Shetland sheep originated on the remote Shetland Islands. They are a primitive landrace breed belonging to the northern short tail group. It is generally believed that Shetlands are descendants of sheep brought to the Island's by Viking settlers over 1000 years ago. The Viking sheep probably interbred with a primitive sheep of a Soay type already present on the islands. What evolved in the isolated harsh climate of these islands was a small, hardy, agile sheep with wool of exceptional fineness.
Shetland sheep are the smallest member of the British sheep breeds. Mature ewes range from about 75 to 100 pounds, while mature rams range from 90 to 125 pounds. They should be fine boned with an alert nimble carriage. Rams are generally horned, while ewes are usually hornless. The wool is perhaps the most important feature of these unique sheep.
The first documented evidence of knitting on the Shetland Islands dates to the sixteenth century. It is known that Shetland sheep formed the basis of the world famous Shetland knitting industry. The wool, which comes in 11 different recognized natural colors, was spun and knit into a variety of articles. The finest wool, coming from the neck and shoulders, was reserved for the delicate Shetland lace patterns. The longer coarser fleeces were used for outerwear, utility or 'hap' shawls and woven bed spreads, which after they had become worn were used as rugs. The natural colors of the fleeces created the Fair-Isle sweater industry.
The fleece is generally in the 22 to 28 micron range, with individual fibers testing as low as 8 microns to as high as 70 microns. The fleece should either be crimped with approximately 6 to 10 crimps per inch, or wavy with little apparent crimp. It is often the case that these wavy fleeces contain a very tight crimp which is so fine as to not be easily distinguished. Grease content should average around 20%. The staple length can range from as short as 2 inches to 10 or more inches for the outercoat of the double coated sheep.
Shetland wool comes in one of the widest ranges of colors of any breed. Everything from the purest white to the deepest coal black. There are 11 main colors and 30 markings, many still bearing their Shetland dialect names. Fleeces usually weigh between 2 to 4 pounds, but 5 and 6 pound fleeces are not uncommon. The wool will break in late spring as it did generations ago when it was "rooed" or pulled off by hand. This tendency toward molting, and some double coating, and a rich variety of natural colors is indicative of the breeds primitive nature similar to the Big Horn sheep of the U.S.
Shetlands adapt to a wide variety of forages. In the Shetland Islands, these sheep are said to be the only breed of sheep that can withstand the harsh climate and meager grazing of the hill lands. Shetlands are very thrifty and don't require expensive feed concentrates, rich pastures or top quality hay. The ewes are excellent mothers, lambing problems are rare.
We have recently had a wonderful opportunity to acquire a small flock of well bread Shetlands that trace back to island importations. Unfortunately Shetlands are being cross bred in their native homelands. This loss of ancestry and breed purity has caused this noble breed to face extinction. It is our plan to preserve the integrity of this ancient breed. We plan to offer fleeces and in time, breeding stock.