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 several years. But the terms North American, American and British — particularly the latter — have been so widely used that we will retain them in these pages and on the pdeigree certificates that we issue, although not without first (re)defining 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 are the "1974 importation" or "The Assiniboine flock." The Assiniboine Zoo kept its Soay flock for only a few years before selling them to local breeders about 1980. Their fate is not well known.

One group — the so-called "East Coast" Soay — found its way to Georgia and thence to Massachusetts. Though a few pedigree records have survived in the IDGR registry [link], pedigrees are generally lacking. 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 animals, it may have been necessary to do so simply to keep the surviving Soay gene pool alive. Some breeders, realizing that it would be impossible to import additional Soay sheep from the UK, strove to recreate a facsimile of the Soay look. Others seem to have been trying to make a buck in the lucrative rare animal trade.

All the descendants of the Assiniboine flock, both the East Coast and Pacific Northwest groups are commonly known as North American Soay sheep. No records exist to trace any present day animal back to Winnipeg, much less to the UK. The physical appearance of these sheep varies widely.

British Soay Sheep: The Athelstan Flock

In 1990, six Soay sheep were imported from the U.K. into Canada, this time landing in Athelstan, Quebec. These constitute the "1990 importation" or "The Athelstan flock." Their importation and maintenance was sponsored by a biotechnology company in Montreal in hopes that they 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. The flock was not allowed to grow much in size. Eventually, the company changed hands and the new owners had no interest in subsidizing a bunch of little brown sheep.

By happy coincidence, 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. The population of about 20 began to increase, slowly at first, but then more rapidly. There are now in the US and Canada about 600 living animals descended exclusively from the Athelstan flock. These fully pedigreed and documented (?) Soay are known variously as "British Soay", "Full Soay" or "Pure Soay"

American/British Soay Sheep: Mixtures

Many of the flocks that received British Soay in the last ten year years had long standing holdings of North American Soay. Cross breeding began immediately, generally involving British rams and North American ewes. It has been generally accepted to refer to the mixed progeny of such breeding as North American or American. For casual use, this is fine. But what about 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-etc" and he's not. But to call him North American seems to miss the point.

cross breeding less and less; but the cross breeds exiist

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.

Many breeders have asked us to indicate in the pedigrees what percentage of each animal is derived from the 1974 importation and what percentage is derived from the 1990 importation. Because the pedigrees of the 1990 imports and their descendants are complete and they tie directly back to the U.K., with no introduction of other kinds of Soay or non-Soay sheep, it is possible to state what per cent of any Soay in North America is British, i.e. derived from the 1990 importation.

Ancestry Terms as Used by the OFP

Issues Involved in Quantifying British and North American Ancestry

Many breeders have asked us to indicate in the pedigrees what percentage of each animal is derived from the 1974 importation and what percentage is derived from the 1990 importation. Because the pedigrees of the 1990 imports and their descendants are complete and they tie directly back to the U.K., with no introduction of other kinds of Soay or non-Soay sheep, it is possible to state what per cent of any Soay in North America is British, i.e. derived from the 1990 importation.

It is not possible, however, to state what percentage of any Soay in North America is derived from the 1974 importation. Breeding records simply do not exist, or are incomplete, for many years after 1974, making it impossible to determine what percentage of a North American or American Soay derives from the Soay imported in 1974 and what percentage, if any, derives from non-Soay sheep.

Here are a few examples: