As unique job opportunities go, you’d be hard pressed to find one comparable with the position now available within Orkney’s most northerly community.
But then Sheep Dyke Warden is a role that could only ever be carried out in North Ronaldsay, an island encircled by a 6ft high,13-miles long dry-stone wall, or dyke.
The dyke, erected in the 1800s using beach stones, keeps North Ronaldsay’s rare breed of ancient, seaweed-eating sheep on the island’s rocky foreshore, and separate from interior grassland.
North Ronaldsay mutton is exported from the island and much prized as a delicacy, thanks to its distinctive flavour. Wool from the sheep is also processed locally and sold to knitters around the world.
As such, the sheep are a vital part of the island’s economy, helping support a population of around 50. However, the breed is vulnerable to copper poisoning due to its seaweed diet, so the dyke both protects the animals from health issues and eliminates the chances of gene-pool pollution of the 2,000-strong flock through cross breeding with other sheep.
Maintenance of the coastal sheep dyke, which can get damaged by winter storms, is a continual challenge for islanders.
An annual sheep festival sees volunteers from around the world travel to North Ronaldsay to help repair the dyke and learn building skills particular to the wall’s unique construction.
The event, which has been running since 2016, has proved a huge success but the community has been keen to explore other ways of securing the long-term economic health of the island.
“The warden role was always something we’ve wanted on the island as the amount of dyke that needs rebuilt is beyond what local people can do,” said John Scott, chair of the North Ronaldsay Trust. “We’ve had a lot of success with the three years of volunteering through the festival, but it does need more than that. If we have a person who’s full-time, we can get more dyke built and more critical ‘strategic’ dyke built too.”
The successful candidate for the full-time sheep dyke warden role – funded for an initial three years by the North Isles Landscape Partnership and The National Lottery Heritage Fund, and managed by the Trust - will oversee maintenance of the dyke, coordinate volunteers and help promote the island to visitors.
John said the island regularly received requests from volunteer groups, keen to help out with dyke work, so the warden would act as coordinator for those interested in getting involved with repairs.
“If there’s a warden on the island all the time, it also helps raise the profile of North Ronaldsay and the sheep,” he said. “It will hopefully attract more groups of people on a volunteer basis, outwith the annual festival and, in turn, get much more dyke built.”
In terms of the personal qualities and skills needed by the sheep dyke warden, John said the Trust would be looking for someone who could fit into a small community and work on their own initiative.
“They need to be physically able, resourceful and fairly resilient as it’s hard work,” he said. “Given the unique nature of the sheep dyke’s construction, we’re not necessarily looking for someone who has a lot of experience in dry-stane dyking. It could just be someone who is able to pick up the necessary skills fairly quickly, while showing a willingness to roll up their sleeves and contribute to all other aspects of daily island life.”
He continued: “There’s a very strong sense of community on North Ronaldsay and this role will give the successful applicant a hugely rewarding lifestyle. Everyone who’s moved to the island in recent years has been made to feel very welcome and it’ll be the same for whoever is fortunate enough to land this unique job. We’re also very grateful to the North Isles Landscape Partnership and The National Lottery Heritage Fund for funding the post.”
Creation of the sheep dyke warden post is part of a series of initiatives that also include the recent refurbishment of the former North Ronaldsay schoolhouse, which it’s hoped might attract a new family to the island.
More land acquisitions are in the pipeline, with the community aiming to steadily increase the number of available homes on North Ronaldsay.
The official opening of the renovated schoolhouse will also tie in with a special conference being held on the island today (Monday 17 June). The event, organised by the North Ronaldsay Trust, draws together local people and key agencies to explore current and future development plans for the community.
Helga Scott, community development manager for the North Ronaldsay Trust, said: “This is an exciting time for North Ronaldsay, with the completion of the schoolhouse renovation, the creation of the warden’s post and the conference this week creating a real sense of optimism about the future of our unique island.
“The new post offers a fantastic opportunity for the right individual, or ideally the right family, to relocate to a beautiful island and become part of the fabric of our close-knit community. With three planes a day and continually improving telecommunications, we have never been more connected to the larger world but we still get to enjoy all the benefits of island life.”
Anyone interested in applying for the role of Sheep Dyke Warden can find out more on the North Ronaldsay Trust website or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The closing date for applications is Friday 9th August 2019. Interviews will be held from the end of August.
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