The Shetland breed, which belongs to the Nordic group of short-tailed sheep
History~~~~~~~ Origin of Shetland sheep
The Shetland breed belongs to the North-European group of horned, short-tailed sheep. To this group belong The Faeroe Islands sheep, the Norwegian Spaelsau, Swedish short-tailed sheep, the Finnsheep, the Icelandic sheep, the Romanov sheep and old sheep breeds in North-Eastern Poland (Wrozowska sheep) and the northern part of Germany (Heidschnücke).
The Shetland sheep is very much a native of the islands, and was, until recently, not found in many places elsewhere, except in the Mainland of Britain. But since Shetland sheep were imported to Canada in 1980 and further from Canada to the US in 1986, an increasing number of Shetland flocks is being formed in North-America.
The Shetland sheep has probably not greatly changed during the past hundred years. Although the Cheviot and the Blackface have been taken to the islands and there are a number of flocks of the latter, crossing would seem to have made less difference to the native Shetland sheep than one might have expected.
~Characteristics of short-tailed sheep~
The main characteristics of this varied group of sheep breeds is that they all have a short tail, many of the breeds are horned, although selection for polledness has occurred in some of them. Sheep of these breeds were of relatively light weight during the 1950’s, but selection for heavier animals has led to considerable increase in lamb and adult weight in the Icelandic sheep, the Finnsheep and the Norwegian Spaelsau. The Shetland sheep has not been subject to comparable selection for increased weight.
The fleece of the short-tailed breeds is double coated, with an outer and inner coat. The distinction between the outer and inner coat is probably least pronounced in the Shetlands, the Finnsheep and some of the Swedish short-tailed breeds.
Some of the short-tailed breeds show extremely high fecundity, especially the Finnsheep and the Romanov. Within Iceland a single high fecundity gene is known, the so-called Thoka gene, with litters up to quintuplets.In older reports on Shetland sheep, reasonably high fecundity has been reported, with considerable proportion of twins, and even some triplets.
The horn types in the short-tailed breeds vary. In Shetland of today rams are horned and ewes polled. The horns of the rams are usually nicely rounded, not too heavy, nor too close together.Fully grown horns in both sexes is a characteristic of most Icelandic sheep, but in some strains both males and females are polled, or the males may have rudimentary or aberrant horns. Polled in both sexes is now the main horn type in the Norwegian spaelsau, but some 50 years ago horned in both sexes was found in some unimproved strains. Polled in both sexes is dominant to both fully grown horns in both sexes and horned in males and polled in females. Horned in males and polled in females, as in the Shetland sheep, is therefore recessive to the two other horn forms described above.
The fleece of the Shetland sheep is light in weight, often not more than 2 lb which was the average over the whole of Britain two or three hundred years ago. Until recently the wool was still plucked or rooed, but is now usually shorn, and traditionally goes to the making of knitwear for which the Islands have long been famous. The wool is of several colours and is used in its natural shade for the traditional knitting. The wool is particularly soft handling and when one considers the relative coarseness of the actual fibre, this is quite remarkable. The wool is also rather mixed, the Shetland being one of the few sheep in Britain today where the old traditional coarse outer and fine inner fibres can be distinguished. The Shetland sheep seem to be a remarkably homogenous breed, apart from the variation in colours.
~Selection for fine wool~
t is not known how and when the fleece of the Shetland sheep developed into the fine, soft and lustre type that has given Shetland wool and woollen goods their special reputation. A description of selection for fineness of fleece has, however, survived elsewhere in Scotland.
The Old Statistical Account of Scotland (1797) contains a description of sheep husbandry in Scotland, as well as of the Old Scottish Shortwool. The sheep in certain parts of Scotland were constantly attended by a boy or a girl during the day, whom they followed to and from the pasture. They were penned in a house with slatted walls during the night. These very small flocks were the responsibility of the whole family, and competition existed between the children about who should possess the handsomest and most valuable animal within the flock. This means that animals for future stock were selected on merit, long before scientific selection for improvement was invented. It is believed that by those means the fleece of these sheep was improved to such a degree that their wool was preferred to any wool then known in the neighbouring markets. Later developments in Scotland lead to the eradication of sheep flocks of this type, and no trace of these sheep is now found.
But lack of knowledge does not mean that the same process of selection has not been carried out elsewhere. It seems likely that the wool on the Shetland sheep has been improved in a comparable manner, by selecting for breeding the animals with the best wool type.
~Shetland Sheep in North America ~
With the assistance of the RBST (Rare Breeds Survival Trust), Col. Dailley of the African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, imported 28 ewes and 4 rams from the Shetland Islands in 1980. This is the base for the Shetland flocks in North America today. The first importation to the US was in 1986, and Shetlands have increased in popularity ever since.
the following desription of Shetland sheep and its wool in America is taken from the NASSA website in July 2000, about Shetland wool production in the US.”A very important characteristic of the Shetland Sheep is their beautiful wool, upon which the world-renowned Shetland wool is one of the finest and softest of any UK breed, with an average fiber diameter of 23 microns. Highly variable, the Shetland fiber can range very much, from an incredibly fine, soft fiber found around the neck to a coarser, almost double coated, wool used to make rugged, warm fabrics like woven tweeds and Fair Isle Knitwear.
