Sheep have lived on the Shetland Islands for well over 1,000 years, adapting to the harsh environment and thriving in the cold, wet climate. The sheep of Shetland were an important part of subsistence agriculture of the islands, and the rugged habitat and geographical isolation produced a breed that is distinct and significant. The Shetland breed likely descends from ancient Scandinavian sheep. It is a member of the northern short-tailed sheep breed family and is one of the smallest of the British sheep breeds.
Historically, only a few Shetland sheep were exported, and it was not until recently that large populations were established on the British mainland and in other countries.
A few importations of Shetland sheep to North America have been documented over the past two centuries. For example, Thomas Jefferson kept a small flock of Shetland sheep at Monticello. However, none of the historic flocks survived as purebred populations. Most Shetland sheep in North America are descend from a 1980 importation of 32 sheep by the late G.D. Dailley of Ontario, Canada.
Shetland sheep are small and fine boned. Rams weigh 90–125 lbs. and ewes weigh 75–100 lbs. They are a relatively slow growing breed that is hardy, adaptable, and long-lived. Most rams have spiraled horns, while most ewes are polled. Their naturally short tails do not require docking. Like other primitive sheep breeds, the ewes are seasonal breeders, becoming fertile in October and November and lambing in the spring-summer. They may have twins, triplets, or even quads. Ewes are excellent mothers with ample milk.
Shetland sheep are calm, docile, intelligent, and have a charming disposition. Some are even said to wag their tails when petted. Their retained primitive survival instincts make them an easy-care breed.
The Shetland breed is especially prized for its wool, which is fine, soft, and strong. Fleeces average 2-4 lbs. and vary in crimp from wavy to straight. Other characteristics of the fleece vary according to the breed’s recent selection history. In Britain, for example, populations of Shetlands have been selected for more standardized characteristics. These sheep tend to be single coated with fiber diameter averages of 23 microns and staple lengths of 2-5 inches.
Landrace populations, such as those on the island of Foula, include a greater range of fleece types. These sheep may be double coated, with coarser outer wool of 30-40 microns and finer inner coat wool of 12-20 microns. Eleven colors and thirty color patterns are recognized in the Shetland breed. This diversity is a great asset both to the breed and to the fiber artisans who enjoy using its fleeces.
Though fleece continues to be the breed’s primary product today, Shetlands in Britain are also finding a commercial niche for crossing with Cheviots and other breeds to produce market lambs.
The North American Shetland Sheep Registry began keeping a North American flockbook in 1991. The North American Shetland Sheep Breeders Association was formed in 1994 to promote the breed and to support the growing number of Shetland breeders in North America.
The Shetland breed has prospered in recent years to the extent that it is no longer considered endangered by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in Britain. In 2011, Shetland wool production was given “protected geographical status” with a “protected against origin” classification as “Native Shetland Wool” – the first non-food product in the UK to be given this status.
Despite this success, there are concerns about the loss of genetic diversity within the breed. For example, white sheep now predominate on the British mainland and several of the color varieties have become rare. Though the Shetland sheep seems to have a secure future, North American breeders have an important role to play, not only through breed promotion on this continent, but also in the conservation of its entire range of colors, markings, fleece types, and other characteristics.
Shetland sheep are a good choice for their fiber, meat, and milk, and they make good pets for children. However, after age 2 some rams may become aggressive. The breed is also a good choice for conservation grazing.
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