Hebrideans are a short-tailed, hardy breed, with a high lanolin content in their wool, and there are varying theories about how and when they came to Scotland. The “with the Vikings” story held sway for many years, but there is a growing consensus that their ancestors came over with some of the first humans to cross the now flooded land bridge that formerly connected Britain with Europe. In any case, they are perfectly suited for the vagaries of northern Scotland’s weather, and for a mixed-terrain Highland farm like the Hirsel.
At the Hirsel, we keep a mix of ‘modern’ HSS (Hebridean Sheep Society) registered Hebrideans, which meet the HSS standards of being small, black, and (usually) 2-horned. But we also breed unregistered Seann Innse’gall Hebs – those which exhibit an older, wider range of colors (red/raddie, grey/’silverback’, white, and motley), sizes (our largest registered ram weighs in at 80k, significantly larger than standard) and wool (all our breed are two-coated, but there are differences among the colours, esp when it comes to shedding the top coat). We are committed to breeding both lines as part of our efforts to preserve the wide genetics of this ‘mongrel’ breed.
A little background…
In the mid 1880’s, a small flock of black Hebrideans were likely taken off one of the Scottish Hebridean islands by a collector, and taken south to an estate in England. As the breed spread throughout England, they were subsequently bred for specific traits and physical conformity. While this kept the breed in existence on the parklands of the landed gentry, as their flock mates in Scotland were being replaced by commercial sheep, selective breeding of this formerly diverse breed also led to the Hebrideans becoming the small mono-chromatic (black and blacker), usually 2-horned breed most are familiar with. You can read more about the breed and HSS standards on their website, and in David Kinsman’s excellent history of the breed ‘The Black Sheep of Windermere‘. But hidden within the breed’s genes, and among flocks in the more remote areas and islands of Scotland, the Seann Innse’gall strain survived, delivering brown lambs, and even the occasional white. Most of these odd animals were culled, of course, and the breed nearly became extinct, outside of the parkland flocks.
Now, especially in the Scottish Highlands, where hardiness and thriftiness is more important than a show ribbon, there is a move to allow this old style Heb to resurface. When we were surprised with a white lamb from black parents during our first lambing season, she was a wondrous addition to our flock…and the start of an unplanned but happy detour on our farming path. Genetics is not our forte’ , but rearing these beautiful, diverse animals has become our passion. Greenal – the matriarch of our white line – is no longer with us, but her daughters and granddaughters have continued giving us white Seann Innse’gall Hebs, no matter the ram they are bred with. In addition, we have many others with grey (our Silverbacks) or reddish (our Raddies) wool, harking back to a time when the breed was multi-colored. In the autumn of 2021, we will be introducing Lachie, our first 4-horned ram, to our ewes, and look forward to meeting his lambs, in all their multi-horned glory. We love the various colors, sizes and looks of our flock – they match the various personalities of our sheep!
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 as 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 Hirsel. 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 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. They graze our fields and meadows in the green months – important colleagues in our regenerative approach to the renovation of our meadows and woods – and are given supplemental feeding of quality feed and hay/lage 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 a little 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.
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