Choose island life. Choose stones. Choose fixing a big wall. Choose seaweed eating sheep. Choose learning traditional skills. Choose sweating. Choose a jacket. Choose making new friends. Choose helping a community. Choose dancing, football and good conversation.
Yes, the North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival is back for 2023, with dates for this year’s event just announced by organisers.
Created as a joint venture between the enterprising North Ronaldsay community and The Orkney Sheep Foundation seven years ago in a bid to raise awareness of the island’s ancient breed of shoreline dwelling sheep, the SheepFest also gives people the opportunity to learn the practical skills associated with managing the 3,000 strong flock.
The sheep are contained on the rocky North Ronaldsay shoreline and prevented from grazing on local farmland – the breed is vulnerable to copper poisoning due to its diet - by a 1.8-metre-high, 20km long dry-stone dyke encircling the island. The dyke – originally constructed in the early 1830s and now a Grade A listed structure - also reduces the chance of gene-pool pollution of the flock through cross breeding with other sheep.
Maintenance of the coastal sheep dyke, which gets damaged by winter storms each year, is a continual challenge for the small community on what is Orkney’s most northerly island.
Volunteers taking part in the sheep festival help repair fallen sections of the wall, learning traditional building skills from local experts.
It’s not all hard work though. Festival goers enjoy workshops, talks, events, dances and a fun football match, too.
This unique and hugely popular experience normally runs over a fortnight in the summer, but for this year organisers have opted for a compact, week-long event, staged between 26 July and 2 August.
“Whilst the two-week festival format has been very successful in the past, we feel a week-long event will give us the chance to be more focused in terms of activity,” says Kate Traill Price from the SheepFest organising committee.
“The festival will run from Wednesday to Wednesday with the dance and football match in the middle weekend. The dates also coincide nicely with the start of the summer punding, when we round up all of the sheep, so it’s a great chance for volunteers to see the island's traditional community farming at work.”
Detailed plans for the full festival programme are still being finalised, but according to Kate it’s likely to have all the usual elements that are such a draw for volunteers from around the world, including the football match, dance, a tour of the island’s wool mill, felting and weaving workshops, and talks by visiting speakers.
“We can’t wait to welcome volunteers back to North Ronaldsay in 2023,” she says. “SheepFest has become a much-loved and anticipated yearly event for the island, and after the huge success of last summer, everyone’s itching to get back in the stone zone!”
Kate adds: “Over the past eight years that SheepFest has been running our volunteers have rebuilt almost 2km of fallen sheepdyke. It’s a phenomenal effort that we look forward to building upon this year, and with the communal sheep punding right around the corner, every volunteer’s hard work and generosity of time and spirit in preserving the ancient sheepdyke will be of huge benefit to the island community.”
Keep an eye on the SheepFest website for more information on the 2023 event, and details on how to volunteer.