Hirsel Hebrideans

Hirsel Amber, HSS registered daughter of Slipperfield Donald and Bryland Eliz. She was born in our first year of lambing (2016) and is now an adult member of our home flock.

Hebrideans are descended from an ancient short tailed breed, and are very hardy, thriving on what some would call ‘poor’, but we call ‘mixed native’ grazing. 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. There are varying theories about how ‘the little sheep’ came to Scotland, with the “brought by the Vikings” story holding sway for many years. But there is a growing consensus that the ancestors of the sheep now called ‘Hebridean’ came over with some of the first humans to cross the land bridge that formerly connected Britain with Europe.

At the Hirsel, we keep a mix of ‘modern’ HSS (Hebridean Sheep Society) registered  Hebrideans, which have been bred since the early 1800’s to highlight their small stature, black wool, and (most commonly) 2-horns. But we also breed unregistered ‘traditional’ Hebs: those which hark back to their ancient attributes by exhibiting a wider range of colors (red/raddie, grey/’silverback’, white, and motley) and wool qualities (all our animals grow under- and overcoats, but some shed more than others, and there are crimp and staple length differences among the colours). Meanwhile, the advantages of excellent modern care help some examples of both lines to attain sizes their ancestors would be jealous of: our largest ram weighs in at over 80k (significantly larger than standard), and we are committed to breeding both lines as part of our efforts to preserve the wide genetics of this ‘mongrel’ breed. This year (2021) we will be breeding our first white and our first 4-horned rams to our ewes. We’re excited to take these next steps toward developing a wide genetic base for our home flock – modern and ancient.

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Ivory, the first white Heb born at the Hirsel (in 2016) with her first lamb. Ivory was unexpected, but we are now breeding for this color, and have multiple white ewes/lambs.

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 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 graze our fields and meadows in the green months – 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 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.

Further reading…

You can read more about the breed and the Hebridean Sheep Society on their website, and David Kinsman’s d ‘The Black Sheep of Windermere‘ is an excellent history of the breed.

Slipperfield Donald and Cairnorrie Aidan, enjoying the spring weather. Can you tell they’re father and son?

Meet the cast of  characters we live, work and play with on the Hirsel, and keep up with our daily stories by visiting our Facebook page.

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