North Ronaldsay, Orkney’s most northerly island community, is seeking applicants for a unique role overseeing care and repair work on a historic stone dyke that plays a vital part in the management of a unique local breed of ancient seaweed eating sheep.
The 6ft high, 13-miles long dyke was erected in the 1800s using beach stones and encircles the entire island, keeping the sheep on the rocky foreshore and separate from interior grassland.
North Ronaldsay mutton is exported from the island and much prized as a delicacy, thanks to its distinctive flavour. Wool from the sheep is also processed locally and sold to knitters around the world.
As such, the sheep are a vital part of the island’s economy, helping support a population of around 50. However, the breed is vulnerable to copper poisoning due to its seaweed diet, so the dyke both protects the animals from health issues and eliminates the chances of gene-pool pollution of the 2,000-strong flock through cross breeding with other sheep.
Maintenance of the coastal sheep dyke, which can get damaged by winter storms, is a continual challenge for islanders. An annual sheep festival sees volunteers from around the world travel to North Ronaldsay to help repair the dyke and learn building skills particular to the wall’s unique construction.
The event, which has been running since 2016, has proved a huge success but the community has been keen to explore other ways of securing the long-term economic health of the island.
“The warden role was always something we’ve wanted on the island as the amount of dyke that needs rebuilt is beyond what local people can do,” said John Scott, chair of the North Ronaldsay Trust. “We’ve had a lot of success with the three years of volunteering through the festival, but it does need more than that. If we have a person who’s full-time, we can get more dyke built and more critical ‘strategic’ dyke built too.”
The successful candidate for the full-time sheep dyke warden role – funded for an initial three years by the North Isles Landscape Partnership (NILPS) and The National Lottery Heritage Fund, and managed by the Trust - will oversee maintenance of the dyke, coordinate volunteers and help promote the island to visitors.
Mr Scott said the island regularly received requests from volunteer groups, keen to help out with dyke work, so the warden would act as coordinator for those interested in getting involved with repairs.
“If there’s a warden on the island all the time, it also helps raise the profile of North Ronaldsay and the sheep,” he said. “It will hopefully attract more groups of people on a volunteer basis, outwith the annual festival and, in turn, get much more dyke built.”
In terms of the personal qualities and skills needed by the sheep dyke warden, Mr Scott said the Trust would be looking for someone who could fit into a small community and work on their own initiative.
“They need to be physically able, resourceful and fairly resilient as it’s hard work,” he said. “Given the unique nature of the sheep dyke’s construction, we’re not necessarily looking for someone who has a lot of experience in dry-stane dyking. It could just be someone who is able to pick up the necessary skills fairly quickly, while showing a willingness to roll up their sleeves and contribute to all other aspects of daily island life.”
He continued: “There’s a very strong sense of community on North Ronaldsay and this role will give the successful applicant a hugely rewarding lifestyle. Everyone who’s moved to the island in recent years has been made to feel very welcome and it’ll be the same for whoever is fortunate enough to land this unique job. We’re also very grateful to the North Isles Landscape Partnership and The National Lottery Heritage Fund for funding the post.”
Andy Golightly, programme manager for NILPS, said: "We are delighted to be involved in a project that supports so many of our aims in the north isles, including promoting the area and recognising what makes the places special, and conserving the unique aspects of its built heritage."
Anyone interested in applying for the role of Sheep Dyke Warden can find out more on the North Ronaldsay Trust website.
The North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme (NILPS) is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, OIC, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme and supports projects in Orkney’s North Isles.
Working with the communities on the North Isles the NILPS will deliver projects that will promote the heritage, landscape and culture of the area. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the scheme will support Orkney’s North Isles through the delivery of a number of projects that includes traditional skills training, educational programmes, wildlife recording and enhancement of isles heritage centres amongst others.
The programme will invest £4.5 million in the North Isles and the project will run until 2023.