Basic Needs of Soay Sheep

Feed and water

Chow Time Soay sheep need grass and weeds. They actually prefer weeds, brush and grass in that order. In most areas of the continent, pasture growth stops or slows to the point that you will need to provide hay over the winter. How much and for how long depends on your climate and situation. Soay sheep do best on plain grass hay. They have no need for a diet as rich as alfalfa. We've found that it pays to buy the best grade of grass hay you can find. The sheep will pick through stemmy hay looking for leaf, and waste a lot of it; hay with a lot of leaf and little stem seems to be money well spent since they eat it all and you don't have to feed as much. It would be appropriate to offer heavily lactating ewes a supplement of alfalfa or grain or prepared ewe ration to prevent their condition from deteriorating. Rams and wethers should never be fed alfalfa, grain or alfalfa- based ration on a regular basis since the high calcium content of these feeds presents an increased risk of bladderstones. Male sheep have a much longer, narrower urethra than the females. However, a little grain or alfalfa used now and then to lure your rams from one place to another is not a problem.

For a very rough guide on how much hay your sheep will require, figure 3% to 5% of body weight per day of good quality grass or timothy hay, depending. Adult rams lying around all day require less than ewes nursing twins.

Livestock guardian dog and Soay sheep at the stock tank Sheep need water and, ironically, more in winter when they are eating dry hay.

We are often asked how many acres it takes to keep a flock of Soay, or, put another way, how many can be supported on this many or that many acres. Obviously, this depends on the productivity of the land — on soil and climate, rainfall and irrigation, pasture management and rotational practices — and on how much hay you can afford. Some breeders we know must feed hay year round.

If you are not sure, you will probably do best to start small, with perhaps five sheep, say three ewes and a ram and a wether. Five sheep should be fine in most situations on a couple of acres with a good perimeter fence and divided, perhaps with temporary fencing, into a few small paddocks. See how it goes, and with only a few to look after, you can easily make adjustments as you go. Watch how long the summer pasture lasts, and how fast you go through hay in the winter and go from there.


What we have to say on this score is based on watching how our sheep behave. During January, here in the foothills of Southern Oregon, the temperatures go down into the teens and occasionally single digits. Our sheep don't seem to mind, or if they do mind, it doesn't occur to them to move to the shelters that we provide.

Shelter, continued

Hardy Soay in Yorkshire : photo by Anne Malton Nor do they seem to mind snow. If we sneak out before dawn after a snowy night, we will see a flock of white bumps with black noses and brown ears. Rain is a different story. Drizzle and mist is no problem, but a steady rain will move them to cover. Come a thunderstorm and they make a dash for it. Don't forget that Soay sheep need as much or more protection from summer sun and heat as from wintery weather.

Your basic sheep shelter Our shelters are quite minimal, little more than a flat corrugated metal roof about six and a half feet high, supported by poles sunk 30 inches in the ground, and enclosed with four-foot walls on three sides. These half walls ensure excellent ventilation. We have added a six-inch deep bed of crushed rock to raise the floor level above the winter mud outside and provide drainage.


Fence fixer on a nice day The main idea is of course to keep your sheep and perhaps their guardian animals on the inside and predators on the outside. We used 2x4 in mesh field fence (often called “no climb” or horse fence) about 4 feet high. If we had to do it over again, we might use 4x4 inch mesh for economy, though in our area it's harder to find. Sheep, especially ewes with rear arching horns, will get their heads caught in the larger sized openings of regular field fence. While fine for adults and larger lambs, 4x4 mesh fence is hazardous for very young lambs, especially when their horns start to develop. They love to stick their heads in places where they shouldn't, and often can't figure out how to work themselves free. So, areas where you will confine nursing ewes and their inquisitive lambs ought to be fenced with 2x4 mesh or, alternatively, by attaching 24 inch poultry wire around the bottom of the enclosure.

Livestock Guardian Cats Such a fence will keep sheep in just fine. But it will not keep determined predators – for us this means coyotes – from digging under or scrambling over. One approach is to electrify your fence at the top and along the bottom to deter assaults of both kinds. Don't forget your gates. Provide a top strand and, if your gate is of the open tube type, wire a piece of fence or stock panel to it so the predators can't crawl through.