A Soay by any other name is still …

If dipping navels and trimming hoofs are the spinach and carrots of shepherding Soay sheep (as in, “eat your vegetables, dear”), the choice of a naming theme for our Soay is the dessert cart.  Naming themes are about as close as most Soay shepherds get to unmitigated frivolity. They are fun to come up with, fun to implement, and practical to boot. 

Why use naming themes?

At Saltmarsh Ranch, we use naming themes as a three-way sort:

  • What year was the animal born
  • Where does it fit in the birth order for that year
  • Is the lamb a British or American Soay sheep

For example, we remember Cleopatra was born in 2005 because that’s the year we used Shakespeare names for our lambs.   When we see Cardamom and Thyme side by side, we know just by name that Cardamom is about 4 weeks older than Thyme, and we also know they are American Soay sheep.  Let me go back to the beginning and walk through the process.

Has anyone used the theme I am considering?

Maybe, but only you can decide whether you like it so much you will use it anyway.  We picked up a number of good suggestions for themes, and eliminated some, by looking through the Open Flockbook Project database to see what topics/themes other breeders had used.  I urge you to peruse the Flockbook if you are wondering whether a naming theme has been used already. 

How to come up with a theme and avoid themer’s block

Each of our themes came to us largely unbidden and sometimes from unlikely sources.  This is not rocket science, of course, and the only stumbling blocks are twins. 

Shakespeare.  Our first lambing year we had recently moved to our farm in southern Oregon and discovered nearby the truly outstanding Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.  What choice did we have but to use Shakespeare names?  Everything went along smoothly (Romeo, then Juliet) until we got to our first set of twins — oops.  Twins are a little hard to come by in Shakespeare, especially male/female.  When our first set arrived, without thinking we named them Antony and Cleopatra.  Yes, yes, I know the implications of brother/sister relationships, but we’re talking names here, not sex ed.  And they are adorable, aren’t they, shown here as lambs about 2 months old?

Antony & Cleopatra

By the end of 2005 lambing we were mentally exhausted from trying to remember the Shakespeare characters, but by golly we had a theme and we stuck to it.  We even got to name our first reddish lamb Rosalind.  Who could resist this little beauty?


Mothers-in-law.  I told you themes come from unlikely places, didn’t I?  Nothing would do our first year but that Steve’s mother would visit from Tucson to enjoy lambing with us.  In the course of watching one of our Shakespearian characters hit the ground (Duncan, if memory serves), she came up with what would become our theme for the following spring — herbs and spices.  Here she and Steve hang over the side of the shelter watching Duncan arrive. 


Organizing your spice shelf.  Take my word for it, the ovine variety is easier than the culinary version.  I simply looked up the Penzey’s and Spice House websites and shamelessly raided them for an alphabetical list of spices.  When lambing actually started, we found ourselves faced with momentous decisions.  Should we use Caraway and Cinnamon for twins and then Dill for the next single, or use Caraway and Cardamom for twins and save Cinnamon for the next single?  

At one point we got lucky.  Right when we reached “L” in the alphabet, our first 2006 black lamb arrived and the perfect name was waiting for him.  Meet Licorice.


Of course there were names we really wanted to use, leading to strategic decisions like whether to use Sage and Saffron and risk never getting to Tarragon, my favorite spice, or skip the “S’s” and risk running out of names entirely before the last lamb appeared. 

What about names for the 2006 British Soay sheep?

By the time lambing rolled around in 2006, we had acquired a few British ewes and rams, allowing us to double our naming fun by choosing one theme for the British and a different theme for the Americans.  We already had our American theme, thanks to Steve’s mom. Other breeders had long since cornered the market on Scottish names (recall Soay hail from the St. Kilda archipelago off the northwest coast of Scotland).  But Cornwall is where my mother’s family hails from and it seemed close enough to Scotland to lend a patina of authenticity to our fledgling flock of British Soay sheep.  Not to mention that Steve’s family was one up on me with his mother’s idea of herbs and spices and I am nothing if not competitive.

All it took was a detailed map of Cornwall and one of those draftsman’s compasses, the thing-a-ma-jig that holds a stubby pencil and lets you make circles around any point.  Starting with Tolcarne, my family’s rural homestead, we worked our way out to Helston, where the family burial plot is located near the church, the little hamlet of Wendron, and on to enchanting place names like Gweek and Porkellis and Keverne.  When a pretty little reddish tan ewe appeared, we were lucky enough to have saved Rosudgeon for her:


Enough of history.  What are the themes for 2007?

Now lambing is upon us and once again we need names, lots of names.  To balance the geographic marital scorecard, we will use place names from the southwest U.S., where Steve was born and raised, for our American lambs.  At a minimum, it gives us a chance to name our first 2007 set of twins Truth and Consequences.  I could not possibly do justice to the story of how Truth or Consequences, New Mexico got its name.  For that you will need to visit the Chamber of Commerce website.  I am not making this up.

The surprise appearance of my new friend Anne a month ago presented us with a golden opportunity for our 2007 British lamb theme.  You will recall she lives in Yorkshire, England, so why not use Yorkshire place names?  After all, it’s sheep country; it’s where Anne lives; it’s beautiful; it’s a place my family and Steve know well after all the years of chatter about James Herriot.  I asked Anne for help in gathering Yorkshire place names and sure enough, by return e-mail she sent me a starter list of names from A through G, plus a link to a dandy website.  When next you visit us here at Saltmarsh Ranch, you may have the pleasure of making acquaintance with Soay sheep named Askrigg, Appletreewick, or Chopgate.   

Here’s what Anne has to say about the Yorkshire Dales. I think you will agree with me it is a good choice for our 2007 British lambs:

“Sheep were the mainstay of the economy here in the middle ages. The monks were big shepherds and the abbeys grew rich on wool.  Near where I live there are several abbeys all dissolved and demolished by Henry VIII namely Rievaulx, Fountains, Jervaulx, Mount Grace, Byland, Bolton and Kirkham where only ruins remain. The monks had “lay brothers” who were really non-religious men who were used, just for their keep at the abbey with no religious duties, to tend the flocks. It built up the wealth of the abbeys and made the king jealous of their power and so brought about their destruction.”

Where can I learn more about naming themes?

We might never have thought about naming themes had it not been for an article by fellow breeder Kathie Miller in the Soay Sheep Society Newsletter, easily accessible now on the Soay Sheep Breeders website. 

Meanwhile, let me know what you decide to use for your Soay naming theme this year.  I promise I will not use your theme.  After all, as our 2005 ewe Juliet might say, a rose by any other name is still Rosalind, Rosudgeon, or Roswell. 

For now …