PHOTO: Willie Angus/Flickr
Heidi Strawn
February 4, 2011

Use: Shetlands grow soft, strong fleeces in a delightful range of colors, patterns, and textures – a spinner’s dream come true. Indeed, the Shetland woolen industry with its fine, un-dyed sweaters, shawls, and other knitted garments owes its fame to this hardy little wool breed. Too small and slow-growing to make an efficient meat animal itself, the Shetland can be enlisted in cross-breeding programs to produce tasty lamb.


History: According to the North American Shetland Sheep Breeders Association (NASSA), the Shetland breed probably developed from sheep brought by Vikings more than 1,000 years ago to the Shetland Islands, a cluster of some 100 islands north of Scotland. The Shetland Flock Book Society formed in 1926 to conserve this primitive breed in its purebred state. Shetlands didn’t arrive in North America until the 1980s, and the breed still remains uncommon here. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) lists the Shetland as recovering, meaning it has an estimated global population exceeding 10,000, but still needs monitoring.


Conformation: The petite Shetland ranks as one of the smallest of the British sheep breeds. Rams usually possess curling horns and weigh in at a mere 90 to 125 pounds; the normally polled (hornless) ewes run around 75 to 100 pounds. One of the most diverse sheep breeds as far as wool color, the Shetland comes in many shades, including white, fawn, gray, true black, moorit (brown), and silver-gray. The fleece, which generally weighs between 2 to 4 pounds, can also sport some thirty different patterns. Staple length varies with the three fleece types recognized in North America, from about two to ten inches or more.


Special Considerations/Notes: Shetlands may look delicate, but centuries of surviving the capricious climate, rugged terrain, and poor grazing conditions of the Shetland Islands turned out a truly tough little sheep. These thrifty livestock don’t require rich feed concentrates or snug accommodations in order to thrive. Like most other primitive, unimproved breeds, Shetland ewes tend to lamb easily and possess excellent mothering skills. The breed’s small size and docile nature make them easy sheep for shepherds to handle and manage. Shetlands, whose naturally short tails require no docking, are grouped with the other Northern European Short-Tailed sheep, including the Finnsheep, Romanov and the very similar Icelandic.

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