British Breeds of Cattle

The Shetland

The Shetland cow is classified as 'at risk' by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. The Shetland breed is one of Great Britain's indigenous livestock breeds and is endemic to the Shetland Isles off the west coast of Scotland. The Shetland has been hard hit by the switch to intensive livestock farming. But like many native breeds, it has a part to play in the broader picture of land use and its useful roles are being increasingly recognised.

Shetland CattleCredit:,

The Shetland is believed to date back to cattle brought to the Shetland Isles by the Vikings between 700 and 1100 AD. In the past, crofters on the Islands depended on the milk and beef provided by the Shetland. It also served as a draught animal. The harsh, wet and windy conditions of the environment resulted in the breed evolving into a small but very tough animal. Any weaklings died out years ago.

The Shetland all but disappeared in the 20th century although the population was firmly established prior to this time. The provision of a shipping line around 1850 gave the crofters the opportunity to export cattle. Bigger animals brought higher prices and mainland breed bulls were introduced to increase the size of the native stock. Before long the future of the purebred Shetland was in jeopardy.

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In 1971 the formation of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) saw the beginning of attempts to save the breed. In 1981 an annual herd book was re-established. In 2000, the Shetland Cattle Breeders' Association was formed by a group of mainland breeders. In 2005, Scottish farmers were subsidised if their farming practices took into account to environmental factors. An extra subsidy was paid to those using native breeds in conservation grazing programs.

The Shetland is a small to medium cow, ranging from 350 to 500kg. It was the original house-cow of the crofters and a vital and integral part of their lives. It will thrive on low quality rough pasture and it is an enthusiastic browser. Being small, it does not churn up the ground in winter as heavier breeds might. It has a high resistance to disease, good longevity and produces well throughout its long life. It is calm, easy to handle and will bond to its owner. Bulls are docile.

Even on restricted grazing it has a high conversion rate to high quality milk. It has been classed as a dairy cow and produces a fast growing calf while providing sufficient extra milk for a family. When crossed with a beef bull, the subsequent calf will grow according to the genetics of the sire. However the cost of fattening such a calf is lower due to the more efficient feed conversion of mother and calf. Calving difficulties are very rare even when mated with larger breeds. Pelvic width is second only to the Jersey. They are excellent mothers.

The Shetland is ideal when used in conservation grazing. It will need supplementary hay or silage only in winter and can be left to live out providing it has some kind of shelter from extremes of weather. Animals not required for breeding find a ready market as beef.

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Like Shetland sheep and Shetland ponies, Shetland cattle were once seen in a variety of colours. Most are now black and white although red and white are often seen too. Grey and brindled cattle are also becoming more common. The horns grow inward then slightly upward in graceful 'Viking-style' curves. The modern Shetland stands around 48 inches high.

Shetland ponies in snowCredit:,

The Shetland is one of the faster finishing native breeds. It is generally ready for slaughter some time prior to 30 months off grass.

As conservation grazers, the Shetland is small enough not to damage pasture lands, particularly in wet areas. Their calm disposition is also an advantage in such places.

The Shetland cow is part of Scotland's natural heritage and comprises a genetic resource that should be maintained. They are very suited to smallholdings, conservation grazing and even extensive grass-fed commercial beef enterprises.