By Ellen Baize
Homesteaders who choose Shetland sheep will find this friendly, hearty, versatile breed the perfect fit for the farm of their dreams. Their easy to handle smaller size, lovely variety of natural colors, and spectrum of usefulness help them earn their keep while the homesteader contributes to the preservation of this ancient breed.
Table of Contents
Shetland Sheep: Ancient Island Sheep
Shetland Sheep claim a fascinating Mayflower Story in a history that began possibly 1,400 years ago where these lovely creatures lived on the islands of Shetland off the coast of Scotland in the North Sea. Traditionally, fishing, farming, and the production of handmade knitwear served as the source of a Shetlander’s livelihood. In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, hand-knitted Shetland garments were popular even among kings. Girls learned to knit at four to six years, and women took their knitting with them everywhere. The needles flew as they walked down a road or visited with friends.
For centuries these double-coated sheep with clean legs and faces in Shetland thrived as a breed unto themselves. Then in the 1900s, Shetlands were crossbred to increase size at the expense of wool quality. Purebred Shetlands became rare. The Shetland Flock Book Society led by Dr. J. C. Bowie of Bixter was established and a breeding standard was adopted in 1927 that is still used today.
Nevertheless, the breed continued to suffer threats of extinction. Islanders left their farms to work for oil companies in the North Sea as synthetic fabrics became popular. The Rare Breed Survival Trust was established to preserve native breeds of livestock in the UK. Simultaneously Colonel G. D. Dailley of Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, learned of these beautiful Shetlands with their lovely soft fleeces and extraordinarily delicious meat.
Colonel Dailley collaborated in the 1970s with Michael Rosenberg to bring 28 ewes and 4 rams to North America. Upon meeting requirements for importation, these Shetlands were sent on their Mayflower voyage, not by boat but by plane, to Canada in 1980. The little flock was quarantined on Dailley’s farm for life but offspring from this flock came to the Vermont farm of Tut and Linda Doane in 1986 to become the first flock in the United States.
Today, in North America, Shetland Sheep are protected and promoted by the Livestock Conservancy. The North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association devoted to promoting the quality and numbers of Shetlands organized as a registry in 1991. Colonel Dailley’s gift of Shetland sheep to North America is beyond comprehension. No one knows how many individuals and families have been blessed with the great joy of owning and caring for Shetland Sheep.
Shetland Breed Characteristics
Shetlands are so distinctive in their appearance when bred for conformation according to the 1927 Breeding Standard as to be described in one word – Beautiful!
Their level back, deep chest, well-sprung ribs and well-turned rounded hips facilitate their smart active gait on straight, nimble, fine-boned clean legs.
The head with good width between the ears tapers rapidly to the muzzle giving them a refined appearance featuring bright eyes and medium size ears carried slightly above horizontal giving them an alert countenance. They have clean faces except for wool on their cheeks and a tuff on their foreheads.
Shetland’s short fluke-shaped tail does not require docking and distinguishes Shetlands from other breeds.
Shetland rams generally weigh between 100 and 120 pounds and have gained notoriety for their magnificent spiral horns. Ewes weigh from 75 to 100 pounds and are generally polled (hornless). There are however flocks with polled rams and flocks that breed for horned ewes.
Shetlands are bred primarily for their unique and much sought after wool.
The wool is extra fine and soft textured, longish, wavy, and dense. Usually the wool has a softer hand than other wools of the same micron count. There are three basic fleece types.
- The kindly/single-coated fleece has an extremely soft downy hand that is usually crimpy and dense with a fiber length of two to four inches – an ideal choice for soft next-to-skin garments.
- Longish wavy fleeces display more evidence of the double coated. Locks averaging four to six inches in length are excellent for worsted spinning and ideal for knitwear with well-defined patterns such as Fair Isle.
- Beaver/double-coated fleeces are long and luxurious and can range in length from six to ten inches or even more. The longer hair-like outer coat and the soft downy undercoat can be spun separately or together making this the most versatile Shetland fleece type.
Shetland fleeces come in eleven official natural colors with unlimited variations. There are five common patterns that also affect fleece colors. These patterns as well as many markings can facilitate variations of color on a single fleece.
Temperament of Shetland Sheep
Although Shetland sheep can be very lively out in a pasture on a crisp morning, they generally are calm, docile, and easy to manage in a pen with people to whom they are accustomed. A few individuals even meet a stranger and wag their tails as they enjoy being scratched behind the ears or rubbed under the chin.
They have amazing personalities due to their friendly nature when wisely handled. Young lambs are very curious, so if one sits quietly they are likely to come up and get acquainted, especially if they can get a bite to eat in the bargain. Halter-breaking lambs ideally at about three months can greatly facilitate handling. Like other trainable animals, a Shetland’s behavior depends much on a shepherd’s willingness to consistently spend time with the flock.
Rams lambs tend to be more friendly than ewe lambs but must be handled with discretion as they mature and develop their butting instincts. They will butt each other, and a shepherd must gain respect to avoid having a ram treat a human as they do their fellows. Rams are more content when with other sheep, but should not live across the fence from contentious rams, goats, or dogs.
Caring for Shetland Sheep
Shetland sheep are easy keepers and thrive best when not overfed. When forage is not available, grass hay is the best supplement with Timothy and orchard grass being favorites. Alfalfa can be fed when there is a lack of green in the spring before lambing. No more than a cup of grain should be fed per day when needed as a supplement. A body score of 2 to 3 is ideal.
