Animal study marks decades of discovery

Scientists are marking a milestone in a pioneering study of an ancient breed of wild animal.

For 30 years, research into a feral population of Soay sheep on the remote island of Hirta in St Kilda, in the Outer Hebrides, has given scientists key insights into how animals respond to changes in their environment.

The study has enabled ground-breaking discoveries about how Darwin’s theory of natural selection plays out in reality.

Other insights include how animals are responding to climate change and how stress can affect health and ageing.

Ancient breed

Their research has so far documented the lives of more than 10,000 sheep in the population, which has lived unmanaged on St Kilda - a World Heritage site owned and managed by the National Trust for Scotland - for thousands of years.

Researchers have also gained fresh understanding of how and why animal population sizes vary in the wild, and ongoing studies of infections in the population could offer valuable clues about immunity in managing livestock herds.

Celebratory event

Scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh, together with collaborators including the Universities of Cambridge and Imperial College London, are marking the 30th anniversary of their study.

They marked the occasion with a day-long event at the Royal Society in Edinburgh, featuring a series of talks by scientists.

Studies on islands are valuable to scientists as animals’ movements are limited, allowing them to be monitored over long periods with minimal interference.

St Kilda is an extraordinary place and its resident wildlife has given us many useful insights into how animals exist and evolve in the wild. Thirty years after our study began, we look forward to making more discoveries, thanks to these remarkable animals.

Professor Josephine PembertonSchool of Biological Sciences

Soay Sheep are one of the many natural and cultural wonders of St Kilda World Heritage Site. They are a living link with the domestic sheep used on the archipelago since the Iron Age and bring us face-to-face with the lives of our ancestors. We are delighted to be able to support this internationally important research which helps us understand the ecology and management of the site.

Dr Richard LuxmooreSenior Nature Conservation Adviser, National Trust for Scotland