Our flock of Hebridean sheep on the Isle of Wight

You may think there's nothing unusual about seeing sheep grazing on the Isle of Wight but some are a little bit different. Let us introduce you to the black sheep in our family.

History

 
Hebridean sheep are an ancient breed of medium-sized black sheep, which came from the islands off the west coast of Scotland. They're often known as St Kilda sheep.
 
The first feral animals, small and hardy with hair coats, were domesticated by Iron-Age farmers. Their thick black fleece is a result of selective breeding, and it turns greyer with age.
 
Had it not been fashionable to keep them in the parkland of country estates, they may well have died out.
 
But in the 20th century they were brought back from the brink of extinction and now they're widely used by conservation organisations.
 
We first bought them in the early 1990s from an Isle of Wight rare breed farm.
 
Hebridean sheep with lambs at Newtown
Two Hebridean ewes with their lambs at Newtown National Nature Reserve
Hebridean sheep with lambs at Newtown

What makes them special?

 
We chose Hebridean sheep because they're excellent at scrub control, preferring to browse coarse vegetation rather than flowers such as orchids and cowslips. And they'll happily eat docks, thistle flowers and nettles.
 
In addition, they can tolerate harsh weather and survive well on a mixed diet of plants that certain modern breeds of sheep would struggle with.
 
So we use them to restore and maintain areas of chalk grassland where we want to encourage the return of delicate wildflowers. They're also effective in restoring lowland heath, where they reduce the scrub that shades the heather.
 

How do we use them?

 
We move the sheep around quite a bit, using small flocks in places that are too small or unsuitable for cattle.
 
So you may often see them grazing on St Helens Common, at Bembridge Windmill, in Bembridge Fort on Culver Down, on Ventnor Downs, and alongside the Tennyson Trail at Freshwater Bay.
Part of our flock graze next to Bembridge Windmill
Our flock of Hebridean sheep in the field adjacent to Bembridge Windmill
Part of our flock graze next to Bembridge Windmill
 
Their fleeces are only worth about 30p each and so we donate them to local weavers. We also use the fleece to create silt traps at Newtown and St Helens Duver. To do this, they are laid around around bundles of hazel, cut from our carefully coppiced woods, and help to protect the soft banks from wave erosion. 
 

Caring for our sheep

 
Our rangers and volunteers are responsible for looking after the sheep and moving them around the Isle of Wight to wherever they're needed.
 
We shear them in early summer to reduce the risk of ticks and fly-strike, a particularly unpleasant condition that occurs in hot, wet conditions.
 
But, generally, they're quite self sufficient, enjoying the environment and playing an important part in our conservation work.
Our rangers demonstrating sheep shearing at Bembridge Windmill
Hebridean sheep being sheared in a demonstration at Bembridge Windmill
Our rangers demonstrating sheep shearing at Bembridge Windmill