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How many sheep are there?

3 October 2012
Katie Hatton - volunteer, Soay Sheep Project - provides this entry for the Ranger's Diary.  She visited the island for the fifth time in July/August and spent six weeks assisting with all aspects of the research project.
 
 
"How many sheep are there on the island?"  As a volunteer field assistant working on the Soay Sheep Project on St Kilda this is a very popular question asked by visitors to the island. Of course we had an idea of the numbers of sheep but the scientist within us all could not rest until we knew for sure exactly what that number was!
 
Every year in August a team of 16 academics from all over the world get marooned on Hirta for two weeks of hard graft in an effort to catch as many of the study population of Soay sheep (within the Village Bay area) as possible. But as soon as the first fine day was forecast the troops were arranged into three teams and we were off on our island count!   Excitement was slightly dampened by an unexpected mist clinging to the tops of Conachair and Oiseval. Our patience was rewarded though when the sun kindly burnt through and revealed good conditions to go counting. Laden down with enough kit to sink a small ship in the form of telescopes, binoculars, route maps, datasheets, radios, and a hearty packed lunch, we went to the top of the hill, bid farewell to each other and strode off purposefully to tackle the separate routes. Island count - heading off on the different routes
Photo: Becky Watson
 
The first team headed out along the cliffs towards Ruival, sweeping along St. Brendans and through Village Bay. The second team walked along the tops of the west cliffs past the Lover's stone and Mullach Bi continuing towards the Cambir and the west side of Gleann Mor. The third went on the east of Gleann Mor towards the tunnel, up to Mullach Mor, Conchair, the Gap and Oiseval.   Island count - sheep at the gap
Photo: Peter Korsten
I went on the third route, with me on the telescope, Peter as the scribe and Romain as a ‘spotter’. Each sheep the spotter sees is checked by the person looking through the telescope and noted down by the scribe on a datasheet. The animals are grouped together according to their location at the time, whether they are male or female and then according to their colour type. Lambs get their own category as they are a little tricky to sex from so early in the year, but their colour is still recorded.Island count - recorded sheep in Gleann Bay
Photo: Becky Watson
Most of the day was spent leaning over cliffs to try and get a better view of all the sheep and the old adage 'the more you look the more you see' is most definitely true. A quick glance at a cliffside would reveal only a handful of sheep but with three pairs of eyes all carefully scrutinising the same area we would locate sheep after sheep after sheep all happily ruminating behind a rock, tucked under the cliff or a lambs ear sticking out behind mum. Once we were happy no more sheep were lurking out of sight a flurry of activity ensued with me calling 'dark wild ewe, dark wild lamb, light wild ewe, dark wild lamb etc .........' to our scribe who diligently kept an accurate record of my data splurge. Once we had recorded all the sheep in the group we moved on and located the next group, found the best place to view them from and the cycle continued.Island count - locating sheep before they are recorded
Photo: Peter Korsten 
I have made it sound so easy and in theory it is: go out and count every sheep you see along a given route. But, on an island like Hirta, this is going to be a test of determination, physical endurance, patience and focus. The sheep also like to add their tuppence worth to make this more of an expedition than a pleasant day out and play little tricks, like running away or moving into gullies and out of sight or magically appearing from nowhere! However, they are no match for the tireless supermen and women of the Soay sheep project. We know how much this data matters to the project and go to almost any length to make sure we get every last sheep .... which normally involved sitting and waiting for them to reappear which doesn't sound so heroic but that is where the patience bit comes into play!Island count - difficult to see some sheep on these slopes
Photo: Katie Hatton
 
At the end of the day Cottage One was a very welcome sight as it meant our team had finished and a long overdue cup of coffee was not too far away! Much to our delight, the last group came back shortly after and the island count was complete for another year. Phew!Island count - the final descent off Oiseval
Photo: Peter Korsten
 
So, how many sheep are there on the island, I hear you cry!
Answer: 1292.
Simples!
Many thanks to Katie for writing this entry,
Gina


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