Although the frontispiece to this blog indicates that we have been raising registered Shetland sheep since 1989 we haven’t yet taken much time to tell you about the breed.
The history of Shetland sheep goes back well over a thousand years to animals brought to the Shetland Islands by Vikings. Shetlands are fairly small in stature and possess many characteristics of landrace animals (those developed largely by adaptation to natural conditions rather than by selective breeding motivated by agriculturalists). Rams weigh 90-125 pounds and have magnificently spiraled horns; ewes weigh 75-100 pounds and are polled (without horns). They are fine-boned and their naturally short tails do not require docking. Shetland wool is fine; fleeces weigh 2 – 4 pounds and have a staple length of 2-5 inches. Shetland fleece comes in a wide variety of colors ranging from white, to shaela (silver), gray, moorit (brown), and black. There are eleven distinct wool colors and thirty described color patterns, many of which have become quite rare as white wool has historically commanded a better market. Shetland sheep are hardy, easy keepers, good mothers, and easy lambers. [The preceding was taken, in part, from the Oklahoma State University, Department of Animal Science.]
We chose to raise Shetland Sheep for a number of carefully considered reasons.
– We are both fairly small people and Shetland sheep are easy for us to handle. When compared to a Merino ram, for example, which may tip the scales at more than 200 pounds, a 100 pound Shetland is a much easier package to deal with. Animal transport, on the scale at which we operate, does not require a livestock trailer. We are able to truck animals about with only a pick-up rack of the sort manufactured by Sydell.
– Some have referred to the Shetland as a primitive or unimproved breed, meaning that it expresses many favorable, landrace, characters. In particular these animals thrive on what would be considered by many to be low-quality forage and they easily maintain body condition without feed supplementation. Shetland ewes twin reliably, and are good mothers that lamb easily on pasture (rather than in barns). They do well at temperature extremes – they do require shade in the summer and a place to harbor from cold rain. Like many animals these sheep do equally well in warm/wet and in cold/dry conditions – what they do not like is cold and wet. After more than two decades of selective breeding, our flock has developed a degree of natural resistance to intestinal parasites – however we routinely worm all of our animals once each year (at shearing). Shetlands have good, sturdy, feet which do not require excessive trimming.
– Shetlands are known to produce some of the very finest fleeces among the many sheep breeds. Because their wool grows in a number of natural colors Shetlands seemed a natural choice for folks like us with interests in both spinning and weaving.
– Yearlings make for excellent eating and dress well even when exclusively grass fed.
– And finally, we have raised Shetlands all of these years because they are a heritage breed listed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as recovering. NASSA (the North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association) is their breed registry here in the United States. [The photo which accompanies this post shows Pairodox Samantha – a crossbred, yearling, ewe.]