Shrinking Sheep Story Just Doesn’t Wash


After reading several news reports about Tim Coulson’s research on Soay sheep on the Scottish island of Hirta in the North Atlantic, I’m not as convinced as he and his crew that the size difference between sheep now and those he began studying in 1985 has anything to do with climate change.

Granted, I’m not a scientist or credentialed researcher, I’m just a poor old sheep and goat farmer.  On top of that, I don’t buy into the myth of climate change, which used to be called global warming until that term lost credibility and fell into disfavor.  Whatever I say here has more basis in opinion than science (and I’m not certain that Coulson’s study is really much different.)

In about a quarter century these sheep have decreased 5 percent in average size.  On a 100 lb sheep, that would amount to about 5 pounds.  Is that a truly dramatic drop, considering that the island is relatively small and the population is allowed to grow unchecked?  Perhaps nature is allowing these sheep to be smaller and more efficient so as to accommodate a larger population, rather than causing the population to crash as is sometimes the case. I’d also be interested in seeing a nutritional analysis and comparison of forage quality between 1985 and now.

Also, this appears to be a closed population with no refreshing of the genetic base.  Lack of genetic diversification (years of in-breeding) could possibly account for the size variable.  Most savvy stockmen will tell you the determiners of size in domestic animals are nutrition and genetics.

I could go on with any number of further suppositions, but it seems to me what is happening here is that the scientists have developed a theory – perhaps agenda-driven – and have sought to prove it.

I’m well aware that research of this type requires constant funding.  The best way to get that funding is to tie your results to a hot-button issue like climate change.  Also, it’s a good way to garner popular media attention, which supports the case for additional funding.  I somehow doubt the mainstream media would pick up on this story if the climate change carrot weren’t dangling there as bait.

Will the Soay sheep shrink further?  Perhaps, but what is it going to cost to find out and are the results of this study justifiable science or a mere academic exercise?  And, why does it matter, except maybe to the sheep?  I’ve yet to hear any actual purpose for the study or suggestion for practical application for its findings.


About raybowman

church of Christ elder, farmer, grandad, agriculture writer and broadcaster

Posted on July 5, 2009, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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