Shetland sheep are noted for producing the finest wool of all the native sheep breeds which has always been viewed as a valued commodity. Occurring in 11 main whole colours with many shades and variants in between and 30 recognised markings. By selecting from these fleeces a wide range of naturally coloured yarn can be spun making it the ideal choice for Fairisle knitwear and fine lace. It also felts well using either the dry or wet methods. Given their size they generally only produce a fleece of between 1–1 ½ kg. of their wonderful wool with a staple length of 5 – 12cm and a Bradford Count of 50 – 60.
In 1200 AD Northern Short-tailed sheep were continuing to develop into distinct breeds in isolated locations and people on Shetland may have been selecting for soft, fine wool from early on in this period, although during the eighteenth century crossbreeding and changes in husbandry motivated by meat production had a negative impact on the breed. The Shetland Flock Book Society was formed in 1926, among it’s objects being to retain the traditional quality of the wool and to maintain a hardy, healthy, robust stock and in 1985 the Shetland Sheep Breeders Group was formed to help breeders outside the Shetland Islands to maintain flocks conforming to the 1927 Breed Standard. The group then became responsible for registering Shetland Sheep on the mainland. The SSBG was initially a breeders group within the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, but since 1991 it has become a fully independent body. In October 2002 the SSBG changed its name to the Shetland Sheep Society.
The Shetland is the smallest of the British breeds with the ewe usually hornless and the ram bearing nicely rounded horns. Ewes weigh on average 35kg and a mature ram roughly 45kg. They are hardy and agile, able to withstand harsh weather conditions and their size enables them to find shelter in exposed locations.
In 1977 the Rare Breed Survival Trust classified Shetland sheep as Category 3 (endangered). However, by 1985, the popularity of the breed, particularly with producers interested in the range of colours and the fineness of the wool, was such that they were re-classified as Category 5 (above numerical guidelines). In the 1990s the classification of the breed was revised to a Minority Breed and in 2002 Shetland sheep were, at last, removed from the RBST list of supported breeds.
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