To Eat or Not to Eat, That is the Question for Soay Sheep Owners

Just as there are widely varying opinions about when to put breeding groups together, whether to breed a spring ewe lamb her first year, how to manage weaning and at what age, so too are there widely divergent views on whether to eat animals from your flock.

The good news, of course, is that the decision is entirely up to you.  We know breeders who have enjoyed having Soay sheep in their pastures for years and have never even considered eating them.  We also have colleagues who raise Soay sheep exclusively for their meat.  Actually, some of the middle grounders have the most interesting and sometimes complex rationales and policies, e.g., drawing the line at animals with or without names, eating only animals from other breeders’ flocks, and so forth.

For those of you who are thinking about whether to butcher some of your Soay sheep, here are a few statistics and tips we have picked up over the three years we have taken animals to the butcher.   It is only fair to let you know up front where we stand on the issue of eating our own animals, since our views doubtless color what I’m saying here.  It took us a couple of years to feel comfortable with and want to eat sheep from our own fields.  Once we tried rack of Soay, however, we became enthusiastic consumers, primarily because we like knowing what is in the food we eat (or more importantly, what is not) and we like eating locally-grown food.  We also have friends who eagerly purchase their annual lamb quota from us for the same reasons.

Where to butcher.  As with many other aspects of raising Soay sheep, butchering issues can be addressed in several different ways.  First off, you will need to decide whether to butcher yourself, have a butcher come to your farm, or deliver your animals to the butcher in town.  One of the lines we draw is not butchering ourselves, can’t do it, not interested in altering our mindset to accommodate that.  It is our understanding that folks who do their own butchering end up with somewhat more meat because they are pickier about getting it all.  And of course they have no butcher costs.

How much meat will I get from a Soay sheep?  Quite a bit.  But not surprisingly, not anywhere near as much as you would get from the big hulking Suffolks and their ilk.  Let me walk you through some numbers we have accumulated (remember the Chief Shepherd here at Saltmarsh Ranch is a data geek).

An opening caveat.  Because Soay are spring lambers and they are so much smaller than domestic sheep, you really need to wait until they are at least a year old to butcher them.  That means keeping them over a winter and that means buying hay.  We take our animals to the butcher in the fall when they are a year and a half old, after they have had a full summer of free food in the pasture and before they start eating their second winter of pricey hay.

We do not have the occasion or facilities to weigh our full-grown sheep, so the best I can give you in terms of weights is hanging (post-kill, pre-cut and wrap) weight versus the weight of the packaged meat.  I have reliable data (no gaps) for the hanging weights and packaged weights of eight butchered Soay sheep, all between the ages of one and three, with a mix of ewes, wethers, and a couple of rams.  All of these animals were either American or American/British Soay, commonly assumed to be somewhat larger than full-blood British Soay).  Based on our own experience to date, we expect to get about 22-23 pounds of packaged meat per animal, including the bones (for making yummy soups).  The average hanging weight is 36-37 pounds, and our best guess is that the live animals weighed between 50 and 65 pounds.  The only time we have gotten more than 30 pounds of meat was from a very large, intact 3-year old American ram and he came in at a whopping 39 pounds of meat.  Don’t count on this happening unless you are purposely breeding for large size.

What kind of cuts should I ask for?  One of my all-time favorite lamb recipes uses shanks, so we always ask for the shanks intact and “cracked” to allow the marrow to cook – either cook away if you want leaner meat, or cook into the stew if that is how you are using the shanks.  Unless you are really nimble with your grill, you will regret having the butcher make individual Soay lamb chops — they are simply too small and will quickly turn into hockey pucks when exposed to heat.  Ask your butcher to leave the racks intact (there should be four packages of these at about a pound or so each) and remove the “chime” bone so that once you cook the rack, you can cut it apart into what amounts to individual lamb chops.  I will share a couple of great recipes for rack of Soay with you shortly.  As for roasts, our recommendation is to ask for the two leg of lamb roasts, but have what would otherwise be shoulder and other roasts cut into stew meat or ground meat or both.  Only the leg roasts of Soay are easily capable of carving into the lovely slices you can array on your serving platter.  Both we and our customers have struggled to carve any of the other roasts.  The leg roasts will be about 3-3.5 pounds each, plenty for a family or dinner party of eight with a good meaty bone left over for making soup.

What about the strong flavor of ram meat?  At our house, we usually draw the line at eating intact rams because of their strong flavor and because we have the luxury of having ewes and wethers as a source of lamb meat.  On the other hand, we have a loyal, annual customer who gladly takes a ram if one is available, favoring the stronger flavor.  When we butcher intact rams, we only do so in the spring (June) before rut sets in.  As long as the ram is not more than two years old, the meat will still be acceptable with spring butchering.  We also have customers who purchase whole live rams for celebratory barbeques on the spit and they rave about the flavor and clean lean flavor.  For the first time this year, we were approached by a man who could only afford to buy a couple of our oldest rams and wethers for very little cash outlay.  He understood that they would be gamey and tough, but planned to turn them into highly spiced sausage as an economical way to feed his family with the comfort of knowing the animal had lived on untreated pasture grass and hay.  In short, there apparently are as many ways to approach eating sheep as any other food source.  It all depends on what you are looking for.

Is there any way to get the lean, “sweet” flavor of Soay in a larger animal?  The answer is a qualified “yes.”  Each year we have between one and four lambs born of Soay fathers and one of our Shetland/Icelandic ewes.  A brief diversion about the “Shetlandic” ewes.  They were the result of a fence-jumping ram at Jen Bailey’s farm and we got them originally for their fleece (my mom’s a spinner/weaver).  Not until later did the import of their coat color genetics sink in with my resident geneticist:  both of the ewes are self-colored light phase (“chocolate”) animals, so we can use them to test whether one of our rams carries either light phase or self-coloration or both.  The ewes dutifully produce twins each year, bless their little hearts, with the result that we have a ready-made supply of meat animals each year as well.  In fact, it is the predictable supply of these cross-breds that accounts for how few full Soay we have butchered over the last few years.

If we compare the hanging weights and packaged weights from our Soay yearlings with our “Soaylandic” yearlings, there is about a 10% increase in the hanging weight and also the packaged weight of the cross-breds.  For us, it is nice to have a way to turn our breeding “experiments” into a source of food or a small amount of revenue from meat customers.  Otherwise, the size differential does not seem worth the effort to keep big non-Soay animals in your flock.  Our two Shetlandic ewes are pushy at the trough and generally a nuisance, but Steve loves their genes so we keep cranking out meat lambs from them each year.

The other way to get somewhat more meat from your Soay sheep is to keep them until they are 3 or 4 years old.  The older Soay we have butchered weighed 10-15% more hanging and packaged, especially the 3-year old ram.  If you are lucky enough to live where you have free pasture grass all year round, holding the sheep to a larger size and age makes economic sense.  If you have to feed hay in the winter, the numbers turn bad with the second season of hay.

How should I cook my Soay meat?  Ah, the fun part begins!  This post has gotten long enough, but I promise to return shortly with the first of many tasty recipes.

Bon appetit!