Get To Know The Shetland Sheep Breed

The Shetland sheep may be small in stature, but this easy-keeping breed provides big benefits, from companionship to their prized heritage-breed wool.

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by Angela King
PHOTO: images by Hannah King

I grew up without any livestock experience. A family dog and some hamsters were the limit of my hands-on animal involvement. As a young adult, though, I became a serious gardener. And when my husband and I read that chickens were good for the garden, eating bugs and scratching up soil while fertilizing, we purchased five chicks. They were the gateway animal to a lifestyle change. 

In addition to fantastic eggs and improved garden health, the chickens were entertaining and taught our kids responsibility. The following year, we got more chickens, followed by Pygora goats, because I am a lifelong fan of fiber arts. 

I come from a family of quilters and sewers and caught the fiber arts bug early. I learned to spin when on maternity leave, and I thought that by choosing Pygoras, I was getting fiber to spin and weed-eating machines. While goats work very well for some people, they didn’t fit well with us. 

While we were working off-farm jobs, the goats would figure out new and exciting ways to make things difficult. They butted downspouts closed, tore up the chicken run and moved everything not incredibly heavy or permanently mounted somewhere. Every time we solved one problem, they came up with a new idea. Because we were juggling two full-time jobs and two active kids, we decided to sell the goats. 

However, I missed the daily routine of caring for animals. I wanted Shetland sheep because I love Shetland wool, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep them alive. I didn’t have any sheep experience and had heard that it was difficult to keep sheep alive. 

As luck would have it, a friend who sheared my goats had two Jacob/Shetland-cross ewes she wanted to sell, and she promised to help me if I encountered problems. The sheep arrived in early spring. Within two months, I was hooked. They didn’t have any signs of illness, limping and ornery problems like the goats we had previously. 

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That July, I contacted a Shetland breeder a few hours away and purchased three pedigreed ewes. Once I got my hands on pure Shetlands and saw and felt how much softer their wool was than the crossbreeds, I knew the direction our farm was headed. I’ve never looked back.

Shetland sheep

Super Sheep

Shetland sheep appealed to me as a hand-spinner because of the softness of their wool, and as the person who does most of the work on the farm, at the time accompanied by two small kids, their small size. I love the hardiness and small stature of the breed. They don’t demand constant care to thrive, and middle-school-aged kids can easily handle, flip and take care of them. 

Their tails don’t need to be docked, and they’re excellent mothers and fairly parasite resistant. I can haul individual animals, including rams, in a large dog crate or easily lift animals into a transport cage on the back of the truck. 

Shetland sheep come in 11 colors and 30 marking patterns, so our sheep can be quickly recognized as individuals. I can look out the kitchen window, see a sheep grazing and instantly know what its name is.

While we each have our favorite sheep, we approach the sheep as a business, not pets. I tell people I work cheap, but not free. And the sheep must pay their own way. 

Our main product is wool. We sell hand-spinning fleeces locally and over the internet. Fleeces that don’t sell quickly are processed into roving or yarn which is then sold at craft fairs and online. We also sell breeding stock to new shepherds wanting to raise Shetlands or established breeders looking for new bloodlines. Extra ram lambs or any animal unsuitable for breeding is sold directly to consumers for meat or as a fiber “pet.”

While the small stature of frame of Shet­lands doesn’t compare to more highly muscled breeds such as Hampshires and Texels, there are two positives. 

  • First, consumers are willing to pay more for a heritage breed that isn’t commonly available. 
  • Secondly, the small hanging weight is less of a commitment when someone buys a half or whole lamb. There is more demand for our extra ram lambs than we can fill. 

We are fortunate enough to have a local processor from whom we retrieve the pelt and any horns, which we use as value-added products. We salt the pelts for about a month, and then send them off to be turned into washable sheepskins. The cost of the final product covers all postage and processing and, depending on fiber length, color and size, may give us more profit than the meat itself. 

Horns can be sawed, sanded and drilled to give unique buttons, which knitters love to use with items knitted from 100% Shetland wool. If you look at the whole picture, our Shetland sheep provide my family with quality meat and excellent wool and yarn, and they add income beyond their expenses to the farm account.

Lambing highlights the ease of raising Shetlands. We lamb on pasture, and they almost always proceed with minimal intervention. It’s always exciting to see how the ram/ewe combinations we select produce, not just in terms of conformation and breed characteristics, but consistent soft, crimpy fine fleece colors and markings. We sometimes lease out a ram or breed ewes for other folks as well.

Shetland sheep

To Get Started

So how do you start if I’ve convinced you that Shetlands would be a wonderful addition to your farm or homestead? What infrastructure do you need in place? 

Fencing

Good fences keep sheep in and predators out. You can use woven wire or high tensile, although you need more strands and some lower to the ground, compared to typical cattle fencing. Due to Shetlands’ small size, their stocking rate is higher than large breeds so you don’t need huge acreage to keep a healthy flock. You can also use electronet fencing to subdivide pastures for rotational grazing for ewes and lambs.

Grass

Shetlands do best on grass and hay. My sheep get very little grain unless pregnant or nursing lambs. If you’ve never kept sheep on your pasture, ask an extension agent to walk it with you looking for noxious plants. 

In the summer, stock up on some hay. I used to feed square bales but have switched to round bales because they’re so much cheaper. I think a lot about how to feed hay to my Shetlands to avoid contaminating their fleece with vegetable matter, which decreases the value of their fleece to hand spinners. I feed hay low to the ground but not on the ground, and I position hay racks so that I don’t carry hay over sheep to fill the rack.

Feed & Mineral

Sheep are sensitive to copper, so don’t feed sheep any rations mixed for other livestock. They should have free-choice sheep minerals available, and some shepherds offer free-choice baking soda and plain salt as well. If you can feed out of the rain, or offer minerals out of the rain, it’ll last longer. Don’t forget clean fresh water! A 5-gallon bucket will get you through a day.

Shelter

Shetlands are hardy, and wool is insulating. Shetland fleece will shed water in the rain. As a result, Shetlands need little shelter. My rams never spend a night in the barn, and my ewes get two nights after lambing. That is for my convenience, not necessity. They prefer to be outside. 

They always have access to a shelter to get out of bad storms and for shade in the summer, but it doesn’t need to be a big barn. Use what you have. I’ve seen good shelters made by bending livestock panels and putting a tarp over the arch. I do use lambing pens inside the barn and move each ewe in a few days after lambing. We made them out of livestock panels we cut to size and stapled to the wooden inside bar wall.

Halter/Lead Rope

Some would say this is optional, but it isn’t just for the show ring. Being able to lead sheep around easily or have them lined up ready to hand over to a shearer makes things easy in the long run.

Health Maintenance

I do almost all sheep vet care myself. I vaccinate, trim hooves, deworm and take temperatures myself. To do that, you’ll need some supplies that are available at most local feed-supply stores. I do maintain a relationship with a mobile large animal veterinarian in case of emergencies. 

Shearing Plan

Shetland sheep need sheared each year. Most breeders do it in the spring. Some do it themselves, and others pay a shearer to come. Regardless of which path you choose, the wool is valuable, and you should formulate a plan in advance for getting it off the sheep!

Shetland sheep are easy to handle, hardy and thrifty. Their track record at lambing and mothering is outstanding, and they produce wool and meat that can be used by the producer or sold to offset other costs. Breeders also find great support through the North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association and fellow breeders, which helps set new shepherds up for success. 

This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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