Accidental Shetland Sheep Farmers
Raising a Hardy Little Sheep Breed
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Laura Thomas – I became what I term as an accidental Shetland sheep farmer. Why do I say that? Well, sheep were not something we had considered for our small homestead. Let’s say plans changed. Our whole northwestern area of Montana has been invaded by knapweed, an invasive plant that takes over by sterilizing the ground so that nothing else will grow. And the property we had bought had knapweed. I did some research on how to eradicate the knapweed and the recommendation was a chemical spray, but we wanted something that would be environmentally safe to use, not to mention, spraying is expensive. Also, it would have to be sprayed every year.
My husband said, “Ok, now what do we do?”
Out of the blue, I said, “We need sheep.”
“Sheep? And what value will that bring to us?” he said. I didn’t have the answers at that time, but we knew the knapweed was something we needed to deal with.
So, our adventure began. We bought cattle panels for fencing. A bit pricy upfront, but long term, they pay for themselves with easy maintenance. And a big benefit: sheep can’t get out and predators can’t get in. We built a 10’x15’ shelter from a yard sale find, including the tin for the roof. So far, we were doing good and next was time for the sheep. It’s funny, but I didn’t go looking for a specific breed; they kind of came to me. And as I was looking through our local trader ads, I saw the ad for Shetland sheep. The seller was retiring and wanted to find a good home that would take her small herd of sheep. I was new to sheep and had no idea of what to expect or anything about this particular breed. The seller was very informative and helpful. So, the sheep came home with us, and here is what I learned and am still learning about this wonderful little breed.
Known as a heritage sheep breed, Shetland sheep originally came from the Shetland Islands of Scotland, going back to the Vikings and maybe even further. This breed has a mild temperament and are small-statured with rams being 90-125lbs, ewes 90-100lbs, and standing between 22”–26” tall. This breed is extremely hardy, being able to endure cold weather, and they’re disease-resistant.
Shetlands can thrive on low levels of nutrition, thereby making them ideal for poor pastures in need of conditioning. Shetland sheep are not as well-known in North America because of their non-commercial applications due to their small size and low wool production. Fleeces range from two to four pounds per sheep. Shetland sheep are becoming more popular because of their fine, soft wool. The wool is graded from fine at its smallest diameter of 10 microns to its largest diameter of 30 microns, making it, “Against the skin soft.”
Shetlands have naturally occurring colors in their wool, with 11 main colors such as blue, silver, black, and red-brown, and with 30 recognized patterns within the breed.
It produces a naturally soft, and dye-free product. Shetland wool has been sought-after by hand spinners for generations because it’s one of the most versatile of wools used for baby clothes and blankets, to very fine shawls and lace, to durable outerwear and felting. The wool that cannot be used for spinning can be used as a water reservoir in the garden, lining hanging baskets, and mulching around soft fruit. Shetland sheepskins are an excellent product and can be used in a variety of ways including baby rugs, car seat covers, and strollers to luxurious rugs for the home.
The breeding season is late October through January, with gestation being five months. This breed has a low mortality rate and an ability to produce and raise multiple births successfully. Shetlands are wonderful mothers producing enough milk for their lambs and they need little to no assistance in the birthing process.
The lambs, when born, range from three to five pounds, are lively and robust, not to mention cute, and need little to no bottle feeding.
Shetlands are also known for their high-quality, lean, tender meat with outstanding flavor and texture. As a primitive breed, they tend to put their fat around body organs rather than muscle, resulting in far leaner meat making it a great choice for people who are looking to reduce fat in their diet, without losing flavor. The meat is easy to prepare with no need for elaborate preparation or sauces.
As a homesteader, I have learned that sheep, particularly Shetlands, can and should be a part of homesteading. Our Shetlands have added value to our homestead, by not only a means of producing our own product on several different levels but they are also wonderful weed-eaters, controlling our knapweed issues. I have come to love this little breed of sheep. If you’re interested in learning more in regard to this breed, there are websites specific to Shetlands. And there is also North America Shetland Sheepbreeders Association (NASSA) that is very informative.
Do you raise Shetland sheep? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.
Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.