After researching various breeds and having dealt with my own small flock of Shetland Sheep, I am thoroughly convinced anyone with a desire to have small livestock on their hobby farm or small homestead should invest in Shetlands. I would like to give you a little history about them first and then give you a little of my insight into raising them and why I feel this way.
Shetlands are believed to have been brought to the Shetland Islands about 1000 years ago by the Vikings and evolved from the Northern European Short-tailed sheep. At a glance you can hardly tell them apart from the Icelandic sheep other than by size since Shetlands are smaller but so similar.
The sheep had to fend for themselves since life on the Shetland Islands was hard. Weaker bloodlines died out and the sheep evolved to become small, thrifty, and easy lambers. Beginning shepherds will find this a real bonus. Even first-time mothers rarely need assistance and are excellent mothers.
Historically, Shetland wool was 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 you must time the shearing just right as a result. The rise is caused by changing seasons. During the winter when the wool growth slows tremendously, it causes a weak spot in the staple. In the spring when wool growth resumes, the old wool will break off where the new growth begins.
There is a wide selection of wool types in purebred Shetland sheep here in North America; from short stapled, crimpy wools similar to down breeds; to long, wavy hairy wools with downy undercoats. There is probably no other breed with such a wide variety in its wool making Shetland wool truly a multi-purpose wool. Wool of both types can be soft to strong ( strong meaning it’s not soft enough to wear next to the skin, but would work great for outergarments, socks, etc).
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. 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.
Shetlands are regarded as a ‘landrace’ or ‘primitive’ breed of sheep. They are quite variable as to type and retain certain characteristics such as a short tail which once was common among sheep breeds. All of this means Shetlands are delightfully easy to care for, need very little assistance at lambing, thrive on marginal lands and hay, have very mildly flavored meat, and they are 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.
If this information hasn’t convinced you, then I recommend talking with some of the breed owners. These sheep are full of personality and fun to have around while easy to provide for. They work wonders as personal lawn mowers for my backyard. Make sure to keep them out of the garden areas or orchards until after the growing season though. A raised fenced gaurd around the base of your fruit trees will stop any unwanted nibbling. These sheep will also eat some browse (including buckbrush and young saplings…they nip the tips of the branches and eat the leaves pruning them back).
This spring I was fortunate enough to have two sets of twins from my older ewes and two single lambs from my young ones. Three boys and three girls!! Not a bad average. There are two of the ewe lambs I will be keeping to enlarge my little flock while the boys will become wethers and be raised for the freezer.
The wool is wonderful and although I must admit it took a little bit to get used to shearing them, the end product is worth it. If you don’t wish to use the wool yourself, there is quite a market for it and you can sell it at the craft/fiber shows or online through sites such as ebay if you don’t have a website of your own. I haven’t had the time to set up anything on my site yet and not sure I will sufficient quantity to warrant doing so since I never plan to have a large flock.
Shetland sheep are a wonderful addition to the farm that provide revenue from lambs, wool and fleece pelts in addition to providing meat for the table and lawn mowing services. Money received helps to pay taxes and miscellaneous expenses beyond what is needed for their upkeep. This breed would be an excellent choice for a homestead.