The Shetland sheep is a small, wool-producing breed of sheep originating in the Shetland Isles, but now also kept in many other parts of the world. It is one of the Northern European short-tailed sheep group, and is closely related to the extinct Scottish Dunface. Shetlands are classed as a landrace or "unimproved" breed. This breed is kept for its very fine wool, for meat, and for conservation grazing.
Although Shetlands are small and slow-growing compared to commercial breeds, they are hardy, thrifty, easy lambers, adaptable and long-lived. The Shetland breed has survived for centuries in difficult conditions and on a poor diet, and thrive in better conditions. Shetlands retain many of their primitive survival instincts, so are easier to care for than many modern breeds.
Up to the Iron Age, the sheep of the British Isles and other parts of northern and western Europe were small, short-tailed, horned only in the male and variable in colour. Short-tailed sheep were gradually displaced by long-tailed types, leaving short-tailed sheep restricted to the less accessible areas. These included the Scottish Dunface, which until the late 18th century was the main sheep type throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, including Orkney and Shetland. The Dunface died out on the mainland in the late nineteenth century, leaving its descendants limited to a few islands, including the Shetlands. The Shetland type of the Dunface has been regarded as distinct since the early 19th century or before.
By the early 20th century, the Shetland was perceived as threatened by cross-breeding, leading to a decline in wool quality. To combat this, the Shetland Flock Book Society was formed in 1927, and this remains the body responsible for the sheep on their native islands.
By the time the Rare Breeds Survival Trust was set up in the 1970s, the Shetland had become rare, and it was listed by them as Category 2 (Endangered). Since then, the breed has become popular with smallholders, and it is now classified as Category 6 (Other native breeds), with a UK population of over 3000. On the mainland the breed is governed by the Shetland Sheep Society.
A notorious Shetland sheep was a ram kept by US President Thomas Jefferson for several years in the early 19th century. Unlike modern Shetlands (but like some related breeds) this ram had two pairs of horns. He was kept with about 40 other sheep on President's Square in front of the White House. In the spring of 1808 this ram attacked several people who had taken shortcuts across the square, injuring some and actually killing a small boy. Having been moved to Jefferson's private estate at Monticello, the ram was eventually destroyed after having killed several other rams: it was described by Jefferson as "this abominable animal". Fortunately such aggressive Shetland rams are unusual.
The Shetland is one of the smallest British breeds. The ewes are usually polled (hornless) and the rams usually horned, although horned ewes and polled rams do occur occasionally. The breed is noted for its very fine, soft wool and the high quality of its meat, though its smaller size limits its use in commercial meat markets. They are small-bodied animals with no wool on their faces, noses or legs, and small, erect ears. The legs are of medium length and finely boned. A distinguishing feature of northern short-tailed sheep is the short, fluke-shaped tail, broad at the base, tapering to a point, and covered towards the tip in hair, not wool.
Shetlands occur in many different colours and patterns, most of which have particular names.
Rams usually weigh 90 to 125 lb (41 to 57 kg) and ewes about 75 to 100 lb (34 to 45 kg).
The wool produced by the Shetland has historically been a valuable commodity. Shetlands produce numerous shades of wool colours (see below), and this variety was commercially important to the wool industry of the Shetland Isles, where natural wools are often used undyed. Tweed is also produced from the coarser Shetland wool, but the Isles are best known for their multicoloured knitwear (made using Fair Isle knitting) and for the traditional knitted lace shawls which are so fine, they will pass through a wedding ring. Fleeces usually weigh between 2 and 4 lb (0.91 and 1.8 kg).
In November 2011, Shetland wool produced in the Shetlands gained Protected Geographical Status with PDO classification as "Native Shetland Wool". It was the first nonfood product in the UK to receive this status.
Like other "primitive" breeds, the ewes are highly seasonal, becoming fertile in October and November (in the Northern Hemisphere) and lambing in spring or summer. On the poor grazing of the breed's native isles, the lambing percentage is about 130%. However, when the ewes are on better pasture, twin lambs are more common, especially from mature ewes. Shetland ewes are hardy, easy lambers, good mothers and produce ample milk. Healthy lambs are born weighing around 4 to 7 lb (2 to 3 kg).
Colours and patterns
Shetland sheep can show almost all possible sheep colours and patterns, although solid white and solid moorit (reddish-brown) or black are most common. Many of the colours and patterns have Shetland dialect names – these derive from the Norn language formerly spoken in Shetland, and similar names are also used in at least one other Nordic language: Icelandic.
Eleven main colours are recognised (most including many different shades): light grey, grey, white, emsket (dusky bluish-grey), musket (light greyish-brown), shaela (dark steely-grey), black, fawn, moorit (reddish brown), mioget (honey-toned, yellowish-brown), and dark brown.
Over 30 different coat patterns and markings are recognised, many of which can occur in combination. They include katmoget ("badgerface": dark belly and dark shading around nose and eyes, lighter elsewhere), gulmoget ("mouflon", the reverse of katmoget: light belly, dark face with light marks around eyes, dark elsewhere), yuglet (generally light with dark "panda" patches around the eyes), bleset (dark with white blaze down face), smirslet (white marking around the muzzle), sokket (with white socks on the legs), bersugget (irregular patches of different colours) and bielset (with a collar of a differing colour).
- "Shetland". Sheep Breeds - S-St. Sheep101.info. Retrieved 2009-05-01.
- Shetland Sheep Society: The Shetland Breed
- Culley, George (1807), Observations on Livestock, pub Wilkie, Robinson et al, p 163.
- Trow-Smith, Robert (1959), A History of British Livestock Husbandry 1700–1900, Routledge and Kegan Paul, p 148.
- Rare Breeds Survival Trust watch list: sheep
- [Monticello web page http://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/sheep]
- "Shetland". Breeds of Sheep. Oklahoma State University. Retrieved 2009-03-23.
- BBC News 'Native Shetland wool secures protected status' (accessed 16 Dec 2011)
- Adalsteinsson, Stefan (2000), 1000 Years of Sheep in Shetland, lecture to Shetland Sheep 2000 Conference.
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- Shetland Sheep Society (for sheep outside the Shetlands): see links to pages showing colours and patterns.
- Fine Fleece Shetland Sheep Association (for fine fleece Shetland sheep in North America)
- North America Shetland Sheep Association (for sheep in North America)
- Shetland Flock Book Trust[dead link] (for sheep on the Shetlands)