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Shetland Sheep History

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Shetlands are believed to have evolved from the Northern European Short-tailed sheep, probably brought to the Shetland Islands about 1000 years ago by the Vikings. They are very similar to Icelandic sheep--a casual glance can hardly tell them apart other than by size, as Shetlands are smaller.

Life on the Shetland Islands was hard, and the sheep had to fend for themselves. Weaker bloodlines died out and the sheep evolved to become small, thrifty, and easy lambers. This is a real bonus for beginning shepherds.
Shaltz Farm Allana
Shaltz Farm Allana

Historically, Shetland wool was most likely long and had some undercoat which provided insulation from the cold and wet. This primitive-type wool was shed each year by the sheep in an event called "the rise". Wool was pulled or "rooed" from the sheep, eliminating the need for shearing. Some Shetland sheep today still show the rise, and shearing must be carefully timed as a result. The rise is caused by changing seasons. During the winter, the wool growth slows tremendously, causing a weak spot in the staple. In the spring, when wool growth resumes, the old wool breaks off where the new growth begins.

Today in North America, there is a wide selection of wool types in purebred Shetland sheep, from short stapled, crimpy wools similar to down breeds, to long, wavy hairy wools with downy undercoats. Wool of both types can be soft to strong, the latter meaning it's not soft enough to wear next to the skin, but would work great for outergarments, socks, etc. There is probably no other breed with such a wide variety in its wool, making Shetland wool truly a multi-purpose wool.

Because the Shetland Islands are so isolated, the natural color in early sheep wasn't entirely bred out as with most modern breeds. And many Shetlands still show a variety of markings and spotting, making their appearance and wool even more interesting, if frustrating to would-be color geneticists!

In the early 1900s, there was concern that Shetlands couldn't compete with mainland sheep because of their colored wool and small size, which had led to some crossbreeding with mainland meat sheep and selection for white wool over colored. The Shetland Flock Book Society was formed in 1926 to make sure purebred Shetland sheep wouldn't die out entirely. The SFBS's goals included making Shetlands more competitive in the niche market of specialty wools. At about the same time, the famous Fair Isle sweaters became fashionable, and cottage knitters on the Shetland Islands were able to use the Shetland wool's wonderful natural colors to great advantage, creating a demand that has never completely died out.

In 1985, the Shetland Sheep Breeders' Group was formed to take over the duties of watching the status of Shetland sheep from the Rare Breed Survival Trust when Shetland sheep were recognized as recovering from rare breed status. In 1990, the SSBG began its own flock book for registering Shetlands. At the same time, the North American Shetland Sheep Association (NASSA) was formed to handle registrations in North America.

Shetland Sheep came to North American in two importations. The first, in 1948, was to George Flett in Canada. This importation was basically forgotten in North America until the early 90s. After some debate and much evaluation of the sheep, in 1995, the board of NASSA voted to allow sheep of Flett bloodlines be registered as purebred Shetlands.

The other importation was in 1980 to Colonel Dailley of the African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. He brought in 28 ewes and 4 rams from the Shetland Islands. The Dailley Shetlands became the foundation animals for virtually all North American flocks.

Today, Shetlands are regarded as a 'landrace' or 'primitive' breed of sheep. This means they are quite variable as to type, and retain certain characteristics, such as a short tail, that were once common amongst sheep breeds. From the point of view of the shepherd, it also means Shetlands are delightfully easy to care for, needing very little assistance at lambing, thriving on marginal lands and hay, having very mildly flavored meat, and anything but standardized in their wool types and colors. The breed is perfect for anyone wanting a small spinner's flock, a homesteading flock, or a flock for selling niche market products. Please feel free to contact us if you have an interest in trying Shetland sheep.

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