Shetland Sheep – A Breed Worth Saving
by Faye Whitney of Whitney Acres Farm, Ashfield, MA
Twenty-five years ago, I chose the Shetland Sheep breed, literally by the book. Having long thought about getting sheep, my decision was made easier after reading an article about The Livestock Conservancy, where I learned that dozens of livestock breeds were in danger of being forever lost due to low numbers worldwide.
After researching the minor breeds listed, Shetlands quickly emerged as my top choice, having many of the characteristics I was looking for, good mothering ability, ease of lambing, naturally short tails (no docking!), and then there was the wonderful wool.
Having made the decision I sought out the closest flock, which was the Maple Ridge Flock owned by Tuthill and Linda Doane. The first thing one saw when turning into their driveway on a remote Vermont hillside, was an entire paddock of cuteness – a field full of tiny Shetland lambs. It was a good thing I had already used my head in deciding on a breed, because as soon as I saw those lambs, my heart took over and I started on a journey that continues to this day.
The Shetland Islands, which give the sheep their name, are the northernmost island group in the British Isles. Lerwick, the capital of Shetland, is closer in distance to Oslo, Norway, than it is to London. The Atlantic Ocean is on one side and the North Sea on the other. There are 16 inhabited islands in the group. Until the islands became part of Scotland in the fifteenth century, the area was largely influenced by Scandinavian culture.
Shetland’s climate is milder than might be expected at this northern latitude, with average temperatures ranging in the 45-64 degree Fahrenheit range. The outstanding climatic features may well be the wind, which can be unceasing, and the rain, which averages more than 39 inches per year, with an average of 250 days per year seeing some precipitation.
Shetland sheep are part of the Northern European short-tailed group, which also includes Finns, Icelandics, and Romanovs. They are small, hardy, long-lived, and do very well on a poor diet. On Shetland, the breed was kept on the “hill,” which meant they were out in all types of weather with little human intervention, and thrived on marginal forage. While the climate on the islands may not be particularly cold, the damp and wind, and poor forage helped create an adaptable breed that needs no coddling. Shetlands have retained their primitive survival instincts. When threatened, rather than flock together, making an easy target for a predator, they scatter. Another characteristic, retained by some Shetlands is the ability to shed their fleece, called rooing. Fleece that will roo can be easily plucked by hand.
Shetlands do not typically breed out of season, though this characteristic is becoming less common. Breeding season in the northern areas of North America starts in October and November, ensuring that lambs will be born in the spring, not during the winter. Twins are common, with lambs weighing between four and seven pounds at birth.
The history of the Shetland sheep has been a subject of much debate. One theory is that Shetlands are the descendants of sheep brought to the islands by the Vikings, more than 1,000 years ago. Another theory is that Shetlands are descendants of indigenous sheep that pre-dated the Vikings. For many centuries, northern and western European sheep were small, short-tailed, and variable in color. Those sheep were gradually displaced by larger, faster growing, and uniformly white sheep, which provided a greater economic return. By the early 20th century the Shetland breed was said to be threatened by crossbreeding with the larger sheep.
Only two importations of Shetlands to North America have occurred. In 1948, the Flett family brought four sheep to Canada. The main importation of Shetlands happened in 1980, when Colonel G.D. Dailley imported four rams and 28 ewes into Ontario, Canada. Those sheep were kept in quarantine, but after five years, their offspring were allowed to leave the farm. In 1986, Tut and Linda Doane brought the first Shetlands to the United States.
Shetlands are the smallest of the British sheep breeds with rams weighing from 90-125 pounds and ewes from 75-100 pounds. Rams are known for their spiraled horns, while ewes are typically polled. Polled rams and horned ewes can also be found. Shetlands have a dished face, and good width between the ears, which are medium sized and carried above the horizontal. Shetlands eyes are bright and expressive. The characteristic fluke-shaped tail, which is rarely longer than six inches, is a distinctive Shetland trait.
Shetlands come in 11 different colors and have 30 distinct marking patterns. Colors range from white, to greys to black and from light to dark brown. Some of the colors retain their traditional names such as emsket, a blue-grey, and mioget, a yellowish-brown. Patterns have names such as blettet (white spots on nose and head), and sokket (legs of a different color than the body).
While known for their fine wool, fleece type and length has in recent years become a topic of debate among Shetland breeders. Some feel that the true Shetland wool type features a double coat. Others feel that the true Shetland is a single coated animal with a shorter, finer fleece. Single-coated Shetlands typically have soft, downy wool, with a lot of crimp. The staple is about two to four inches. Double-coated Shetlands have fleece ranging from six to as much as 10 inches. The outer coat is more hair-like, while the undercoat is soft. The outer coat serves as a protective layer against harsh weather. A third type of fleece, known as intermediate is now the most common type. Length ranges from four to six inches.
For centuries on the islands, wool from Shetland sheep was used for everything from lace shawls, to undergarments, to socks and heavy sweaters. It was, and still is, possible to find several different types of wool on individual sheep. Efforts to make Shetland wool more mass marketable have resulted in animals with a more uniform fleece, which is usually single coated with a medium length.
With their wide range of colors and fleece types, excellent meat, small size, resistance to disease and ability to take good care of themselves, Shetlands are an ideal breed for many farms, and are, in recent years, one of the fastest growing breeds in North America.