Naming themes: the annual ritual in action

Soay sheep breeders delight in finding clever names and elaborate naming themes for their lambs, perhaps to compensate for the fact that we play no role in the lambing process — our ewes are entirely self-sufficient in that department. There are lamb “crops” named for trees, automobiles, famous scientists, spices, towns in Oregon, Native American tribes, rock stars from the 60s, flowers, gemstones, you name it. We know one breeder who constructs names for his lambs each year by combining parts of the sire and dam’s names. He’s been at it long enough now that his lamb’s names are downright byzantine.

Here at Saltmarsh Ranch, we take naming pretty seriously and devote an embarrassing number of hours each winter to choosing the themes (one for the British Soay and one for the North Americans) and constructing the master list from which we choose names as the lambs arrive. But one theme remains constant: our British lambs unfailingly are named for small towns in a selected county in Great Britain: 2006 Cornwall, 2007 Yorkshire, 2008 Cumbria, 2009 Lancashire, and this year East Anglia (Norfolk & Suffolk). There’s also a rationale for each choice: Cornwall was my mother’s family’s ancestral home; Yorkshire because of a chance internet encounter with a nice lady named Anne and her proximity to the legendary James Herriott, a hero in my family; Cumbria because we loved hiking in the Lake District; Lancashire is the ancestral home of my mother’s best friend; and this year because of a tattered road atlas.

That’s right, a road atlas. A few weeks ago we were sitting around the fireplace in the evening musing about the upcoming lambing season and realized we had not yet selected our British county for 2010. Steve suggested I contact a friend of ours, Peter Nicoll, a non-stuffy Brit who lives in Surrey. Peter knows our flock and knows our fixation with names. He was here visiting in 2008 when one of our Cumbria-named lambs, Askham, arrived on the scene and was befriended by Llucy, our guardian llama who doubles as a midwife during lambing:


[Ed. note: you know, when a person is nose-to-adam’s apple with your adult llama, that you have a seriously tall person visiting your farm!]

We were confident Peter would be up to the task of helping us select a county for this year’s little British lambs, and sure enough, here’s the heart of his suggestion:

Despite the fact that there are plenty of sheep around here in Surrey, that is how sheep are thought of; in isolated hill or moor areas. There is a perception of ruggedness about them. There is no reason why you should not choose any county in England but on the perception of ruggedness I would suggest you could stick to the outlying ones of the North (Northumberland, Westmoreland, Durham etc), South West or East Anglia (Norfolk or Suffolk or Lincolnshire). That fits with the general layman’s perception and it may also fit with the perception of your customers for lambs etc. … The other areas are outside England, i.e. in Wales and Scotland. There are lots of sheep there! Watch out though, as some of those areas in Scotland and even the real North of England can be a bit sparse for place names.

For inspiration (dream on!) I went out to the car and dug out my road atlas. On the front cover it happens to have a cutting of an area of Norfolk east of Norwich and I list a lot of place names, chosen at random, such as Taverham, Horsford, Marsham, … etc etc. Norfolk does have sheep but is unremittingly flat and agricultural (and under the sea come global warming!) …

If you like, I have to replace my road atlas – not that the places move, of course (I’m not that stupid!) but the roads change a bit since 2004 – so I could easily send you this one by post and you could use it as a starting point. …

best regards
big kiss to Llucy

I wonder how many Soay breeders in the U.S. have a nice dog-eared copy of a genuine English road atlas to guide them in their hour of need?


With the arrival of our first lamb on Sunday evening, we know it won’t be long before Saltmarsh Aylsham, Colney, Heydon, and Ryburgh are real Soay lambs — not just dots on a map — running around the play yard.

For now …


1 Enlightened Reply

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  1. kanisha says:

    I like the meaning behind place names you could always go for saxon or celtic names to familar towns but you may need to do a bit of digging to come up with them! I’m offering a gold star( woohoo!) to the first to get this years theme for my lambs but as none are due for a few weeks it will be a while before I start naming.