British Sheep Breeds

The Shetland

The Shetland sheep is one of Great Britain's indigenous breeds. They are one of the Northern European short-tailed sheep breeds and probably got to the Shetland Isles courtesy of Viking settlers over a thousand years ago. Once on the Isles they remained isolated from other breeds and have developed into tough, small animals with a great ability to survive difficult conditions.

They are a primitive breed with good longevity and a great ability to survive. Like the Shetland ponies that they share the islands with, they are small, shaggy and come in a great kaleidoscope of colours. The barren, inhospitable country ensures both sheep and ponies remain small in stature and only the hardy can live in these regions.

Other Northern European breeds include the Finn sheep, Romanovs and Icelandic sheep.

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust looked after the interests of the Shetland sheep for some years. In 1985, the breed was listed as a 'minority' breed on the mainland and the Shetland Sheep Breeders' Group was formed. A flock book was published in 1990 and the Group took over the task of registrations. In 2002, numbers had built up and the breed was removed from the minority list. The Group is now known as the Shetland Sheep Society.

Shetland Sheep 2Credit:,

The fleece is world-renowned for its exceptional softness and fineness. It has an average diameter of 23 microns. The crimp is fine and there is good resilience. The wool produces fine tweeds, gossamer lace and fair isle knitwear. Shetland sheep are not shorn but shed their fleeces naturally during late spring and early summer. Hand spinners are always pleased to get their hands on a Shetland fleece.

The Shetland has spread throughout Great Britain and is also popular in North America. A 'scrapie resistant' scheme was brought in in 1996 and resistant rams are now sourced for breeding programmes. The general trend is for rams to be horned and ewes polled but occasionally ewes appear with short horns as do polled rams. The fluke-shaped tail is unique. Shetlands may be put to larger terminal rams but rarely have problems when lambing. They thrive on sparse grazing. The Shetland is small and fine-boned with animals in their native environment weighing perhaps 25kg. Those rams living in luxury in the south of England may reach 65kg and the ewes 40kg. Lambing rates on the mainland may reach 200% but drop to around 140% on the Islands.

Shetland SheepCredit:

The meat is lean and fine-textured with an excellent flavour. The meat is ideal for those with high cholesterol as it is low in lipid fats.

Shetlands cope with living outdoors throughout the year. They are hardy and lambs have great vigour and a strong will to survive. Even young ewes cope with twins and older ewes may have triplets.

There are eleven main whole colours and thirty recognised markings. Most are known by the Shetland dialect names. For example, Bioget sheep have a white back with darker sides and belly, or vice versa, Kraiget have a neck a different colour to the rest of the body and Mirkface are white with dark patches on the face.

Some patterns are particularly uncommon. Brandet sheep have stripes of another colour going over the back while Gulmoget have light underparts with a dark coloured body. In addition, inside the ears and under the jaw are white. This patterning (the mouflon pattern) is also seen in Soay sheep, another ancient breed.

The Shetland Sheep Society website has some great information, not least of which is a poster showing 63 variations in coat pattern sent in by members.