THEY are a renowned delicacy and buyers of their wool can be found across the world.

But North Ronaldsay’s seaweedeating sheep are under continual threat as a result of storm damage to the historic dyke that protects them from copper poisoning and cross-breeding.

Now, islanders in Orkney are seeking applicants for a role overseeing care and repair work on the Grade A-listed structure.

The 6ft-high, 13-mile-long wall was erected in the 1800s using beach stones and encircles North Ronaldsay, keeping the 3,000-strong flock on the rocky foreshore and separate from interior grassland.

Its role in protecting the animals makes it a vital feature of the economy. North Ronaldsay mutton is exported and much prized thanks to its distinctive flavour. Wool from the sheep is also processed locally and sold to knitters around the globe.

But the North Ronaldsay Trust warns that the sheep dyke experiences “devastating” storm damage, with some sections flattened completely by fierce riptides.

“Temporary fencing has been put in place, but the risk remains of the sheep coming inland,” it adds.

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“Cross-breeding with non-native breeds on the island would contaminate the bloodline, while the sheep’s diet has so evolved to a seaweed regimen that eating grass puts them at risk of copper poisoning.

“Without the manpower on the island needed to repair the dyke as they did for generations, several organisations have come forward with offers of support to help rebuild the sheep dyke.

“The North Ronaldsay Trust was recently awarded £5,000 to carry out emergency patch repairs on the most badly-affected sections, but a recent survey has shown that it will require a significantly higher sum to reconstruct and tackle the relentless challenges of the sea and storms.”

An annual sheep festival that took place before the pandemic saw volunteers from around the world travel to North Ronaldsay to help repair the wall and learn building skills particular to its construction.

The event, which has been running since 2016, proved a huge success but the community has been keen to explore other ways of securing the long-term economic health of the island.

Now, its members are seeking a dedicated dyke warden as part of efforts to ensure the local flock survives into the future. The successful candidate for the 10-hours-a-week role – to run until November 2022 – will oversee maintenance of the dyke, co-ordinate volunteers, and help promote the island to visitors.

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They will receive a salary of £6,240 -year and the closing date for applications is tomorrow.

The trust says the successful candidate will have “a good level of physical fitness, the ability to work with animals ... and have the ability to use your [their] own initiative”.

Describing the dyke, it adds: “North Ronaldsay boasts an unusual 13-mile drystone sheep dyke that runs around the perimeter of the island. It is Grade A-listed and recognised as the longest freestanding drystone structure in Europe, if not the world.

“Following the collapse of Orkney’s kelp industry in the early 1830s, the then laird, John Traill, determined that the most lucrative use of the island’s land and resources would be agriculture and cattle farming.

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“In order to utilise the available acreage to its full potential, the island’s native sheep had to be pushed off the land and onto the foreshore – thus a sheep-dyke barrier was built above the high tidemark and the ancient breed was suddenly confined to just 271 acres of sand and rock.

“Rather than perish, the small and hardy flock thrived in their new habitat, quickly adapting to an almost exclusive diet of seaweed washed onshore from the North Atlantic.”

The sheep dyke’s maintenance fell to the island crofters, who formed an agreement with the laird that they would be allowed to keep a fixed number of sheep on the beach and, in return, would see to any maintenance and repairs that were needed.

Strikingly, the island boasts a special Sheep Court, an elected body of 11 sheep owners, which was founded to preserve the local breed and set out the rules for flock management.

The trust adds: “In collaboration with the Orkney Sheep Foundation, the North Ronaldsay Sheep Court, Orkney Islands Council, and the The North Ronaldsay Sheep Fellowship, the North Ronaldsay Trust is working to preserve and maintain this unique drystone sheep dyke and thereby preserve the island’s rare breed of sheep.”