Shetland cattle are a small, hardy cattle breed from the Shetland Isles off the north coast of Scotland. Shetland cattle possess their characteristic genetic qualities of thriftiness, productivity and hardiness, through adaptation and survival in one of the United Kingdom's most rigorous environments. The history of the Shetland Isles is peppered with instances of famine when only the most robust of inhabitants, both human and animal, survived. Historical documents tell of weak cows needed to be held up in slings in the byres through the winter. The crofters “kye” was a lifeline for these subsistence farmers.
The evolution of the Shetland cow over the last few centuries has created an economical and productive house cow, providing milk and meat for the isolated crofting families, and used as a draught animal for ploughing.
The breed went up to 20,000 head of cattle on the islands, as it is written in historical records of the 19th century. It is thought likely that they were all purebred Shetlands at that time, although a herd register did not exist. In the 20th century, the number of pedigree cows had dropped to around 50. The reason for the probable sharp change was the establishment of a shipping line around 1850, giving the opportunity to export cattle. Immediately, the mainland market dictated that the biggest animals fetched the best prices and as boats sailed to the mainland with fat stock, they returned with bulls from mainland breeds. Crofters used these bulls, as the bigger beef breed produced a calf that grew rapidly and larger than pure bred Shetlands.
Small Shetland cows could produce a cross–bred suckler cow that would in turn produce a larger calf. The practice of cross breeding, coupled with the lack of agricultural subsidies for the breed, resulted in near extinction of pedigree Shetland cattle by the middle of the 20th century.
Mechanisation and production of cheap chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides brought a way of food production that was no longer dependent on the natural fertility (or in the case of Shetland -infertility) of the land and local climate. More grass grown more rapidly, needed animals that did the same and the ability of the Shetland to grow steadily on poor unimproved and unfertilised pastures became of little importance. This was the era of substantial agricultural subsidies and the emergence of agribusiness. Twentieth century farmers were only too keen (as their predecessors in the 19th century had been) to move away from unproductive cattle to more money spinning opportunities.
John Boyd Orr, 1st Baron Boyd-Orr's influential studies in the 1930s demonstrated a poverty of diet in the "midst of plenty" in the UK urban proletariat which was largely meat deficient. The nutritional deprivation of the 1930s in Britain changed dramatically and rapidly during the period of the Second World War. The effects of rationing during the Second World War based on the acceptance of optimum, rather than minimum, standards of feeding as the aim of policy and the stabilization of supply, prices and wages brought beef within the regular diet of the urban working class that had previously been restricted to the wealthier classes.
This demand led to the introduction of large continental beef breeds such as Charolais and Belgian Blue and these breeds fuelled the science of genetic improvement to increase growth rates and produce meatier carcasses. The Shetland breed unable to meet the demands of the mass market seemed ever more archaic and anachronistic.
A lifeline was thrown to the breed when in 1971 the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) was formed. By this time, pedigree recording on the islands had ceased. Work by the RBST through the 1970s identified purebred animals and in 1981 an annual herd book was once again produced.
The Shetland Cattle Breeder's Association was founded in 2000 by a group of mainland UK breeders who were concerned about the vulnerable status of the breed. To ensure that the breed’s valuable genetic resources are conserved for future generations the organization hopes to help re-establish it by making information on qualities available, and to provide advice to members on husbandry matters and breeding plans, and to support their efforts to market quality stock.
With the trend away from the concept of maximum production, the year 2005 marked the first time that farmers in Scotland were subsidized, not to produce quantity, but to manage the countryside with greater attention to environmental benefits. An extra payment is available for conservation grazing by native breeds.
The dominance of large supra-national supermarket chains and the international nature of the livestock marketplace to meet the demand for beef which has emerged since the 1940s in the UK has forced farmers to diversify and look at alternative ways to make money. It is here that the potential for the Shetland in modern farming practice lies - as a boutique breed servicing a particular niche market.
Farmer and meat producer, the Prince of Wales, has declared that "High-quality, locally-reared meat will be treated with the respect and quality of processing it deserves. In other words... "slow food" for people who really mind about taste and texture"  epitomises this approach. It is however a high risk strategy dependent on a buoyant economy in which there is a demand for conspicuous consumption. The failure of the Prince's food business in 2009  has shown how fragile the survival of rare breeds such as the Shetland can be.
- Food Health And Income. Report On The Adequacy Of Diet In Relation To Income. Boyd Orr, MacMillan 1936
- D H Shrimpton: Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (1988),47,343-34
- Hammond, R. J. (1951). History of the Second World War - Food I. London: H.M. Stationery Office.
- "Rare Breeds Survival Trust". Retrieved 2009-05-14.
- "Shetland Cattle Breeder's Association". Retrieved 2009-05-04.
- Smithers, Rebecca (2009-09-10). "Waitrose in deal with Prince Charles's Duchy Originals food company". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2010-05-23.