Orkney: North Ronaldsay
The sheep on the shore (2016)
As the 8-seater plane swooped down to North Ronaldsay, the most northern of the Orkney islands, my eyes fell on sheep dyke (wall) for the first time. The twelve miles of dry stone dyke erected around the shoreline make this island unique - its sole purpose being to keep the sheep off the land!
The Grade A listed dyke is desperately in need of repair. I was one of the many volunteers eager to do my part and prepared to spend several days helping bring the dyke back to its past beauty as part of the inaugural North Ronaldsay Sheep festival. I originally offered to help early in 2016 after seeing a feature on the BBC TV programme, Countryfile.
Bit of history
The wall was originally constructed in the 1830's by the islanders when land use started changing and the ancient local sheep breeds gave way to more productive crops and cattle. The islanders continued to use the shoreline as grazing for the native sheep and a wall was constructed to keep them there, at least for most of the year (the sheep are brought in for lambing and shearing). Thus, an ancient breed was preserved and the sheep have adapted to live largely on seaweed. After severe storms in 2012/13 so much of the dyke was damaged it was clear that the repairs were now beyond the capacity of the local people. Although funds were found to put wire fencing across the worst breaches, it was time to come up with a new approach.
A two week sheep festival was devised by the islanders, in association with the recently formed Orkney Sheep Foundation, to bring the community and volunteers together. It would provide a working holiday with plenty of social activities as well. The timing in July/August gave volunteers both a week of walling experience followed by the chance to help out with the community flock gathering and clipping ('punding') the following week. No prior experience required!
We got started on a Monday morning with a stretch on the east side that was completely down for several meters in many stretches. The locals explained their construction methods. The wall is built from the local shoreline stone (quite a mix, with many large flatish stones) in a loose two-faced style with foundations generally laid on the surface. To deter the small nimble sheep from jumping over it it needs a height of around two meters! Coping is sometimes added or sometimes it is topped with wire fencing laid flat and then stones holding that down (especially where the sheep have found a way over).
A core group of volunteers and islanders turned out daily with numbers regularly boosted by others contributing a day or two. By the end of the week it was estimated that over 200 meters of dyke had been built and one of the damaged punds was also repaired ready for the sheep gathering the following week.
This is just the start and much more remains to be done. Dates for 2017 are already set and I would encourage anyone to participate. It is truly 'a working holiday like no other' with a rare opportunity to really experience this very special island and community.
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