The Open
Flockbook Project
Soay Ancestry: A Quantitative Approach

North American, American, British, and American/British – What’s in a Name?

We use these interrelated terms to describe the overall heritage of Soay Sheep in North America. We actually don’t much like these labels. They are not particularly descriptive and they have become burdened by a lot of political baggage over the last two decades. But the terms North American, American and British – particularly the latter – have become so widely used that we retain them in these pages and on the pedigree certificates that we issue. Perhaps we should define these terms and a few others.

North American Soay Sheep: The Assiniboine Flock

In 1974, four Soay sheep were imported from the U.K. into Canada and came to rest at the Assiniboine Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba. These four sheep constitute the “1974 importation” and gave rise to “The Assiniboine flock.” The Assiniboine Zoo kept its Soay flock for only a few years before selling them to local breeders about 1980. The particulars about this dispersal are not well known. Some of the dispersed sheep, or their progeny, ended up on the East Coast of the U.S. and some in the Pacific Northwest. Sadly, there are no breeding records to tie any of them to their presumed Assiniboine ancestors.

The so-called “East Coast” Soay initially found their way to Georgia and thence to Massachusetts. Though a few pedigree records dating from 1989 to 2006 have survived in the IDGR registry, the records are fragmentary. On the other hand, the East Coast sheep seem to have been maintained without substantial introgression by other breeds.

The other group – the “Pacific North West” Soay – was heavily crossed to other breeds. Given critically small numbers of Soay, knowledgeable breeders realized they would need to call on a standard breeding technique used when, as with their Soay, the available stock is unsustainably small: cross-breed in order to preserve the gene pool, even if that meant the introduction of non-Soay genes. These breeders, realizing it would be impossible to import additional Soay sheep from the UK, strove to create by careful breeding a line of small, sturdy sheep – a facsimile of the Soay look and feel – and were transparent about what they were doing. On the flip side, other breeders appear to have focused on making a buck in the lucrative rare animal trade, passing off their cross-bred sheep as "true" Soay. It's a mixed legacy to be sure.

All the descendants of the Assiniboine flock, both the East Coast and Pacific Northwest groups, are commonly known as North American Soay sheep. Their physical appearance varies widely: their coat color and pattern, the size and shape of horns, their physical build, and so on. Absent records to trace any of them back to Winnipeg, one can only speculate at the source and extent of admixture from other breeds.

British Soay Sheep: The Athelstan Flock

In 1990, six more Soay sheep were imported from the U.K. into Canada, this time landing in Athelstan, Quebec. These constitute the “1990 importation” and they founded “The Athelstan flock.” Their importation and maintenance was sponsored by a biotechnology company in Montreal in hopes that the Soay sheep might prove useful in its research and development. Though this did not turn out to be the case, the management of the company continued to support their upkeep. The flock was kept closed and isolated from other livestock for about ten years but it was not allowed to grow much in size. Eventually, the company changed hands and the new owners had no interest in further subsidizing a bunch of little brown sheep.

By happy coincidence, Oregonians Kathie Miller and Val Dambacher were able to negotiate the purchase of the Athelstan flock. This took place over a three-year period, 1998-2000. They immediately began to disperse small groups of breeding animals to other farms in the U.S. The population of about 20 began to increase, slowly at first, but then more rapidly. The limited genetic diversity of the six founders has been augmented beginning in 2008 by means of semen generously provided by four RBST-registered rams in the UK. The descendants of these ten founders – the Athelstan six and the four AI donors – numbered over 2800 in 2020. These fully pedigreed Soay sheep are known variously as “British”, “Full”, “Authentic” or “Pure”

American/British Soay Sheep: Mixtures

Many of the breeders who acquired British Soay in the early 2000's already had North American Soay holdings. Cross-breeding began immediately, most commonly by “top crossing” British rams to North American ewes. This is a common agricultural breeding method when the intent is to “upgrade” one's flock or herd. It has been customary to refer to the mixed progeny of such crosses as North American or American and for casual use, the practice is fine. But it fails to distinguish animals between sheep that are partly British from those that aren't. This matters. How to refer to a sheep that is 7/8 “British” and 1/8 “North American”? To call him British is inappropriate, since the term implies “pure-fully-pedigreed-authentic-etc” and he’s not. But to call him North American seems not to give him enough credit for his heritage.

For a while we advocated the term “American/British” for sheep of mixed ancestry. The term is used on the OFP pedigree certificates. But it has not caught on in general use.

Ancestry Terms as Used by the OFP

Issues Involved in Quantifying British and North American Ancestry

Many breeders have asked us to indicate ”percent British” in pedigrees and elsewhere. We can do this. It is not possible, on the other hand, determine how much of a given sheep's heritage is derived from the 1974 importation. Breeding records simply do not exist for many years after 1974, making it impossible to calculate.

Here are three examples. You can inspect their pedigrees here by searching for their names.