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Sheep Dyke Warden

The job posting for the role of Sheep Dyke Warden on North Ronaldsay was well covered by the media. Some headlines claimed that the island was looking for a farmer or a dyke expert. I'm neither of those things.

At the time of the job advert I had been volunteering full time with the National Trust in North Devon for 7 months. I was keen to find a paid role in countryside management, and desperate to move further North (I suffer a lot working in the heat!)

Welcombe, North Devon

When the interview came up I had already booked on a mountain path building course in Snowdonia. In money-saving-full-time-volunteer mode I was spending 2 days wild camping in the mountains. But where to conduct my Skype interview from... I found a quiet place to pull over on the side of the road, with excellent 4g signal, I carefully balanced my laptop on the dashboard, and took the interview inside my car. I'm not sure what the interview panel must've thought, but they obviously weren't too put off. A few days later I had an email saying I had got the job, I couldn't believe it!

Hike up to Glyder Fach, Snowdonia. Views of Lake Ogwen and beyond to the Menai Strait

I would be "Sheep Dyke Warden" on the most northerly Orkney island, North Ronaldsay, for the next 3 years.

What is a sheep dyke warden anyway? Why does North Ronaldsay need one? And what's so special about those sheep?

Around the circumference of North Ronaldsay is a dry stone dyke (wall), 13 miles long. Built from the rocks found on the beaches, reaching over 6ft in height in some parts, it keeps the native breed of sheep (North Ronaldsay sheep) off of the fields and on the beaches. In the 1830s, after the collapse of the kelp industry, the fields were turned to agriculture and cattle farming. In order to keep the precious pasture for cattle the sheep dyke was erected above the high tide line, with the ancient breed left between the dyke and the sea. These hardy peedie (small) sheep adapted to their new diet of seaweed, returning to the fields only for a short time each year for lambing.

The seaweed-eating sheep are a vital part of the island's economy

Unsurprisingly North Ronaldsay's coastline, and therefore sheep dyke, is battered each year by storms, with huge sections taken down by the ferocious Atlantic waves. Sheep coming in not only means a risk of cross-breeding with non-native sheep on the island, but this breed has become evolved to eat seaweed so much so that the copper in grass can poison them.

In past generations sheep owners and other islanders would have rebuilt dyke that had fallen down, however with an ageing population and fewer people on the island it hasn't been possible to keep up with the rate of repairs needed.

Storms travel across the Atlantic with nothing to stand in their way before they meet North Ronaldsay

A survey conducted in 2015 reported that 3 miles needed to be rebuilt, with much more suffering smaller areas of damage and requiring inspection after storms. With the 2019 survey reporting even more damage to the dyke, the North Ronaldsay Trust finally got funding for their long awaited warden post to help save the islands unique heritage.

Alongside dyke building the post requires me to lead dyke building volunteers with hopes to develop the volunteer toursim offer on the island, assist with sheep management activites, carry out temporary fencing, work with the land and sheep owners, and attend the Sheep Court (more about all that later).

A sheep peep hole

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