Fleece Navidad

 Over the years a variety of people have written about the origins of Shetland Sheep. Like the equally well known Shetland Pony it's origins are discussed at length. However, in the case of the pony, it is easier to spot the genuine article unlike the sheep which can be cross bred.

THE SHETLAND is the smallest of the British breeds, found mostly in the Shetland Islands. It is believed to be of Scandinavian origin, most probably brought to these shores by the Vikings, who settled here over a thousand years ago. They may have inter-bred with primitive sheep already in the islands. This cannot be proved, but they retain many characteristics of the wild sheep. They are small bodied animals with a distinctive face and nose, bright eyes, small erect ears and usually wool on the forehead. The legs are fine and of medium length. A distinguishing feature is the tail being fluke shaped, broad at the base and tapering to the point. Rams have nice round horns while ewes are horn-less.


Their wool is most distinctive, being of a very fine fibre quality (prone to tenderness because of climatic and feeding conditions), a very soft silky handle (feel). Being a small animal the fleece only weighs 1 - 1.5 Kilos on typical hill ground, but can increase in weight on a richer, greener pasture. Staple length is approximately 10 cm, with usually a wavy tight crimp.

The fleece colour is mainly white, but one can get various other shades, i.e. moorit (reddish brown) shaela (steel grey) and black (dark brown). You can also have variations of these shades, but they are less common.

They are primarily known for their wool, but they also have some other notable features, e.g. being very hardy and agile, able to withstand harsh weather conditions. They can pick their way down dangerous cliff ledges to the sea shore, where they supplement their feeding by eating seaweed in the ebb-tide. Their size enables them to find shelter in exposed places.

They also make ideal mothers, and are much sought after to cross with the Cheviot for their mothering abilities. They are both prolific and long lived, in fact there is an instance at Berry Farm, Scalloway of a ewe that had twins at the ripe old age of twenty-one years and lived a further six years.

The mutton has a unique quality of it’s own, especially off the heather hills. It flourishes mainly in its own environment, but adapts quite easily to richer, greener pasture, although one can detect a change in the ‘handle’ of the wool which becomes more bulky, losing its bounce.

With the current down-turn in the wool trade due to synthetics, market forces or whatever, one cannot blame the producer for looking to the more lucrative mutton market, and for crossing the Shetland with the one of the larger breeds to obtain a bigger carcass, hence changing the pasture to accommodate them.