Highland Glenn Ranch is home to a flock of registered Shetland sheep. NASSA Flock # 2320; USDA Voluntary Scrapie Flock # WA4017.
Years of sheep research at the library, on websites, and from helpful shepherds around the country who generously shared their knowledge and lovely wool samples, along with a newfound interest in the animal fiber arts all went into choosing our resident breed of sheep. We stumbled upon a heritage wool breed right under our noses that possess all the beauty and hardiness we were looking for. With their low maintenance characteristics, many colors, and the ram’s gorgeous horns, Shetland sheep caught our fancy long before they joined our multi-species Fold.
*.*.* Quality breeding stock is occasionally available. See the Sale Barn for a current list *.*.*
An ancient breed, the roots of Shetland sheep go back more than 1,000 years probably to sheep brought to the Shetland Islands (off the Northern Scottish coast) by Viking settlers. They belong to the Northern European short-tailed group also containing the Finnsheep, Norwegian Spaelsau, Icelandic, and others. Classified as a primitive or “unimproved” breed, Shetlands are small, fine-boned sheep. They are hardy, thrifty, highly adaptable, and have the ability to thrive on low levels of nutrition. Considered to be the second most productive British breed, their prolificacy is about 160%. In 1980, the first Shetland sheep made their way to North America by way of Canada when Col. Dailley imported a flock. Shetlands then came into the United States from that flock in 1987.
A special feature of the Shetland’s elegant-looking head is a straight facial profile with a somewhat dished face. The eyes are set well apart. The ears are small and alert. Small amounts of wool are present on the forehead and cheeks. Born with a tail that is much shorter than modern breeds (having only 13 vertebrae whereas commercial sheep have 26 vertebrae) no docking is required! It is also fluke-shaped meaning broad at the base, tapering for three-quarters of its length, down to a flattened tip. The upper portion is wool covered with hair at the tip.
“Shetland Wool, taking all its properties together, is perhaps the completest article of the kind in the universe, possessing at the same time, the gloss and softness of silk, the strength of cotton, the whiteness of linen, and the warmth of wool.” Sir John Sinclair, September 22, 1790
The most important attribute of this handsome breed is its wool! The silky soft, lustrous, and well-crimped fleece has been prized for generations; the finest of all native British breeds, it is more durable and less likely to pill than Merino. Many think Shetland wool does not feel itchy against their skin like other wools. Shetland wool has an amazing variety of colors and patterns, more than any other breed! Quaint Shetland dialect names such as shaela, emsket, and moorit still mark the 11 main whole colors, as well as the 30 recognized markings like smirslet, mirkface, and flecket. By selecting from the variety of naturally-colored fleeces – pearl white, steely grey, and lustrous black to cream flecked with grey, reddish brown, and deep chocolate brown – a whole range of colored yarn can be produced! This eliminates the need for dyeing, which hardens wool, and therefore retains the soft feel of the natural fiber.
Shetland wool fibers have an average diameter of about 23 microns. However, there is a range from 10 to 20 microns for neck and shoulder wool, and 25 to 35 microns for britch wool. The staple length can be from 2 to 10 inches. The amount of crimp varies and is important in providing bounce for knitwear. Shetland sheep wool is used to produce the famous Fair Isle knitwear, fine tweeds, and the legendary gossamer lace wedding shawl which can be drawn through a wedding band. The hosiery industry was based upon the exceptionally fine quality of Shetland wool. “The Journal of Agriculture” from 1831 says: “Stockings fabricated from Shetland wool have been known to sell for six guineas a pair.” Other works mention these stockings were preferred by the Royal family.
Purebred Shetland sheep tend to shed their fleece in spring. The growth of new wool causes a natural break in the rise, and where this is present the fleece can be “rooed” or plucked with the fingers, lock by lock, in the traditional manner of the Shetland Isles. Rooing causes no pain; when taken at the proper time it peels off and gives relief to the sheep. Rooed fleece is amongst the softest because the fibers have no harsh cut ends as occurs with a sheared fleece. Shetland fleeces weigh from 2 to 5 pounds.
