I suppose my first memory of Shetland sheep was our pet ewe Blackie when I was a child. However my own serious interest in Shetland sheep began on my visits to the crofting district of Vidlin and the Robertson and Johnson families of Kirkabister. It was here I learned all the basics of sheep husbandry which was to hold me in good stead later on in my working life at Berry Farm and J&S.
My daily contact with crofters in my work place was a great source of information especially when I was asked by the Shetland Flock Book Society to judge the live animal for wool quality at their annual show and sale. I sought advice from two of Shetland’s highly respected sheep breeders who instructed me on what to look for.
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 over 1000 years ago. The sheep may have bred with primitive sheep already in the Islands. This cannot be proven, 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 mostly hornless.
Their wool is most distinctive, being of very fine fibre quality, with a very soft silky handle. Being a small animal the fleece weight is only 1 – 2 kilos on typical hill ground, but can increase in weight on a richer greener pasture. Staple length is approximately 10 cm, usually with a wavy crimp.
The fleece colour is mainly white, but one can get various other shades. For example “moorit”, (reddish brown) “shaela” steel grey, and black (dark brown). You can have variations of these shades but they are less common. Shetland sheep are primarily known for their wool, but they also have some other notable features, being very hardy and agile, and able to withstand harsh weather conditions. They can pick their way down dangerous cliff ledges to get 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 of a ewe that had twins at the ripe old age of 21 years and lived a further 6 years.
Another great source of information to me was crofters talking of a historic report on Shetland sheep; I found one in particular to be of a great help. I was attending a talk on the origins of Shetland sheep by Dr Carol Christensen from the Lerwick museum. I was asked a question from the audience on wool quality and made mention of the information on that type of wool given to me by crofters who had knowledge of a detailed report on Shetland sheep in the early 1800s.
Imagine my surprise at the end of the talk when I was handed a photocopy of the report in question by the museum curator, featuring the Shetland sheep and wool section. It was carried out by the board of agriculture based in Edinburgh and published in 1814. The objective of the report appeared to be means of improving agriculture in our Islands and carried out by the reporter John Shirreff.
An extract from the report; “The Shetland sheep is the ovis cauda brevi, common to Norway, Sweden and Russia, this breed or variety resembles the argali, or wild sheep of Siberia, more than any other breed does.” Perhaps these sheep were brought over to Shetland by the Vikings when they settled here?
The reporter, Shirreff, appears to agree with a Mr Culley a previous writer on the subject that there are two distinct breeds of Shetland, the “kindly” fine wool sheep and another of mixed wool quality the fleece although some of it is fine, it is a quality unfit for any general purpose of manufacture.
The “kindly” (fine) wool sheep was of course most valued for its use in high quality knitwear production in the wool industry at that time and fine wool sheep were carefully protected. It was for these economic reasons that Shetland sheep breeders took careful steps to preserve this valued commodity vital to their survival.
My close friend the late “Jeemie” Moncrieff, general manager of Shetland Amenity Trust, presented me with a copy of one of the first recorded testimonies to the skill of the Shetland crofter’s animal husbandry this dates back to 1298 and the” rettarboetr” of the noble lord King Hakon. “Hakon by the grace of God, Duke of Norway, son of King Magnus the crowned, sends God’s greetings and his own to all men in the Faroes who see or hear this document. Our spiritual father and dearest friend, Erlendr, bishop of the Faroes, and Siguror law-man from Shetland, whom we have sent to you have pointed out to us on behalf of the inhabitants of the islands those things which seemed to be deficient in agricultural law. We therefore caused to be drawn up on these four pages the ordinance we have made up in accordance we have made in council with the best men, in accordance with what we trust will be of greatest benefit to the people”. I shall not recite the whole four pages setting out their laws only the start of the section on sheep. “We have heard about the bad custom concerning sheep which has been more prevalent in the country then it ought, and which does not befit us to allow to continue, so that everyone has what is his.”
So even in these early years the skilled practices carried out by Shetland sheep breeders were being recognised and passed on to other neighbouring Island groups in order to help them with their economy which naturally would benefit their lords and masters based in Norway. In present days the Norwegians prove to be a very industrious organised nation and it is little wonder they are the richest country in the world.
This sheep breeding skill carried on into the 20th Century, 1927 to be precise when the Shetland Flock Book Society was set up to preserve the fine wool Shetland sheep and to this day their recommendations are strictly followed. With the clearances of crofters from the native hills and moors by the lairds and replacing the people with the introduction of breeds such as Northumberland mugs and the Black- faced, with probably, a dash of the Cheviot breed, all crossing or “tupping” the native Shetland ewe it became fairly apparent something had to be done and fairly soon or else the original native Shetland would disappear.
The Shetland Flock Book Society formed in 1927 to safeguard the true Shetland sheep still is going strong today. I will talk about this and Shetland wool in more detail in later blogs.