Shetlands should have free access to a mineral supplement suitable for sheep. The amount of copper and selenium needed depends on the minerals found in the soil and water on individual farms.
Shetland sheep usually are sheared sometime in the spring. Some Shetland fleeces can be rooed or pulled off to great advantage when a shearer is not available. Hand spinners love rooed fleeces. Most professional shearing is done with electric clippers. For amateurs, hand shears often are a better choice.
Large guard dogs have become very popular for protection from predators. Training sheep to come into their pens at night for protection and rewarding them with a handful of cubes proves to be the most effective means to deter nocturnal predators. Bells on collars can successfully scare coyotes. Nite Guard’s little, red, blinking lights deter predators from large pens or small pastures.
Health and Longevity
Shetlands are hearty easy keepers. Ewes most often lamb without any assistance and are very proud of their babies. After the first year, most ewes bear twins for about eight years. On average ewes live ten to twelve years while rams are considered old by age five or six.
Selling Shetland Products
Shetlands are raised primarily for their lovely wool. Often one sheep will have a variety of wool locks. The soft neck wool can be spun and knitted into an infant’s cap. The main part of a fleece might become a lovely sweater, while the britch wool can become part of a rug. As Shetland fleeces have become a favorite with fiber artists, shepherds are known to establish good markets for their fleeces through online markets, fiber festivals, and their own websites.
Well-skirted fleeces might weigh from two to six pounds. Good quality fleeces generally sell from $16 to $30 per pound. Rovings and yarns can be custom-processed at a fiber mill and are popular with handspinners and yarn lovers. Prices vary greatly depending on the cost of producing these products.
Shetlands are slow maturing making the harvesting of males for meat ideal at the age of about 18 months when they are valued at $200 or more. The mild flavor is a favorite with connoisseurs of lamb. Older animals are useful for meat as well because the meat does not tend to get tough or strong-flavored.
Buying and Selling Shetlands for Pets or Breeding Stock
Because Shetland sheep are friendly, curious, and full of personality they make great pets. Sheep are herd animals and thrive better with others of their species usually needing at least two companions. Shetland ewes and wethers are very popular as part of a hand spinner’s fiber flock.
Due to the growing popularity of Shetlands, homesteaders who choose to raise them for breeding stock can develop a good market. Registering breeding stock with the North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association is imperative to preserving the integrity and value of the breed. Sellers should include the cost of registration and transfer in the price of their sheep to maintain their reputation in this business. Ewes are commonly sold for $300 and rams for $250, but prices vary.
Pros and Cons of Raising or Owning Shetland Sheep
Taking on the job of a shepherd is no small commitment but brings great rewards to homesteaders.
- Excellent Fleeces
- Delicious Meat
- Great Pets
- Thrifty Keepers
- Known for Good Mothering Characteristics
- Good for Controlling Weeds and Undergrowth in Pastures and Orchards
- Wonderful Farm Animals for Children and 4-H Projects
- Good market for fleeces
- Available in All Regions of the United States and in several Canadian Provinces
- Help Preserve an Ancient Breed
- Must be Sheared Annually Even in the Absence of a Wool Market or Shearer
- Becoming Friends They Hard to Sell or Use for Meat
- Susceptible to Predators
- Dealing with Aged Animals
- Some Trees and Bushes May Need Protection from Sheep’s Browsing
Before introducing a flock to a farm, fences, shelters, shade, water, and pens need to be in place for a happy experience upon the arrival of the sheep.
Shetland Sheep FAQ’s
Here are a few of the most common questions asked about Shetland Sheep.
Can Shetlands survive in hot climates with all that wool?
Because wool is an insulator, it helps control the body temperature of sheep. Shetlands carry fleeces of two to six pounds. Some breeds of sheep with eight to twelve-pound fleeces thrive in hot climates all over the world. The wool keeps the heat out allowing a sheep’s body to maintain a normal temperature.
When are Shetlands bred, how long is the gestation period, and when do ewes lamb?
Ewes begin to cycle sometime in the fall. The gestation period is very close to 146 days allowing lambs to be born in the spring. Lambing can be carefully planned to suit a particular climate.
Is micron count testing of fiber important when raising Shetlands?
Many experienced Shetland breeders do not have their fiber tested for micron count especially if they are not raising the fine single coat type of fleece. Locks from different parts of a fleece measure differently, and the way the fleece feels often is more practical than the micron count. Other breeders depend on micron count when evaluating their fleeces as do their customers.
Shetlands: The Best Breed for Every Need
Because Shetland sheep are small and easy to handle, thrifty, hearty, and quite beautiful they are the perfect farm animal for young and old. Their luxurious fleeces coming in many textures and colors are a delight and inspiration to fiber artists. Thanks to the dedication of individuals and livestock organizations to preserve Shetland sheep, the breed is destined to bring joy to many for years to come.
For more information about Shetland Sheep go to the North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association website at: https://www.shetland-sheep.org/
Ellen Baize’s father bought the family flock of Shetlands from Colonel Dailley in 1991 and she continues to carry on the family tradition of raising Shetland sheep. Visit Baize Shetlands online here.
Would you like to learn more about different sheep breeds? Discover the American Karakul Sheep: A Unique Heritage Breed or the Dorset Horn Sheep: Remarkable Breed with Unique Characteristics!