Shetland Sheep hail from the Shetland Islands off the North coast of Scotland. They are considered a “primitive” breed as their ancestry can be traced back in the British Isles for centuries. They were not imported to North America until the late 1980’s.
Shetland Sheep are smaller in stature than most other breeds found in North America. The ewes typically weighing around 75 pounds and the rams around 90 pounds which makes them easy to handle, even for women and children. The rams have spiraled horns similar to the Big Horned Sheep, and the ewes are hornless. Shetlands are born with a short, fluke-shaped tail that does not need to be docked.
Shetlands are an exceptionally hardy breed of sheep coming from the rugged climate and conditions of the North Atlantic. They adapt well to most climates and conditions. Their maternal instincts are very strong and they lamb easily without assistance and rarely reject their lambs. The lambs are usually strong and nurse within minutes of their birth.
The temperament of the Shetland breed is one of their most endearing characteristics. They are more calm and docile than most primitive sheep and respond well to human interaction, often wagging their tails when petted and seeming to enjoy human attention. They will win your heart and soon become a pet. It would be easy to imagine that the lamb in the fabled “Mary had a little lamb …” nursery rhyme was a Shetland.
Last, but not least, the Shetlands are prized for the beautiful wool they produce. Their wool is familiar to most from Shetland sweaters made famous by the likes of L.L. Bean and Lands’ End catalogs. Shetland fleece is also sought after around the world by hand spinners for its fine, soft, yet strong qualities that make it easy to spin and ideal for knitting.
The typical fleece weighs from 2 to 4 pounds and the staple length can range from 2 to 4½ inches. The fibers can be as fine as 15 microns in the neck hairs but often run in the mid 20’s in the majority of the useable parts of the fleece.
Shetland fleeces come in many wonderful natural colors ranging from pure white to shades of gray, (light grays, blue-grays, steel gray), shades of brown (fawns, golden browns, reddish browns, grayish browns, dark browns) and black. Additionally some fleece may be spotted or marked with different colors. Some of the Scottish tradition continues today in that the various colors are still referred to by their Celtic names, e.g. “Moorit” for dark brown, “Shaela” for charcoal gray, etc.
When you add the option of dying this wonderful fiber the creative possibilities for its use are endless and most rewarding.