Shetland sheep – a tale of evolutionary perfection

Shetland’s native breed of sheep have lived in these islands for 5000 years, in fact as long as Man.

They are one form of the northern short-tailed sheep which nowadays only persist along the north-eastern seaboard of the Atlantic. This is the last refuge for such an ancient breed which evolved to cope with the most challenging of natural circumstances.

As the more fertile and temperate hinterlands of Europe became populated with much larger breeds suited to the expansion of farming, the relict breeds were pushed out to peripheries.

The northern short-tailed varieties, apart from the eponymous ‘short tails’, had particular features which facilitated their survival. These include a light bone frame which makes them very agile and allows them to give birth easily. These are animals which are only loosely described as domesticated and can cope very well without Man’s assistance. They also retain their wild cousins’ ability to store fat around the kidneys where it can be readily accessed in periods of winter stress. Their fat is a complicated substance containing a wide range of beneficial fatty acids now seldom found in modern breeds.

Perhaps most famous is their wool which, has been used for these 50 centuries for a multitude of purposes from boat sails to fine lace. All the types exhibit a double coated fleece – a coarser, straighter fibre on the outside and a much finer fibre on the inside. This afforded the sheep physical and thermal layers of protection against the wind and weather. In order to make use of the whole fleece, these differing fibre types were carded out to suit the purpose in mind throughout history. 

Man sought mostly through the 20th century to dissuade use of the breed, or at least to encourage ‘improvement’ of them. It is a testament to the breed and its exceptional abilities that it still remains. In truth no other breed is so efficient or productive in naturally challenging sustainable systems.

They are naturally multi-coloured with white now being a dominant colour only through the efforts of the global wool market. In flocks where Man has not deliberately decided to use only white rams, browns and greys predominate.

The current trend towards knitting, felting and weaving with natural fibres has for the first time helped reverse the breed’s poor fortunes and make them appreciated for what they are. Knitters and makers all over the world may not realise the impact they are having in helping these little sheep continue to survive. The vicissitudes of agricultural and market fashion may yet be overwhelmed by folk indulging in their hobbies and crafts.

Today the remaining populations of the short-tailed sheep are found in coastal places like Brittany, Isle of Man, Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, Norway, Faroe, Iceland and Greenland.

In Shetland the native breed of cattle were the most numerous species until the human population outgrew its land-based resources. The cattle nearly became extinct in the late 20th century as the population of cross bred sheep grew exponentially in response to market demands and government support. However, in the hills and wilder parts only the native sheep could live. With both hybrid Shetland cattle and sheep, the native breeds provided the vigor of the native breed when bred to much larger breeds. This meant most keepers realised Shetlands had a use and could not be removed entirely. The hybrid vigour of these cross breeds made them very popular elsewhere among farmers.

The fact that the lambs of the native sheep only weigh half the weight of cross breds simplistically meant they were only worth half as much. The fact that their meat was healthier, more nutritious and flavoursome only counts in niche markets.

However the ‘peerie’ sheep are still with us and now that more and more folk respect them, surely this will lead to a more enlightened future.   

Ronnie Eunson lives on Uradale Farm in Shetland, where he raises certified organic Shetland cattle and sheep. He educates visitors to his farm about organic, sustainable animal rearing. His yarn organic Shetland wool is available from Uradale Yarns