The Hebridean is a breed of small black sheep from Scotland similar to other members of the North European short-tailed group, such as the Shetland and North Ronaldsay breeds. The short-tailed characteristic means that you do not need to dock the tails: they are naturally short.
Hebridean sheep are a multi-horned breed. Both ewes and rams may have two, four, or even more horns, and some are occasionally polled.
The two horned sheep are more numerous than the four horned. The horns of mature two horned rams are sought after by stick makers.
Hebridean sheep are relatively small, fine-boned and particularly attractive sheep. Fully grown ewes weigh around 40kg with rams being proportionately larger. More Hebrideans can be kept per hectare than a larger breed and, being lightweight, they do minimal damage to pasture even in wet conditions. In addition, their hard black hooves are not susceptible to foot problems.
The sheep have black wool which sometimes fades to brown at the tips in the sun and often becomes grey with age; there is usually no wool on the face or legs.
Hebridean fleeces are popular with hand spinners who appreciate the subtle mixture of shades in the fleece. The fleece is actually a double coat: a soft insulating undercoat with a coarser, rain shedding top layer. A Hebridean can shed rain from its coat by a swift shake. This water repellent quality carries over into finished woollen products.
Hebrideans are hardy and able to thrive on rough grazing, and so are often used as conservation grazing animals to maintain natural grassland or heathland habitats. They are particularly effective at scrub control, having a strong preference for browsing. This desire to browse does mean that hedges alone are not sheep-proof barriers: stock fencing is required.
Although a primitive breed with the liveliness that this implies, Hebrideans are easy to manage. They are biddable and soon learn to follow a bucket. They can also be worked by sheepdogs. In fact, many sheepdog trainers use Hebrideans for training their dogs: the sheep flock well and move more quickly and readily than lowland sheep, giving the dogs a different challenge.
The breed is not inclined to fatness nor to carrying excess condition; mature adults even on good keep rarely have a body condition score greater than 3. The meat is dark, succulent and rich in flavour and carries a minimum of fat. It has been reported that the muscle tissue and fats of the Hebridean have significantly less cholesterol than other well known breeds. Primitive breeds are slow to mature: lambs will not be ready before the late autumn and are commonly finished as old season lamb (or hogget) in their second year, extending the sales season, when the meat will be even tastier but still not fatty.
Over the centuries, Hebridean ewes have been selected by natural systems for hardiness in all weathers, ease of lambing, milkiness and good mothering instincts. They are a prolific breed: ewes generally bear twin lambs, while shearlings mostly have singles. The lambs are keen to live and get up and suckle quickly. When cross-bred, this vitality is passed on to the cross-bred lambs.
Today, when low intensity, low input farming provides the only viable option for many of our harsher regions, the Hebridean ewe is, once again, finding a role in modern agriculture and for environmental land management. Because Hebrideans have not been modified by artificial selection they remain a small, economically efficient breeding ewe with a surprising ability to produce quality cross-bred lambs. Trials have shown Hebridean flocks produce greater profit per hectare than mainstream commercial ewes.
Hebrideans will outwinter easily in severe conditions and tolerate wetness extremely well.
They are efficient converters of a wide range of vegetation and will thrive on grazing that would be considered poor quality for other breeds.
They have strong, black hooves with few foot problems and short tails that don't need docking.
They are a versatile breed used throughout the UK: from the Outer Hebrides to Cornwall, from Northern Ireland to East Anglia.