The Breed

The Shetland is classed as a primitive or ‘unimproved’ sheep; however its versatility in providing tasty, sweet meat, highest quality fine fleece, ease of handling and attractive appearance have made it a popular choice for a whole range of people. See below the qualities and benefits of Shetland Sheep.

Shetland sheep are very hardy, good milky mothers and easy lambers.  When crossed with a suitable commercial ram they will produce a good butcher's lamb.  Being ‘browsers’ rather than just ‘grazers’ they have been found highly useful for conservation grazing.

Northern Short-Tailed Sheep

Shetlands are small, fine-boned sheep belonging to the Northern Short-tailed group. They have adapted to the topographic and climatic conditions of Shetland for over a thousand years. They are very hardy and have the ability to thrive on low levels of nutrition. They are prolific with a prolificacy of about 160%. They are highly adaptable and succeed well in less rigorous conditions off the Shetland Islands. There is a considerable variation in height and weight of sheep depending on feeding conditions. For example hill sheep in Shetland, out-wintered as lambs, have a live weight of about 22kg whereas a park-fed ewe in the south of England averages 45kg. A ram in peak condition could weigh as much as 65kg.

Head & Horns

Rams may be horned or polled. Ewes are normally polled but occasionally may develop short horns that curve backwards. The horns of the ram can be round or angulate in section, with transverse wrinkles. They rise above the head in an open spiral with the tips directed outwards. They are set well apart at the base, ideally one to two inches. A ram with heavy angulate horns may have a narrower base. Four-horned rams have been recorded and photographed but are rare.

A special feature of the head is the straight facial profile, but with a distinct hollow between the cheek and nose. The eyes are protuberant and set well apart - about three-quarters of the distance between the nose and the top of the head. The ears are small and fine, set well back on the head and carried slightly above the horizontal. Small amounts of wool are normally present on the forehead and almost always on the cheeks. A straight and level back and a well-rounded rump are indicative of the general quality of the sheep.


The tail has 13 vertebrae, much shorter than commercial sheep that have 26 vertebrae. It is fluke shaped, broad at the base and tapering for three quarters of its length then continuing without further narrowing to a flattened tip. The upper portion of the tail is wool covered, but there is hair at the tip. The tail length varies in keeping with the size of the sheep, but is usually between 4 and 6 inches. This characteristic can sometimes be passed on to crossbred lambs.


The most important attribute of the breed is its wool, which is the finest of all native breeds and which shows an amazing variety of colours and patterns. There are 11 main whole colours and 30 recognised markings. The fleece tends to be shed in spring. At this point the fleece can sometimes be plucked or rooed by hand. The fleece weighs from 2 - 3lbs.


As a pure breed they produce very high quality lean meat with outstanding flavour and fine texture. When crossed with a suitable terminal sire the heavier, faster maturing lamb is readily acceptable at markets.

The following list summarises the features of the breed and the benefits which arise from these features.

Shetland Sheep - qualities and benefits


Can live and thrive outside 12 months of the year in most locations


Can survive on poor quality grazing, and a higher stocking density can be used on fertile pasture. Useful for conservation grazing


With fecundity rating of about 160% - lambing rates comparable to modern breeds

Easy lambers

Intervention is rarely needed

Lively lambs

Lambs have a strong will to live, get up quickly and feed - good outside survival

Milky mothers

Hoggs will rear twins and mature ewes can rear triplets

Easy to handle

Ideal for smaller flocks without complex equipment and housing

Successful crossing

Ewes will successfully cross with a terminal sire - produce good medium weight butcher's lambs

Shetland meat

Lean with superb flavour and fine texture


Purebred lambs kill out at 12-17 kg October to January - ideal for small family cuts


Hoggs kill out at 16-20kg in April/May at 12-14 months of age - extending the sale season


Sublimely flavoursome, lean meat


High quality wool, finest of any British breed - ready market for fleeces and popular with handspinners

Colour diversity

Wide range of colours and markings - can be used undyed to maintain softness (dyeing hardens the wool)