Shetland Sheep, What ‘Benji’ Looked For

Following on from my last blogs on Shetland sheep to Canada and other places with information from P.B.A. Hunter ‘Benjie ‘records, I have taken some more of the most important and interesting points out of his extensive records pertaining to what he looked for in Shetland sheep and their husbandry.

His first contact with R.B.S.T. in 1975 Benjie states that he concentrates on small flocks of Shetland coloured sheep with special emphases on the “Blue Grey” which he said were fast declining. His notes follow on from that of the Shetland Flock book specifications of 1926/7. In his first letter to Colonel Dailley he will endeavour to supply stock which conforms to the Shetland Flock Book standards and makes special mention of the importance of a good conformation, a nice head, nice horns, alert and active appearance, and good wool. He often stresses the importance of good feet, when you take into account that these ewes often scale the sea cliffs to seek out the rich sea grass and also to travel down to the seashore and the ebb tide.

Blue Grey (Sally Wild)
Ebb Tide
Sea Cliff Grazing

 Benjie would put out his Shetland Rams to the Shetland hill ewes about the 10/12th of December and withdraw them again in the New Year. He mentions in one area of hill in North Nesting there were 8 share – holders, in my early years handling their wool clips and judging by the wool quality they would all have been in agreement on the quality of the rams to be released. I remember when the crofters of Cunningsburgh and Fladdabister would have a special gathering of the sheep off the far hills and take them back to their own pastures where they would select their own rams and thus control the quality of the offspring from their ewes, these districts had some of the finest wool clips in Shetland, perhaps North Nesting crofters did the same.

Caaing Hill Shetland Ewes
Crofters at the Sheep Pen

Amongst his records there is a special mention of the dipping of his Shetland sheep in a letter to the Lerwick Police Station notifying them that 21 Shetland Sheep and lambs had been dipped at Dury, Holding – Billister 877-6 on 22.9.79, with UpJohn Flymort dip diluted at 200 gallons of water to 1 gallon of dip. I recall helping with the dipping at Berry Farm and if my memory is correct a Police Constable attended to oversee the dipping. Changed days and with the use of spot on spray dip taking over from the original dipping where the whole animal was submerged through the dipper. It may be coincidental but I am now aware of more ‘keds’, sheep ticks, then in my early years handling wool.

‘Rooing’ and Shearing is mentioned quite a lot often in explanations to questions sent to Benjie by people out-with Shetland. I quote,” ‘Rooing’ plucking the wool of Shetland sheep died out in the early 1920s in Shetland with the introduction of hand shearing. Rooing was a very time consuming task and labour intensive; it also affected the value of the clip as that good, bad, and indifferent wool would be mixed together leading to graders down grading the wool. In earlier years plucking of the finer wool from around the neck and shoulders was done in order to obtain the very finest for hand spinning wool for the fine lace shawl. These would be about 5 feet square and could be drawn through a wedding ring. Pre – hand shearing, ‘Rooing took place in early June for fleecing hogs, wedders, and yield ewes. Milk ewes fleeced by the end of June. He goes on to say, “There are a few show sheep which are “ rooed” in early spring to show them to advantage but I am afraid this is a painstaking and long drawn out business and to say nothing of the discomfort caused to the victim. Today shearing takes place mid to end of July”. On the subject of wool, my first lesson on judging wool was with Benji in the 1970s, one of the main faults he said to look out for was kemp fibre as this fault did not appear in fine Shetland wool and was a sign of cross breeding.

Hand Shearing

Weather, it was very interesting to note in correspondence with Ash Farm on 26th April 1978 in response to a request for placing an order for Shetland sheep the following reply from Benji. “The possibility of meeting your requirements by early June is I am afraid, is rather remote, especially as far as Gimmers are concerned as this year few if any breeders will have many surplus young sheep to dispose of. Incidentally the Secretary for Scotland is at the moment considering the evidence collated and presented by the N.F.U. is at the moment considering the evidence collated and presented by the N.F.U. and it appears farmers/crofters worst hit are to be are to be compensated to some degree for losses sustained and there are several in this category in Shetland some breeders having lost from a third to a half of their total stock”. In further correspondence with Ash Farm 6th December Benji mentions the severe weather earlier in the year. “Incidentally the DOAS paid compensation at the rate of £23.00 per ewe to owners whose flocks were seriously depleted as a result of the spring blizzards. Ten percent of the numbers of ewes claimed were treated as natural wastage and £23.00 paid on the balance which will help those who were worst hit”.

Winter Grazing

There were many more details in Benji’s records which I found most interesting studying them took me on a trip back in time to my days over the hill from North Nesting to Vidlin and my joyous summer holidays as a child. Benjie mentions crofters sadly long gone who I first got to know in my early years at the wool store, people who I knew as customers but also friends and shared many a story and laugh with them through the decades. As I began writing from his records I felt it necessary to travel again to North Nesting and explore the surrounding hills to renew and appreciate what was his domain. Catherine and I visited the settlement of Billister and what had been Benji’s croft, however I needed to have a better understanding of the ‘scattald’, (common grazing) home to Benji’s sheep. Approaching the Billister hill from the south east we came across a place of great interest to us, Stavaness, known locally for supplying granite stone to build the lairds house on the nearby island of Whalsay in the 19th century. Travel west from the Stavaness beach you come to the Billister hill fence, sadly there were few sheep to see. Still it gave me a better understanding of the type of hill pasture used by Benji in times gone by.

Stavaness Beach, Quarry Workers Former Home
Billister Ayre

It has been a great honour and privilege to share with you some of Benji’s writings, a man held in high regard amongst Shetland crofters and people further afield and someone I had the good fortune to know and also learn from him. I now can say I have a direct link to Benji through Monarch of Cockairney, Kinross and two ewe lambs we bought for our grand-son, that have a direct pedigree back to a ram called Island Benji which was exported to the U.K. mainland in the 1980s, going by its name I would presume of Benji stock, it is good to say the blood line has been brought back home to our native island shores.

Monarch and The Lambs

I would like to thank Peter Hunter and his family for all the information and allowing me to have access to the records and images from one of Shetland’s revered agricultural ambassadors who brought Shetland sheep to far flung shores and brought pleasure to countless people, P.B.A. Hunter ‘ Benji’.

‘Benji’ on his Croft at Billister Nesting

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