December 2, 2019 — If someone asked whether you’d ever seen a four-horned goat, you’d be forgiven for initially thinking it was the start of a joke.

Few breeds are actually polycerate, a word used to describe sheep and goat mammals that can grow more than two horns (those who do often have their additional horns removed for commercial or safety purposes.) The rare Manx Loaghtan is different, because having four horns is actually one of its accepted characteristics, and the term rare isn’t simply a subjective designation. In fact, The Rare Breeds Survival Trust of the United Kingdom classifies the Manx Loaghtan as an at-risk breed, since there are fewer than 1,500 breeding females registered in the whole of Britain, spread across the Isle of Man, the Isle of Ramsey, and a few other nearby islands.

Given the Manx portion of the Loaghtan’s name, along with it being designated a rare species in the UK, one might think the breed has close ties to the Isle of Man and the UK in general. That’s true, but only because of the Viking incursion of the 800s and 900s CE who introduced the multi-horned, wooly mammals to the Isle of Man some 1100 years ago.

Where Did the Vikings’ Sheep Originate?

The Manx Loaghtan is one of the last breeds of sturdy, small, and independent sheep that can grow two, four, and even six horns. Such sheep were common in Iron and Viking Age Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea region, and parts of Finland. The Loaghtan four-horned sheep probably became integrated into the agricultural practices of the people who would later be called Scandinavian, being prized especially for their meat — often considered a delicacy — and their soft, abundant, and easily plucked wool. The Loaghtan has stayed relatively similar since ancient times and belongs to the Northern Short-Tailed family. Along with other primitive breeds like the Soay, it is believed the Loaghtan once roamed the nomadic pastoral societies of the Viking region known as Ásaland, an area corresponding to the mostly unexplored Eurasian steppes in the Viking Age and early medieval times, specifically referring the steppe lands East of the River Don in present-day Russia, a major water-stream that served as the border between Asia and Europe in antiquity. The Don River was named Tanais in Greek sources, although its native Scythian name was Silys. In the Old Icelandic literature, Snorri Sturluson refers to the Don as Vanakvísl and Tanakvísl.

In the 790s, Viking raiding parties began their assault on the British Isles in earnest, infamously raiding the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in what was then the Kingdom of Northumbria. From there, The Vikings moved to another holy island in modern-day Scotland, Iona, and gradually worked their way west and south. When Norse colonizers established a stronghold spanning from Ireland and the Isle of Man, throughout the Hebrides, and up to Shetland and Orkney. 

Scandinavia and the Push to Migrate

In the 700s, Scandinavian and Finland had not converted to Christianity (and even when they did, heathen practices survived for many centuries). Norway itself didn’t exist at the time, and would not be unified for another four-hundred years. Like England under the Anglo-Saxons, the Norse were divided into smaller kingdoms ruled by ambitious chiefs. Trade was a vital part of sustaining life and achieving success, alongside the more traditional fishing and agriculture, though Christians were highly reluctant to trade with non-Christians. Some pushed their potential Norse trading partners on the path to conversion through “primsigning,” an Old Swedish word derived from the Latin “primo signatio” referring to the act of making the cross. Christians saw primsigning as the first step towards Christianity, to make trading with partially converted Norsemen acceptable.

Still, this temporary christening was not something the majority of the population adopted. A chief’s conversion determined whether his people would also convert. Not all chieftains converted, though, as famously demonstrated when the recognized king of Norway Olaf Tryggvasson converted in the 900s, only to have his lords remain staunchly pagan. Trouble often arose when pagan and Christian lived side by side in the Viking Age, and it severely limited the potential trade market for the Vikings as well. Life in Scandinavia from the 700s to the 900s century was, thus, quite turbulent. Between warring chieftains, pushy Christians, limited economic opportunity, and continued strain placed on the region’s arable soil and potential for agriculture, people naturally looked for a better life elsewhere, not entirely unlike Europeans would do again in the 1400s.

Creating a New Life

In the 800s the Norsemen seriously set their sights on the British Isles. Using Orkney and the Shetland Isles as an entry point, Norwegian Vikings gradually spread down south through key points in Scotland and Northumbria, eventually making it into Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England. Raiding significant points like Lindisfarne and Iona was less brutal barbarism and more part of a general strategy, taking what riches could be found while also incapacitating important political and cultural centers that could potentially serve as resistance points, should the local population rise up against their new neighbors.

