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Surviving on Seaweed

We are no longer the “newbies" on the island! This weekend another family has moved to North Ronaldsay. Olly and I offered up our moving boxes/unpacking services having recently discovered the logistical difficulties of moving ourselves. Louise, Neil, their son Liam, 2 dogs, a cat and a parrot called Peggy have moved from the Isle of Mull, so they’re no strangers to island-living. Though North Ronaldsay is a bit more remote, and slightly less populated (~55 vs. ~2,500)! Louise is a professional chef and had an artisan bakery on Mull, so I’m waiting in anticipation for some baked delights (check out/drool over her bakes on Instagram!), totally not a hidden agenda for helping them move...

"Mum's china" - aka DO NOT DROP!

Part of my role as Sheep Dyke Warden is checking the dyke for new breaches on a regular basis. I plan to check over the entire dyke, ~13 miles, fortnightly. Though perhaps this will need to be more frequent after storms or in the spring when the sheep are more motivated to get on the island for the fresh grass. This week I have walked the Northern half of the island, taking notes and photos of small repairs which I can do immediately, and larger sections which will require more consideration.

A peedie dyke repair

The Northern end of the island has some lovely historical features, including the old pier, the old beacon and crues.

The plaque at the crues reads: "Residents of North Ronaldsay sowed cabbage plants in these stone enclosures called crues. Evidence suggests that they may have been used as early as the 1500s. Crues protected the plants from wind and sheep. They were located near to the shore where the frosts were less severe. Once the young plants matured, they were moved to larger fields."

"When the 70-foot-high lighthouse was built in1789, it must have indeed been a spectacular sight for the 420 or so inhabitants living at that time in the island. It would have dominated the flat landscape with its scattering of little crofts." says Ian Scott, born on North Ronaldsay and author of Letters from North Ronaldsay. The Old Beacon is the only remaining example of Scotland’s first four lighthouses. The original lantern has been replaced with a stone ball, making it look a bit like a pawn on a chess board in my mind. Sadly the Old Beacon has been covered in scaffolding for years .

Top left clockwise: "pom poms" on the fence; a crue; the old pier; the old beacon

This week I went to Howar for coffee and cake. Dr June Morris, a senior lecturer in Biological Sciences, retired to the island she fell in love with for its tranquility on her first visit in 1987. While teaching at university she developed an absorbing interest in the unique North Ronaldsay sheep and its metabolic adaptations to a diet of seaweed. June sits on the Sheep Court as the Scientific Advisor. More about the Sheep Court next week!


The seaweed diet of the North Ronaldsay sheep is low in copper. Having been restricted to this diet since the early 1800s the breed has evolved mechanisms to maintain adequate copper levels, in other words, they are copper-sensitive. In fact, they are the most copper-sensitive mammals that we know of! All sheep are intolerant of excess copper in their diet because they are unable to excrete copper in bile. North Ronaldsay's high intolerance to copper means that in copper-replete conditions (e.g. being rstricted to terrestrial herbage) they accumulate too much copper in their brain and liver, leading to fatal toxicity.

The sheep eat mainly brown kelps (Laminaria digitata and Laminaria hyperborea) aka "tangles"

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