With one of our most important clients – William Grant & Sons, the legendary distillery – based in Scotland, I take great interest in all things Scottish. Thus it was that my attention was piqued by a story that appeared a couple of years ago about the wild Soay sheep that occupy Hirta Island in the St. Kilda archipelago beyond the outer Hebrides. Apparently over the past 20 years biologists have been paying a whole lot of attention to these handsome critters. In doing so they have noticed that the sheep are getting smaller. Biologists determined that some over-riding evolutionary factor must be at work since generally the larger the animal, the better his chances of surviving the island’s extremely cold winters.
It came to mind again on the weekend when I was talking to a cousin in the UK. I was blustering on about how disgusted I am by our government which is determined to relax environmental vigilence in this country in the face of the insurmountable evidence of climate change. Seems my cousin, who is also, by the way, a member of the Richard III Society – is a non-believer. According to him, perceived climate change is just some big cyclical myth. This really got me frothing at the mouth – and I remembered those sheep.
Why are they shrinking? Researchers suspect that it is a direct response to global warming. By tracking the weather in the St. Kilda archipelago, they found that winters on Hirta are getting shorter and milder. The suspicion is that this has had two impacts. First, the sheep do not require large fat deposits to survive the winter. And with more sheep surviving the winter, there is increased competition for lambs to secure food, so they aren’t growing as fast. It isn’t exactly a canary in the mine, but it does show how quickly environmental change can impact population. Scary stuff.