Maria is crouched down next to Alaistair one of their North Ronaldsay sheep at Higher Trewithen in Cornwall.

Meet Our Marine Munchers: The North Ronaldsay Sheep of Higher Trewithen

Maria is crouched down next to Alaistair one of their North Ronaldsay sheep at Higher Trewithen in Cornwall.
Maria & Ali enjoying a cuddle in the rams field at Higher Trewithen

Here at Higher Trewithen Holiday Cottages, we’re proud to be home to a unique breed of sheep: the North Ronaldsay. These hardy creatures aren’t your average grazers. In fact, they have a rather surprising taste for the sea!

Island Flock with a Seaweed Diet

North Ronaldsay sheep hail from the windswept shores of North Ronaldsay, an island off the coast of Scotland. Isolated for centuries, they’ve developed a remarkable adaptation: thriving on a diet of seaweed. Up to 80% of their food comes from the ocean. This makes them one of the few land mammals on Earth to graze on seaweed. This unique diet is said to give their meet a distinctive flavour, which has become quite sought after by some chefs.  

Due to this adaptation, Ronnies are excellent foragers. They can survive on low grade vegetation and drink sea water during drought conditions. Their foraging skills and their tolerance for harsh conditions has enabled them to become experts for conservation grazing in areas that commercial sheep would be unable to survive. 

But their magnificent metabolism has a downside! Their little bodies have evolved to be so efficient at extracting all that it needs from available food sources that they are highly sensitive to copper. If left on grazing that contains high traces of copper they can develop copper toxicity a condition which can be fatal.

For this reason caution needs to be taken with where they graze and the types of feed they are given. Commercial sheep feed, even if it says no added copper, tend to have high background levels of copper that can reach toxic levels for these little lovelies.

Our rare breed North Ronaldsay sheep at Higher Trewithen Holiday Cottages Cornwall.
Harris, one of our North Ronaldsay rams at Higher Trewithen.

Protecting a Rare Breed

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) classifies the North Ronaldsay as a priority breed, meaning their numbers are highly vulnerable and the breed is at significant risk of become extinct! Here at Higher Trewithen, we’re committed to helping preserve this charming breed of sheep and have given them the very important task of conservation grazing in our paddocks.

Our 8 North Ronaldsays help maintain the delicate balance of our miniature ecosystem here at Higher Trewithen. While our rather spoilt sheepy support team don’t exist on a diet of seaweed, their presence helps control weeds and encourages a range of wildflowers to grow.

Back in 2022 we had a visit from Cornwall Wildlife Trust who came to take a soil and ecology study and offer us some advise with regards to grassland management.

In their report Stephanie Hinde noted, that, “Grassland diversity is quite high – you have done a good job of removing scrub and bracken from the fields. We spotted species including greater birds foot trefoil and trailing St John’s wort.

The “You” Stephanie is referring to here is actually our team of expert foragers. They’ve done a fantastic job of keeping the scrub at bay. Our next task is to improve the quality of the grazing and ensure our flock has plenty to eat all year round. 

We did offer Alaistair & co. some seaweed in the past but they seemed rather uninterested. They left it untouched for nearly two weeks at which point it had become rather pungent and we decided it was time to remove it. However, the next day there was not a stitch of seaweed to be found anywhere. 

Perhaps leaving the seaweed until it has a bit of stink to it is a delicacy for them?

Fun Facts About North Ronaldsay Sheep

  • Salty Survivors: Their love for seaweed extends to tolerating salt water. They can even drink seawater to stay hydrated!
  • Ancient Origins: Evidence suggests their ancestors munched on seaweed as far back as 5,000 years ago!
  • Primitive Past: North Ronaldsays are part of the Northern European Short-tailed sheep group, an ancient breed with minimal cross-breeding.
  • Flock on the Move: Traditionally, North Ronaldsay sheep were confined to the shores by a stone wall. Stone structures called punds are used to herd the sheep back and forth between the island and the shore. Ours here at Higher Trewithen have a bit less exposed position in our fields but they do live outdoors in all weather all year round.
  • Prolific Breeders: North Ronaldsay sheep are known for their high lambing percentages. Ewes can have up to twin lambs, with lambing percentages sometimes exceeding 130%.

Come Meet Our Wooly Wonders

Staying at Higher Trewithen Holiday Cottages means you are directly helping us to continue supporting the existence of this amazing little breed of sheep for which we are immensely grateful to each any every guest.

It also gives you the chance to meet these fascinating and really very charming creatures firsthand.

We are sure these prehistoric grazers with their salty snack habits are sure to become a truly memorable part of your Cornish holiday.

Looking to Learn More?

You can find out more about the RBST and the amazing work they’re doing to help preserve this magnificent breed of sheep any many other rare breed animals over on their website. 

Rare Breeds Survival Trust – North Ronaldsay  

Share This Post:

Share This Post:

Skip to content