Shetland wool is some of the finest among the UK breeds. It is soft, yet strong and durable, and is a delight to spin. The finest of the Shetland yarns, spun from selected neck wool, were knit into lace shawls so fine they could be drawn through a wedding ring!
Fleeces usually weigh between 2 to 4 pounds, but 5 and 6 pound fleeces are not uncommon. Typically, on the Shetland Islands, the fleece staple length is 2 to 4 1/2 inches; however, we are also seeing staple lengths of 6 inches in the US. This may be a function of the richer, more nutritious diet available to the animals here versus the wild heath and grasses available on their native islands.
Occasionally, the wool will shed in late spring as it did generations ago when it was "rooed" or pulled off by hand. This tendency toward molting, along with evidence of a slight double coat, and a rich variety of natural colors is indicative of the breed’s primitive nature.”
~Colours in Shetland sheep~
Several colours are known in the Shetland sheep. A list of the main colours, i.e the colour patterns, found on the website of NASSA (North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association)It should be made clear that in many cases particular types of markings are described as white patches on coloured background, while in many cases they are also given the mirror effect of the first description, i.e. coloured markings on white background. An example is Sponget - dark coloured with small white spots, or conversly, which means that Sponget can either be dark coloured with small white spots, or white with small coloured spots.
According to my personal experience, colour markings in sheep are of only one kind. They are white pathces on coloured background. Of the 30 markings 15, or 50%, have names that have a comparable counterpart in Icelandic, in spite of 1100 years of separation. This is a remarkable example of how certain aspects of culture of sheep keeping has been kept alive, by giving the colour markings a name in the distant past. The sheep owners have stuck to the names of the markings in both countries and the names have survived a separation of more than a thousand years. This is heritage at its best.
It is noticeable that the white markings in both Iceland and Shetland have names that originally come from the Norwegian language. These names must have been used in Norway at the time of settlement in both Shetland and Iceland, because that is where the sheep in both countries came from. The fact that the names of these markings are not found in Norway any longer must be due to the introduction of white-coloured British breeds in the 19th Century to Norway. This led to topcrossing of the old multicoloured short-tailed female sheep with imported rams. The old colours disappeared under the white colours from Britain, and the names were soon forgotten when the colours were no longer seen.
The average prolificacy of Shetland ewes on the poor grazings of the breed’s native Isles is about 130%. Average carcase weight is 10-12 kg, and average adult bodyweight (on the Shetland Isles) is approximately 45 kg for mature rams and 35 kg for mature ewes. Hill bred mutton is claimed to be unsurpassable by some connoisseurs. On improved pasture, the ewe is capable of greatly improved performance. The fleece weighs about 1.0 kg.
~The future of Shetland Sheep~
The future of the Shetland sheep is in the hands of the breeders. What do they want, and what are they going to do in terms of breeding work?
The breeding aim of Shetland sheep today seems to vary considerably, to judge from articles on the Internet. Some people put emphasis on fineness or crimp of wool fibres, others accept variation in wool quality, but want a multitude of wool colours. Still others seem to go in for horns in females, and several other directions of selection can be envisaged.
Selection can also produce uniqueness. Breeders want to select for or against specific characteristics, such as size, colour, horns, wool types, etc., but the wishes of breeders will vary. The varied attitude of breeders tends, however, to conserve variation.
~~advice to breeders of Shetland sheep ~~~is to discuss in depth what they want to do with the Shetland sheep, what they want to keep, and what they don’t want to loose. They should keep variation, not loosing it to the forces of the showring. Vulnerability of the breed should be evaluated before the breed is up to any threat of losing variation. final words of warning are~~~~
”So much has been lost from so many breeds that it would be a shame for the Shetland breeders to not learn from the mistakes of others.”
Nordic Gene Bank for Farm Animals (Nordisk Genbank - Husdyr, NGH)
The Nordic Gene Bank for Farm Animals was established in 1990, by the Nordic Council of Ministers. Formal activities were initiated in 1991. Then a full time post for a Daily Leader of the activities, with the necessary funds, was established. I applied for that post, and so happened to be the first Daily Leader of the Nordic Gene Bank for the period 1991-1996.The aim of the Gene Bank was to operate within the five Nordic countries, with a steering group consisting of one member from each of the five countries, i.e. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Contacts were established with outside Institutes with similar activities. Cooperation with the European Association of Animal Production, and with the FAO had high priority.
The Gene Bank was given the responsibility to follow up, within the Nordic countries, the possible risk of breeds or populations of farm animals decreasing in number of breeding animals, so that they might run into danger of extinction. This task was met by collecting information on the number of breeding animals of all known breeds or populations of farm animals, and implementing necessary measures to ensure continued survival of these breeds or populations.
~~~~~My private advice to Shetland sheep owners is to circulate knowledge
If you are well prepared for your task and believe in what you are doing, there is a good possibility of success.~~~~~~~~~~~
I wish you, the readers here today, and all owners and keepers of Shetland sheep, the best of luck for the future.