Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Ronnies

[Photo: North Ronaldsey seaweed eating sheep.  
Photo by Ian Caldwell
When I travel, I like to have a quest, an aim, something to search for on the trip. A ràison d'detre, so to speak. For the Orkney Islands the quest was to find some fleece from a North Rhonaldsay sheep. These rare breed sheep are rather unique in the world as they have evolved to be able to survive on eating seaweed. Not just as a side dish or in a pinch, but they really live on it. They have developed special bacteria to break down the seaweed into a usable carbohydrate.  Recently, in an attempt to create a few flocks and protect the DNA pool, some Ronnies (aka Rolies) were sent to mainland Scotland and England. Mysteriously, they started to die. It turned out that there is so little copper in seaweed that the North Ronaldsay sheep have developed super absorbency of copper.  So when they moved inland and ate normal amounts of copper, they died from copper poisoning.  Once identified, it was easy to treat.  Interestingly, after two generations, the sheep adapted again and could handle normal intakes of copper.

Our schedule did not quite allow or me to fly from Mainland Orkney Island to North Ronaldsey, so I was disapointed and very envious when I received en email from another spinner from the Qualicum Guild who had the week before I arrived, gone to North Ronaldsay (population 60), saw the sheep, met the one woman crusader who has established a fibre mill on the island, had a tour, met knitters and spinners and had a wonderful time on a knitting tour!  I emailed Karen and she emailed me some tips on where to find some fleece on the main island.
[Photo:Tall ships at Stromness, the Orkneys]
Not only did I find some fleece, beautiful light brown roving, thanks to Karen, but by accident I ran into another woman who keeps North Ronaldsay sheep on a different island.  We happened to be in the Orkneys for the Tall Ships races and the town of Stromness where the main street had been turned into a Fair as part of the welcoming of the tall ships.
And there, at a booth at the fair was fleece!  Rugs.  Stone slate spindles.  Yarn. And Teresa.   Teresa who, with her husband and three sons, live on the remote Isle of Auskerry (click on this link to read all about her life on this hauntingly beautiful island).  Remember, this is where the North Atlantic meets the Norwegian and North Seas.  The wind blows here.  It blows gales.  And often.  This means you, and the sheep, have to be pretty self-sufficient.  If you leave the island, you may not be able to get back for weeks...and vice versa.
Teresa has over, I think she said 300 Ewes and 600 lambs.  This is the 2nd largest flock in the UK!
[Photo: North Ronaldsay fibre.  Very fine
down fibres with longer guard hair fibres]
Teresa sells the tanned fleece hides (very soft) and yarns she has spun.  This is a beautifully soft fleece. The down is a fine fine down, about 28 microns thick. That is a medium wool and kid mohair grade.  It feels silky.  Silky in the way seaweed feels silky.  Or in Scotch brogue, It has a fine hand.  She also sells the fleece and her products over the Internet.  The wool throws she has woven by hand are warm and silky.  So support this rare breed and buy some of her products:

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