The Hebridean, a sheep breed now classified as rare, originated in the islands off the western coast of Scotland. They are classified as one of the Northern Short-tailed breeds. Over the centuries, Hebridean ewes have been selected by natural systems for hardiness in all weathers, ease of lambing, milkiness and good mothering instincts.
Because Hebrideans have not been modified by artificial selection they remain a small, economically efficient breeding ewe with a surprising ability to produce quality cross-bred lambs. Both sexes are usually horned with either two or four horns, four horns being the most common. They have shown a greater tendency to browse than other sheep breeds which has made them useful in ecological projects where the control of brush and weeds was needed.
Breed categories: Rare, Northern European short-tail, primitive
Distribution: United Kingdom
Hebridean sheep descend from the same Iron Age British stock we have come to know on many of the sheep in outer islands. They were smaller than the modern versions, had similar short tails, and had slightly hairier fleeces for deflecting water. Once known as Scotttish Dunface, the Hebridean was a mainstay for subsistence farmers throughout Scotland until the agricultural revolutions in the eighteenth century pushed them to the Hebrides, where they managed to survive mostly unchanged.
They had some help, the aristocracy liked the black coloring and selected them, as they did Manx and Jacob, to look pretty grazing on their estates. The black coloring is recessive, but once selected and bred for, it sticks. Interestingly, Celtic peoples liked the black coloring and not just because of the color – black horned feet are tougher and grow more slowly, characteristics which lend themselves to being left to their own devices in very difficult terrain.
In 1973 the British Rare Breeds Survival Trust identified the few remaining, practically feral, parkland Hebridean flocks as in danger of extinction and listed the breed. It is recovering today, but still needs to be monitored.
Hebridean are extremely hardy sheep. The ewes are good mothers and lamb easily, often having twins, and they are excellent milkers. They are small, ewes typically weigh only 75-90 lbs. and rams are only a slight bit larger at around 100 lbs. Legs and faces are generally free from wool, and sheep of either gender may have up to four horns. They are delicately boned – and yet very sturdy sheep that exist very well on rough feed – and are crucially important to maintaining many of the ecosystems on the Hebridean islands: they keep the verge in trim so the birds can nest. Without the sheep, many species of sea birds would be in even greater danger of extinction.
The fleece is either black (often true black) or very dark brown and may have weathered tips, which lend Hebridean fleece to tweed. All the lambs are born truly black, and Hebridean sheep will often go grey as they age – with increasingly coarse fleece. Some are double coated, and like their shetland relatives may have a very soft downy undercoat, while others are very dense. Kemp is not unusual, particularly on the flanks and the mane of a ram. Fleeces range from 3-8 pounds with a wildly varying staple length. Breed standard cites anywhere from 1-14 inches depending on the source of the wool, but something in the vicinity of 2-4 is the most common. Micron count is generally coarse at around 33-38.
photo credits UK Hebridean Sheep society