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May 18, 2016

An unewesual Festival

The season of Festivals is almost upon us and in recent years not only has the number proliferated but the variety of Festival on offer has grown too.  If you look carefully enough at the Festival calendar there’s something there for everyone. Festivals are an important tool for attracting visitors who bring not just their cash but in many cases the offer of some help. The community on the remote Orkney island of North Ronaldsay have taken this concept a little further than most festival organisers. But then they do have some very special sheep.

David Ross, The Herald

It’s to be a carnival of sheep thrills. A festival celebrating a rare breed of seaweed-eating sheep that invites revellers to help round up the flock and repair boundary walls is set to attract crowds to Orkney.

But the fortnight-long event is distinct from Scotland’s traditional festival fare such as T in the Park and Summer Sessions in Glasgow, which boasts some of the world’s biggest bands wowing throngs of devoted fans over a multi-million-pound sound system.

Instead, the “revellers” attending the festival on the remote island of North Ronaldsay can hone their drywalling skills and help to repair storm damage to sheep dykes that prevent the rare ovine breed from polluting their gene pool with impure mates.

It is hoped shoring up the island’s defences will also help reduce the likelihood of the ancient breed of sheep succumbing to copper poisoning from the island’s grass, because it disrupts an enzyme in their immune system.

Festival organiser Kate Traill Price said the first-of-its-kind festival will help to promote the island and teach visitors unique agricultural skills

She said: “The BBC’s Countryfile programme featured the sheep dyke earlier this year and highlighted our continuing efforts to keep it maintained.

“Following that broadcast we were inundated with generous offers of help from people throughout the country, so we came up with the idea of the festival as a way of both utilising that assistance and highlighting what a wonderful place North Ronaldsay is.

 “The festival is unique and offers volunteers the opportunity to work alongside our community in conserving our rare and iconic breed of sheep,” she added.

“It’s going to be a real hands-on experience, but also lots of fun, with many other activities planned during the two-week long event.”

It is not yet known how many festival-goers will attend the event, which runs from July 25 until August 5.

North Ronaldsay mutton is exported from the island and prized as a delicacy, thanks to its distinctive flavour.

Wool from the sheep is also processed locally and sold to knitters around the world.

According to the Orkney Sheep Foundation, the 3,000-strong flock are an ancient breed of small, hardy sheep that are part of the family of short-tailed animals found in various parts of northern Europe and on some of the Atlantic islands.

In the 1830s, traditional farming faced sweeping changes and big breeds of sheep such as Cheviots and Leicesters were bred on Orkney as elsewhere.

On many islands the native sheep did not survive this transformation changes. But in North Ronaldsay, farmers discovered to keep the breed that had served them for so many years alive they should build a 13-mile drystane dyke around the island to keep them on the shore. It is because of this development the sheep adapted to a seaweed diet.

Maintenance of the coastal sheep dyke, which is damaged by winter storms each year, is a continual challenge for the small community of just over 70 on what is Orkney’s most northerly island. Festival-goers will help repair fallen sections of the wall, learning traditional building skills from experts.

Volunteers are also being invited to take part in a North Ronaldsay punding – the process of rounding up the wild sheep from the beach in order to be clipped.