In the 1970s it was estimated that they would be completely gone by the year 2000. Gladly we can say that their numbers have grown and they are now thriving continuing to grow in numbers as this sweet and friendly little breed snares more and more hearts. There are various reports on how many Shetland sheep there are world wide, but one fact remains that they are off the endangered list and now regarded by Rare Breeds Survival Trust as mainstream.
Shetland sheep were brought to the Americas in 1980 by Colonel Dailly in Ontario. He was allowed to import 28 ewes and 4 rams with the aid of RBST. The concern about scrapie caused the sheep to undergo a year long quarantine before entering Canada. Col Dailly was then required to wait 5 years to sell the offspring, and further the original ewes and rams were permanently quarantined at his establishment.
The first importation to America was made by Maple Ridge Farm in 1986 and that farm likely has the largest flock in the United States to this day. They run about 150 - 200 head of sheep on their farm and they are dedicated to the preservation and breeding on this wonderful animal. Shetland breeders are cropping up all over the country as people discover this unique and fun breed that is perfect for the small hobby farm environment.
As one of the aforementioned breeders, Shetland sheep offer a great opportunity for the new shepherd. They lamb easily with very little problems and rarely require any assistance. New mothers are often a little confused, but an older ewe will often talk her through this new experience with this wet blob that magically appeared. The ewes will often easily take a lamb that is rejected or orphaned and occasionally will even steal one in the confusion of birth activities. The ewes have a strong mothering instinct and generally have a very generous milk supply, easily raising triplets with no assistance. The ewes are usually polled, but may also be horned. The rams have a nice set of horns usually, and small flimsy horns are discouraged in rams and ewes.
Shetland fleeces come in all types and colors, some suitable for fine shawls or lace and others for socks, outer-wear, or even carpets. The fleeces from animal to animal vary and can be the finest and softest that are perfect for wearing next to the skin. They can also be coarser and exceptionally strong and resilient. No breed can offer you the variety in fleece qualities equal to the Shetland that I know of. The colors are a riot of differences with the North American Shetland Sheep Breeders Association recognizing 11 distinct colors and 30 marking patterns. Many of the colors and markings carry the original Shetland names, so instead of brown or spotted they have lovely names like moorit, yuglet and flecket. You never know what you will get from the next lamb crop as the genetics are complex and surprising. The sheep often change completely in appearance from lambs to adults. The fibers have a shine and strength to be admired and the many colors dye to a much deeper vibrancy that is difficult to obtain with white. The bottom line is that you will have a large selection of colors and fleece types to compliment the spinners flock and more fun than you can imagine.
Shetland fleece is touted as "spinning itself" and this could not be more true. A good fleece will spin easily and with a much greater evenness, and very high quality fleeces can come close to the ever famous Merino in softness and feel. The fibers spin up fast and are much easier to spin overall than many other fibers. The variety is also a wonderful attribute, as each type has a good use.
Primitive double coated fleeces are so strong they can be used for almost anything that needs to be sturdy, from socks to saddle blankets. The fine undercoat can be separated out with combs and used for next to the skin wear and the coarser outer fibers can be spun for rugs, sock soles or any other place where a really strong yarn is required. A yarn spun from this outer coat is practically unbreakable unless it is super fine, and plied with a softer yarn can add needed strength without compromising softness as much. You can also just card both coats together for a nice multi purpose yarn. The double coat is a great asset to many spinners, and has a broad range of uses.
Single coated Shetlands often have a very fine and lovely feel to them. They are usually very good for wearing next to the skin with little or no scratchiness. The roving will slide from your hands and rhythm is very easy to attain. When I spun Shetland for the first time, I spun a sock weight single that was so even and lovely I was dumbfounded. Until then I had a very difficult time getting any kind of even yarn, and although I enjoyed the variations, I was also very pleased with my first even yarn. You can of course make lovely novelty effects as well, and this fiber will do about anything you want to try.
With all the praise for this breed given, there are a few downsides, but only if you see them that way. These delightful little creatures always keep you guessing, and love to play and romp. They are very curious and will get into all sorts of mischief usually at the expense of the shepherd. They will play "hard to catch" and "scared to death" only to romp up to you five minutes later for a good chest scratching. They love cookies and crackers and can be very affectionate to people. The ewes are gentle and easy to handle and so are the rams. Of course you must always be watching to avoid a hard thump from a ram, but Shetland rams are very friendly and affectionate, and with some careful handling can be safe and fun. A neutered Shetland male (wether) is unparalleled in friendliness and docility. A pair of them will be as friendly as dogs, but the manure is less messy and they will cut the grass to boot. Their fiber is also higher quality because all their reserves go into fiber production.
Shetlands are a low maintenance breed that requires a minimum of labor and medical care. Their short fluke shaped tails are mostly bald and require no docking. They primarily only need hoof trimming 1-2 times a year, an annual or biannual CD/T shot and periodic worming designed for the area and their environmental conditions. Shearing may occur once or twice a year and the fleece generally weighs from 3 to 5 pounds raw.
The Shetland sheep is also a great dual purpose breed. They have an excellent quality of meat, but are slow to mature, so are not great for commercial operation unless you use an early maturing terminal sire. The meat is very lean and has an exceptional flavor that is appreciated by many without the fattiness of commercial meat breeds. Because of the low fat content it is also healthier to eat, and also is much easier to digest. Older people and young people can digest lamb easier other meats, and it is often recommended for people with stomach problems. Lamb is a perfect first meat for a baby ready to try meat and Shetland meat is particularly superior to most of the market breeds, but is more expensive to raise because they grow slower, and also have a smaller carcass size. Ewes weigh in at 75 - 100 pounds and rams from 90 - 125 pounds, making them easy to handle. While for commercial sales this is bad, for the home processor this is a bonus because of the ease of processing the smaller carcass.
Overall, the Shetland sheep is fun. friendly and easy to care for. They each have a unique personality that will always give you a laugh. Wethers make the best pets, best fiber and are inexpensive to boot. It's hard to not love a Shetland, once you meet one.
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