Frequently Asked Questions
The Sheep Dyke
What is the Sheep Dyke? What is its purpose and why does it need repairing?
The North Ronaldsay Sheepdyke is a Grade A listed structure (equivalent to English Grade 1 listing), and is thought to be the longest drystone wall in the world, measuring over 13 miles.
Constructed by hand in 1832, the Sheepdyke is essential in the traditional day to day management of the native sheep, allowing a unique management system by keeping the communal flock on the foreshore to graze on seaweed.
The North Ronaldsay breed has evolved to extract all the nutrition they need from the seaweed, but in the process have developed a susceptibility to copper poisoning if returned to a grass diet for an extended period. For this reason, the Sheepdyke is an essential barrier to maintain the animals' health and the centuries-old system of managing them, as well as ensuring genetic purity from other sheep breeds kept on inland pastures.
The Sheep Dyke is often weakened by wave and wind action during the stormy winter months, and by sheep trying to jump and scramble over it (known as 'loopers'). Even a small gap can grow quickly as the stones around it no longer have their neighbours for support. The work of the Sheep Festival volunteers work is to close up gaps of any size and to re-build weak sections of the Sheep Dyke that are vulnerable.
Traditionally, this work is done by coastal landowners and shepherds, but with an ageing and diminishing island population, there are no longer sufficient numbers to maintain the structure. The community now urgently needs outside help.
Re-building the Sheep Dyke
Will I be shown what to do when building the Sheep Dyke?
You certainly will!
You do not need any previous experience- just a willingness to listen, to look and to understand that every job is important in the smooth running of the build. Each year there is a mix of experienced builders, returning volunteers and new faces that all bring their time and effort to the Sheep Dyke. You can choose to work alone, or in a small group of builders, or to spend your time sourcing and carrying stone to the wall, or to help in clearing the rough ground on the proposed route of the wall.
Just work to your ability and don’t hesitate to ask for help and guidance if you need it. Every expert started as a beginner!
The most prevalent stone found on the shore is a hard sandstone which, over time and with wave action, splits into useful slabs and pieces - perfect for drystone dyking.
The traditional building technique means that there is no need for any mortar or cement, as it relies on the careful placement of interlocking and overlapping stones for its strength. A well-built section of wall can last many, many years, serving as both a barrier to the sheep and as a haven for wildlife, who use its many gaps and cracks to make a home and as a protective shelter.
What will I be expected to do?
Each day, before you start work, you will need to check in for the day and be given important news and to sign up for trips and events. It is important that you attend so we know how many volunteers will be with us that day. There will also be a contact person in each Sheep Dyke work party who can help with general enquiries.
The Festival provides transport which will take you to that day's chosen site. Sometimes the group is split up to work on separate projects, or to collect stone from another part of the shore.
The workday itself is divided into two sessions of approximately 3 hours each.
If you hold a subsidised place then you are expected to work for the full day (total 6 hours) and for the number of days for which you are subsidised. If not, you can join either or both sessions as you choose