More important, though, is what came after. The goal was never just a hit-and-run raid on wealthy sites. The British Isles were the place to start a new life in the 800s and 900s, and tribes and families of settlers followed close behind Viking raiding parties. By the 850s, multiple Viking settlements could be found on Orkney and the Shetland Isles, and populations of Norse-Gaels — which, as the name suggests, were Norse migrants who settled and mixed with the local Gaelic population — were becoming more common throughout Scotland.

These settlers naturally began establishing farms in their adopted homeland. Of course, sheep weren’t the only animals Norse migrants brought to establish new lives, but this is how the Soay, Shetland, and the Loaghtan first came to the British Isles. Although Loaghtan wool was prized for its softness and adaptability, it was especially known for its color. It has been theorized the Loaghtan’s wool was originally white and that the characteristic chocolate brown was an unusual trait. Unusual it may have been, but it was desirable enough that breeders strove to reproduce it, which was easier than it might sound thanks to the brown gene being a recessive trait that naturally dominated the other color genes. This brown is technically where the breed gets its name. The Norse described the sheep as “moorit,” referring to the reddish-brown color, while the Manx word for that same color comes from two words: “lhosht dhoan,” roughly translating to “burned brown.” Those not bred for wool were, instead, bred for their meat, which was equally in high demand despite the breed’s relatively slow growth.

The Passing of an Age

Though mainland Scotland and the northern islands were becoming increasingly important for the Norse by the 1100s century, the real center of this new kingdom was actually focused in the Irish Sea and the western Hebrides. In fact, the Kingdom of Man, on the Isle of Man, was literally the seat of power governing the region, ruling over the entirety of the Hebrides, the Irish Sea, and Ireland.

These were highly crucial strategic points for the Norse to hold. One reason was that these islands were potential hotbeds for insurrection, and the other was simply their geographic position. It was far enough away from Norway where the King of Man could essentially rule unhindered by the frequent changes in ruler in Norway, and it was central enough to act as the hub of a vital trading center encompassing the Atlantic and extending into mainland Europe as well. Eventually, the Scots did rebel against the Norse, asserting their own power and driving the Norse back to Orkney and eventually back to Norway itself. The Vikings officially ceded their last element of power in the British Isles in 1472, when Orkney was ceded to the Scottish crown.

Post-Norse to the Present

While all this took place, time likely passed much as it had for centuries for Norse livestock. The Manx Loghtan was spread throughout Scotland and Iceland during this period, though one must assume it was particularly prevalent on the Isle of Man to have gained the “Manx” portion of its moniker. It also stayed behind long after the Norse departed Man. The next major change in the Loaghtan’s story came with the passing of the Disafforestation Acts beginning in 1855. These acts allowed for the surveying and purchasing of forested areas, which meant these areas could no longer be accessed as common land. Common land was open for anyone to graze their livestock on, and without it, farmers had to make difficult decisions about which livestock to focus their efforts on.

The Loaghtan was not one of them. Breeding for meat and a lack of open area to encourage further reproduction meant their numbers dwindled quickly. Demand for white wool further decreased the practicality of breeding sheep with brown wool — except for one Manx farmer called Robert Quirk, who continued breeding his Manx Loaghtan through the 1800s.

Eventually, breeder John Caesar Bacon came across the Loaghtan and embarked on a program to bring the species back from extinction and make it more prominent. Bacon resorted to cross-breeding to achieve his goals through the early 1900s, introducing a Castlemilk Moorit ram and a Soay ram into the breeding pool as the number of pure Loaghtan continued to dwindle. Though still a primitive breed, it’s tempting to say the Loaghtan of today is technically not the same as its distant Viking Loaghtan relatives. In fact, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust sought to perpetuate the breed as Bacon defined it in the early 1900s. However, there’s also no way of knowing how the Norse-Gaels crossed their own sheep, so this practice of crossbreeding, despite being born out of desperation, could very well have historical precedent anyway.

Regardless, the Loaghtan declined to where there were fewer than 50 by the 1950s. However, with the intervention of the Manx Museum and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, the breed gradually recovered, even though it’s still considered one of the rarest breeds of sheep in the world. Its meat is still prized as a delicacy, and Manx Loaghtan meat as a product is even classified as a European Union Protected Designation of Origin, a classification designed to encourage the production of that product in the geographical location where its cultivation has the strongest links.

The Scandinavian legacy of migration, assimilation, and trade lives on in the humble, yet tenacious Manx Loaghtan. The breed has existed on the Isle of Man for over a millennium now, and thanks to continued conservation efforts, it appears these wooly animals and the Viking Age they represent will continue to live on for many years to come.