History of the Breed

4500 Years Ago

There is archaeological evidence that primitive sheep of the Soay type were kept in Britain by early Neolithic farmers over 4500 years ago. Horns of the Soay type were found during the excavation of Jarlshof, a noted prehistoric site on Shetland. The current Shetland gulmoget has Soay or Mouflon markings suggesting that these early sheep contributed to their genetic makeup.

Coloured ewe and lamb
Shetland ewe and lamb

Norwegians settled in Scotland and the Northern Isles around 500 AD. It is likely that they brought their own sheep to add to the Soay types and other sheep already there. Shetland sheep share many similarities with the Spaelsau and Vilsau sheep of south western Norway. There are wild sheep on the small islands off Bergen which resemble the double coated and patterned Shetlands of Foula, an inhabited island off the west coast of mainland Shetland.

1200 AD

Around 1200 AD the original short-tailed sheep were still present in the Northern Isles though crossing with the Roman sheep was producing distinct varieties. In the ensuing years these Northern Short-tailed sheep continued to develop into distinct breeds in isolated locations. People on Shetland may have been selecting, either directly or indirectly, for soft and fine wool from very early on in this period.

Ewe and lamb in snow
Ewe and lamb in the snow

Early in the seventeenth century stockings were hand-knitted from hand-spun wool on Shetland for trade to the Dutch and English. However, in 1786 sheep scab, introduced through cross breeding experiments, devastated flocks throughout Scotland, including Shetland, reducing the amount of high quality wool available for the knitting industry. At the same time meat breeds of sheep with coarser wool were moving northward through Scotland and into the Northern Isles. Crossbreeding and changes in husbandry motivated by meat production had a negative impact on the quality of much of the wool produced.

For the next hundred years or so the Shetland wool industry waxed and waned in response to political and market forces but basically maintained its reputation for superior quality wool and lace work.

Early 1900s

MacWomble, bred by Alex Williamson, North Roe, Shetland

By the early 1900s, markets for lace work were disappearing but hand knitted garments were increasing in popularity. Knitters throughout Shetland adapted again to produce the richly patterned Fair Isle sweaters, hats and mittens. This industry was itself soon perceived to be threatened by a reduction in wool quality caused by cross breeding to improve carcase quality and so, in order to preserve the uniqueness of the Shetland breed, in 1927 the Shetland Flock Book Society was formed on Shetland. A Breed Description was drawn up and is still in use. The Shetland Flock Book Trust administers the sheep's welfare for island residents to this day.

Since the 1970s, breeders on the UK mainland, adhering to the Shetland Flock Book Society Standard and tradition have bred to maintain a fine-woolled single-coated phenotype that probably reflects the best that Shetland had to offer. Early in the 1970s the quality of the sheep kept by mainland breeders was very variable in terms of conformation and fleece quality. It was not until the late Dr SHU Bowie became involved and suggested ram inspections to get sheep consistently closer to the Breed Standard that progress was made.

Boys rooing a sheep

Boys 'rooing' a sheep

In 1977 The Rare Breed Survival Trust classified Shetland Sheep as Category 3 (Endangered). However, by 1985, the popularity of the breed on the mainland, particularly with smallholders interested in the range of colours and the fineness of the wool, was such that they were re-classified as Category 5 (Above Numerical Guidelines). In the 1990s the classification of the breed was revised to a Minority Breed. In 2002 Shetland sheep were removed from the RBST list of supported breeds.

The Present Day

At the present day the breed on the UK mainland is in a healthy state both numerically and in terms of quality and conformation to the Breed Standard. In 2011  2244 sheep were registered by 196 breeders, (134 rams, 261 ram lambs, 558 ewes and 1291 ewe lambs). This total includes 1551 lamb registrations, produced by 289 rams from 1198 females.  38 rams were approved under the SSS ram approval scheme. Majority colours were moorit/brown, white, black and grey;  katmoget being the most common marking.

Further reading on the history and evolution of Shetlands and other Northern Short Tailed Sheep can be found in "The Sheep of Shetland" and in the excellent book "Sheep and Man" by M. L. Ryder, published by Gerald Duckworth & Co, Ltd., London, 1983, Second Impression 2007. ISBN 9780715636473. Available from the publishers or from Amazon.co.uk.

Black & white images courtesy of the Shetland Museum

 Shetland Sheep on the Shetland Islands
Robert Ramsay's sheep at Collafirth, Shetland Islands