our “Rebel Hebs”
The Hirsel pedigree
ALL of our sheep have the Hirsel pedigree, whether they are HSS registered or not: if you purchase a sheep from us, we’ll be able to tell you his/her Dam and Sire – and now, after multiple generations on the farm, we can usually give you their ancestral chart at least as far back as grandparents – as well as background medical history and, in many cases, information about personality, too.
Our sheep are handled often, receiving regular care and vet-recommended treatments (never more than absolutely necessary, as we prefer a light-handed approach to meds), as well as regular visits by us, to wherever they’re grazing on the farm. So, while Hebrideans are known for being wild, most of ours – there are a couple of headstrong mamas! – are very manageable. We don’t use dogs for herding, but keep older sheep on-farm (called ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’) to help teach the younger, and have bucket trained our flock, meaning they come to the shake of a feed bucket, or a simple call, which makes for stress free herding most of the time. Many of them come to the hand for treats, and some like a bit of grooming, while we respect their wild natures by never forcing more than the necessary contact for care purposes on shy animals. They live outdoors year round – important colleagues in our regenerative approach to the renovation of The Hirsel – and are given supplemental feeding of hay/lage or tree fodder when winter grazing is scarce. And we treat all of our animals with as much kindness and affection as is practically possible on a farm. Our theory is that market day will be hard for everyone, whether we’re attached or not – but loving them makes life a lot more pleasant and fun for the two-legged, as well as the four-legged, residents of the Hirsel in the meantime.
You can read more about the breed and the Hebridean Sheep Society on their website, and David Kinsman’s ‘The Black Sheep of Windermere‘ is an excellent history of the breed.
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