Over the years in my job involving wool at Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers, I have met Shetland Sheep Breeders from the U.S. and Canada also I have received samples of their fleece some of which were quite impressive. Although I had heard stories of how Shetland Sheep had first arrived in North America, details were very vague. I can recall it was a Colonel but I had forgotten his name. I could remember who had shipped the sheep, the late P.B.A.Hunter better known locally as “ Benjie”, a renowned breeder of Shetland sheep on his croft at Billister North Nesting, also a champion sheep dog trialist and prominent wool judge. “Benjie” first instructed me on how to judge wool in the 1970s; I learned a great deal from him about sheep & wool. I also graded and purchased his wool clip which was of a very high quality especially his natural colours.
I had the good fortune to meet his son Peter Hunter fairly recently, the subject of sheep and wool came up and Peter told me that a Shetland sheep breeder in the U.S. had contacted him in February this year and sent images of their Shetland sheep which were the offspring of stock shipped to Canada, by his father ‘Benjie’. I explained to Peter my interest in how this project had come about and over the decades working with wool people had often brought up the subject of how did Shetland sheep end up in North America. Peter then very graciously granted me access to ‘Benjie’s’ records and for that I am greatly honoured and privileged. I would also thank him for allowing the use of some of his images and documents in my blog series.
In order to understand how this event came about we must start at the beginning. ‘ P.B.A.Hunter was brought up on a croft at Tararet, Laxo, Vidlin and was involved in crofting from an early age and later on in life was general manager of an agricultural related business the ‘Shetland Limes’ which sold and purchased all types of agricultural products. He was highly respected throughout Shetland and out with Shetland, a total gentleman it was a privilege to have known him and benefit from his experience in Shetland wool. I will refer to him as ‘Benjie ‘as he was best known by agricultural related people. A very active member of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which according to his records the point of contact at that time, was based at Ash Farm Iddelsleigh Devon?
According to ‘Benjie’s records the first contact he had with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust regrading supplying the Trust with sheep was in 1975, although there is a reference to supplying a Miss Fitzpatrick with Moorit sheep in 1974. Peter Hunter told me that his father had sent Moorit ewes to the French Alps; there is no record of a date for that event so far. As the R.B.S.T. was founded in 1973 it is possible the trust had been advised of ‘Benjie’s ability in supplying quality native Shetland sheep.
I will use ‘Benjie’s’ original text to describe what he looked for in the stock shipped to the Rare Breeds Trust in Devon on the 7th October 1975.
“ For several years I have endeavoured to establish small flocks of Shetland coloured sheep with special emphasis on the “ blue grey” Shetland type which a few years ago were fast declining in numbers. A few breeders have done likewise and I would estimate that there is now a few hundred of this type in Shetland.
The original characteristics have been well maintained except perhaps in some cases for the quality of wool which is not near so uniform as might be desired but endeavours are being made to find rams from the small flocks available which have quality wool as well as the original shade.
Moorit (dark brown) sheep are not so scarce and it is possible to select rams which have quality wool and display all the native characteristics. Black and coloured (black & white, moorit and white) sheep are not so plentiful but I have a few of each colour”.
On the 7th October Benjie advises his Rare Breeds contact that he is in a position to offer ex Lerwick only limited numbers of various colours details as follows :-
12 Shetland Moorit ewe lambs, 4 young Moorit ewes, 2 Moorit Gimmers ( 1 shear), 1 Moorit Ram ( 1 shear), 1 Black Ram ( 1 shear), 1 Moorit Ram lamb, 2 young Black Ewes, 1 Ram, light fawn, 1 shear, 1 Ram Blue / Grey, 1 shear, 1 coloured ( Moorit & White Ewe.
On the 14th November the Rare Breeds Trust replied, “You will be happy to know the sheep you sent us have settled very nicely.
We are very pleased with their aspect, and in retrospect cannot understand why we waited so long to acquire a meaningful selection of this fascinating breed.
On the 18th April 1978 the Rare Breeds Trust commented, “Since our last correspondence, we have firmly established our hill property in the north of England, and are now in a position to expand and re-allocate our flocks of sheep. It is our intention to increase the percentage thereof devoted to Shetland, having been quite pleased with their performance over the last two and a half years, and of their ability to thrive in the various surroundings in which we farm”.
The Rare Breeds Trust certainly were pleased as they asked about the feasibility of acquiring approximately 200 1977 born yearlings later this spring!
My next blog will be the first contact from the Colonel in Canada and the story as it is told in Benjie’s words and records. Again I am very privileged and grateful to Peter Hunter for granting me access and his permission to use his father’s testimony and images in my blog. I am sure there are Shetland sheep breeders around the world who will want to know about the contribution made by P.B.A.Hunter in safeguarding the native Shetland sheep.