When to trim Soay ram horns: a pictorial example

Of the hundreds of questions we’ve been asked over the last 13 years of raising heritage sheep, none is as vexing as “How will I know whether I need to trim a ram’s horns and do I really need to trim his horns?” It’s a rare issue, but when it arises, it matters. A horn growing into a ram’s neck can prevent him from eating properly and, more importantly, prevent him from defending himself during the bashing and scuffles of rut. On the other hand, trimming too soon or when a horn is merely close to, but not impinging on, the ram’s jaw, keeps him from displaying the magnificent horns that make Soay rams eye candy in our pastures.

Thankfully, trimming a ram’s horns has absolutely no detrimental effect on his ability to breed and live a healthy long life.

A note about the incidence of tight horns in Soay sheep: Tight horns are very common in authentic Soay sheep derived from the ancestral flocks on St. Kilda; pictures taken of the current flock on the islands show many tight-horned rams as do pictures on the websites of Scottish, Welsh, and mainland U.K. sheep farms. The only difference between the island flock and the flocks on farms is that on the islands, rams whose horns are so tight that they impinge on their necks or jaws will die young, either before or after they breed. In private Soay flocks, each shepherd can decide how to manage the issue of tight horns. Whatever breeding decisions each of us makes, the vast majority of our rams will have stunningly handsome graceful long horns that are either wide, medium, or tight, and only an occasional ram will need to have part of his horns cut off.

couple of weeks ago as we were setting our breeding groups, we did a double-check on two rams whose horns we have been watching for about a year. Last June, both of them had very tight left horns, but neither had started interfering with the ram’s jaws or neck. We were hoping these horns would eventually clear and not need trimming. Unfortunately, both the horns had grown farther in the rams’ necks and, even more troubling, both horns were interfering with the rams’ jaws. Time to trim!

I’ve described in detail in earlier posts how to trim a ram’s horns, so I won’t repeat all that here. Instead, I will let the photographs of these rams last spring with their tight horns, and now with their horns trimmed, tell the story.

Once this ram’s horn was trimmed, it was easy to see why he needed a trim; his horn had scraped off all the fleece on his neck down to bare skin

Although this ram’s horns were not quite as tight, if you look carefully you can see where the arc of his right horn was scraping off the fleece on his neck

Here’s the same ram shown above last spring. At that point, his horn had just started wearing a bit of the fleece off and we were hoping the horn would continue to grow past his jaw and clear

Same ram as above, picture taken last spring. As you can see, his left horn is aimed right at his neck. Clearly our hopes that it would clear were wishful thinking

Although sometimes it takes running your fingers between the horn and the ram’s face/jaw to determine whether a horn is too tight, most of the time you can tell just by looking whether a horn is too close for comfort. I cropped a picture of three of our rams to show you up close how even last spring the tan ram’s left horn was starting to rub off the fleece, a telltale sign of a horn that needs to be watched. That same picture included another tan ram with medium-width horns that clear just fine. (the sheep in between the two of them is a sweet little tan wether, much shorter horns). All three of these fellows have the same father, so their picture is also an illustration of the loose, at best, hereditary nature of horn width.

Young adult Soay ram with curving horns that easily clear his neck

For now …