Shetland sheep are ideal candidates for Holistic Land Management practices. Their fine-boned build and small feet mean that they do less damage to grasses and meadow plants than heavier breeds. Yet their use as grazing animals to manage and preserve unimproved meadows and pastures and control weeds is invaluable. Being a hill breed they are extremely hardy, self-sufficient, versatile foragers, and thrive on low-quality rough grassland and scrubland. They are browsers rather than just grazers so will eat regenerating scrub brush. They do not need expensive feed concentrates during the winter months. In fact, historically it’s been said that the higher quality Shetland wool was produced by animals on the poorer forage in rough hilly terrain. Our sheep even dig through the snow to forage!
Their smaller size also makes them easier to handle and manage – ewes weighing around 80 pounds, rams about 25 pounds more. Once considered endangered, in 2002 the breed was removed from conservation lists in Europe and is listed as “Recovering” in the United States. This is fortunate since, without versatile livestock such as Shetland sheep, habitat biodiversity could be lost.
As a primitive breed, Shetlands retain their ability to survive without intervention. The ewes have a strong, protective mothering instinct and can lamb with rarely a need for intervention. Multiple births are common – twins with occasional triplets. Their milking ability is superb. Ram lambs reach sexual maturity early.
And then there are the stunning horns on a Shetland ram! They are the Homonymous shape; reaching a full sweeping curve by maturity. Rams can also be polled. Ewes are usually polled, but can also have smaller horns that curve backward. With friendly personalities, Shetland Sheep are known for happily wagging their tail when pet or fed treats! For those interested in showing sheep, Shetlands can easily be halter trained and exhibited.
In addition to the growing demand for wool and grass-fed meat, Shetland Sheep horns can be used as wall décor, walking stick/crook handles, whistles, pens, buckles, and buttons. The soft colorful pelts can be used as rugs, chair cushions, clothing, and in various crafts.
As a pure breed, Shetland sheep produce some of the highest quality lean meat in the world and more efficiently on grass alone than almost any other breed. Described as having “outstanding flavor”, Shetland meat is sweet, rich, and dark with fine texture. Many people who don’t like lamb or mutton absolutely love Shetland meat! Research shows a definite correlation between lanolin production and the flavor of the fat. Shetlands produce less lanolin in their fleece so their meat is milder. As with other primitive breeds, Shetlands tend to store much of their body fat around the organs rather than solely in the muscle. This also produces leaner, milder meat than modern breeds. It is one of the highest in Omega-3 fatty acids (if grass-fed/finished) and easy to digest.
The meat falls into three main classes:
- Lamb is up to one year of age – spring lamb is under five months old. A whole lamb will produce a freezer full of lean, succulent, flavorful meat. Shetland lamb is ideal for quick preparation. With its delicate flavor, it doesn’t need elaborate preparation or sauces. Roast after a brief marinade in raspberry or balsamic vinaigrette.
- Hogget is between one and two years of age – this term is rarely used off-farm; the meat may be cooked the same as lamb and is even more flavorful. Try it marinated in olive oil with rosemary, lavender, and garlic.
- Mutton is over two years old, the real gourmet mutton being a four or five-year-old sheep – not much appreciated in the U.S. and thus very difficult to find, in Ireland it is considered essential for stewed or braised dishes. It is best cooked slowly. Stews using dark ale are fabulous!
Shetland Sheep Traits-at-a-Glance
Hardy – do very well outside with basic shelter 12 months of the year in most locations; parasite resistant.
Thrifty – can thrive on poor quality grazing; a higher stocking density can be used on fertile pasture; useful for conservation grazing.
Easy to handle – making them ideal for smaller flocks without complex equipment and housing.
Prolific – with fecundity rating of about 160%; lambing rates comparable to modern breeds.
Easy lambers – intervention is rarely needed.
Lively lambs – have a strong will to live, get up quickly and feed; good outside survival.
Milky mothers – hoggs will rear twins and mature ewes can rear triplets.
High-quality wool – the finest of any native British breed; there is a ready market for fleeces which are popular with hand spinners and crafters.
Colors and patterns – a wide range that can be used undyed to maintain its natural softness.
Shetland meat – mild and lean with superb flavor and low in lipid fat, excellent for low cholesterol diets. Purebred lambs dress out around 18-27 lbs. (8-12 kg), October to January – ideal for small family cuts. Hoggs dress out around 35-45 lbs. (15-20 kg), April/May – extends the meat season.
For more information on Shetland Sheep, please visit:
North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association
Shetland Sheep Information
Shetland Sheep Society