Keeping Shetland Sheep

Small, hardy, and colorful, Shetland sheep are a natural choice for shepherds and fiber artists alike.

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by Adobestock/dianamower
Shetland sheep can be horned or polled; typically, rams have horns and ewes do not.

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When I was growing up, my family had a variety of livestock, including Angus beef cattle, chickens of all kinds, horses, and Corriedale sheep. I would show a few of the sheep each year at the county fair when I was in 4-H, but my mother spun and knitted the wool. To her credit, she tried to teach me to knit and crochet several times. I learned to crochet but never caught on to knitting. Fiber arts just weren’t on my radar in my younger years.

When my husband and I eventually moved back to the family farm, the sheep had been sold off, but the beef cattle and a few horses were still around. We added chickens but, until I finally learned how to knit, we didn’t think to add sheep. I started knitting with commercial yarn, and then local, hand-dyed yarns, and then I learned to spin so I could make my own yarn. Meanwhile, we sold the beef cattle and ended up with plenty of pasture growing grass. The next logical step was to get sheep, shear them, and transform the fleece into yarn. It seemed like a great idea at the time. How hard could sheep farming be?

My first choice was Corriedale, the sheep breed I thought I knew. I remembered them as relatively docile, good on grass, able to produce good wool, and medium-sized. Guided by my memories, I went to a local shepherd who raises champion-caliber Corriedales, bought a few ewe lambs and an unrelated ram lamb, and was on my way. I then discovered that a lot had changed in the world of Corriedales since the 1980s.

These sheep were docile and friendly and, as time passed, undoubtedly growing good wool. But they kept growing and growing. Knowing I would be the one shearing these sheep, I was a bit nervous that they’d prove to be more than I could handle on my own. They were lovely animals, but I needed sheep that were like the Corriedales I remembered, and I went back to the internet to restart my search.  My searches kept turning up Shetlands as thrifty sheep that mature at 125 pounds for rams and 100 pounds for ewes, with good mothering abilities. That they come in 11 colors sealed the deal. I needed to find some of these little guys.

A search on the North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association (NASSA) website showed a breeder less than 20 miles away from me. I contacted her and made an appointment to visit her farm, and we talked for a good long time about Shetlands. After our conversation, I realized I should’ve gone with Shetlands in the first place, and I returned a few days later to haul two ewes and a ram home. I haven’t second-guessed my decision since. These are the right sheep for me!

Sheep Standards

Brown Shetland sheep staring into the distance

Shetland sheep hail from the Shetland Islands, a group of about 100 islands north of Scotland. Sixteen of the isalnds are inhabited, and the Shetland Sheep Society believes the breed descends from the Soay sheep kept by Neolithic farmers in Britain. There are currently three accepted fleece types: “kindly,” or next-to-skin soft; “longish and wavy,” which is longer and may be coarser; and “beaver” or “double-coated,” which have a softer undercoat and a coarser, longer outer coat. The Shetland Flock Book Society was formed in 1927 and codified breed standards for the physical appearance of the sheep, the look and texture of the wool, and wool colors. This 1927 breed standard is still used today to preserve the characteristics of the breed.

It’s relatively easy to find a Shetland breeder in the United States. The two leading U.S.-based Shetland organizations, NASSA and the Fine Fleece Shetland Sheep Association (FFSSA), maintain lists of registered breeders. NASSA accepts all purebred Shetland sheep for registration, and FFSSA requires yearly micron testing for fleeces. A breeder qualifies for FFSSA membership and can use the “Traditional 1927” logo on their products if their micron test results are fine or superfine. Both organizations use the 11 wool colors and various markings set by the Shetland Flock Book Society. I’m a member of NASSA and several Facebook groups for Shetland sheep owners, and I’ve found that the world of Shetland breeders and owners is filled with people from both organizations willing to share their knowledge with newcomers. There has always been someone I can turn to when I need advice, especially when determining my sheep’s colors and markings for association registration. When you’re working with a new vocabulary that contains words for colors and patterns like “flecket,” “katmoget,” “smirslet,” and “Agouti gray,” having these mentors can save hours of frustration.

Triplets, newborn Shetland Lambs

When I first got Shetlands, I was surprised to learn that their fleece can change color. The first year we had lambs, a pretty little tricolor ewe was born, and I was so excited to see her brown, cream, and black curls! I knew that Shetlands could be spotted and thought I had a multicolored fleece on the way. Alas, after some conversations with more experienced Shetland owners, I discovered that her fleece would change to a creamy white as she matured. Learning this set me on the path to investigating the genetics behind Shetland coloring and patterns. Lambs can be born with black fleece that turns gray, “calico” fleece that becomes cream-colored, and dark brown fleece that lightens to the color of honey. It depends on the parents’ genetics, and breeding a gray ewe to a gray ram may not get you a gray lamb!

Several books and resources discuss the genetics of Shetlands and other naturally colored sheep. I recommend Coloured Sheep: A Primer on Sheep Colour Genetics by Irina Böhme. She presents an understandable introduction to the genetics of naturally colored sheep, and includes a card game to help readers discover all the variety in these sheep, along with the rules of the genetic “game” that happens when you put a ram and a ewe together. I’ve read through this book multiple times and glean something new each time.

Hardy Herd

Raising sheep that would thrive on grass was nonnegotiable. We had raised 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished beef cattle before, and I wanted to continue that method with sheep, because I already had the pastures available. While the sheep do love sweet feed as an occasional treat or when I need to bribe them, Shetlands do well on grass and hay with free-choice minerals, kelp, and baking soda. We use a pasture rotation system and have few parasite issues. I isolate and treat any sheep with signs of a parasite overload.

sheep in green pasture

I’ve learned to do a lot of veterinary care on my own, as several farm stores nearby carry medications, and the large-animal vet who can provide prescription medications is over an hour away and not always available. Learning how to properly care for animals in distress has made me a better shepherd and allowed me to prevent many issues, because I know how the sheep act when ill. Shetland sheep groups on Facebook have also been a source of information and advice. I decided to keep only as many animals as I could effectively care for by myself, so there’s less chance of me missing early warning signs. When I’ve missed the signs of a sick animal, it’s been because I wasn’t paying close enough attention.

These hardy sheep have shelters available in every pasture but rarely use them. Our livestock guardian dogs and goats take shelter much more than the sheep do. In winter, they have access to our large barn, which is also the hay-feeding location. They’re on pasture for the rest of the year. They tend to only use their shelters in the most blustery weather. Rain or shine, they’re either out in the middle of the field or tucked under the trees along the fence line. Even our oldest boy, Marcus, who is pushing 15 years old, prefers laying out in the grass to being in a shelter.

When I first got the Shetlands, I was concerned to find them out in the snow or standing around in the pouring rain, but I quickly discovered that trying to force them into the barn was a losing proposition…–…they would seek shelter when they needed it and not before.

Plan for Shearing

brown wool

Depending on your location, shearing season can be from February to June. I don’t usually shear before the end of April, because early spring in southwest Ohio can still be crisp and frosty. Once the weather looks like it will stay warmer, I gather my equipment: shearing stand, halter and lead ropes, hoof trimmer, hand shears, syringes, CD/T (Clostridium perfringens types C and D and tetanus) booster, and totes for the wool. I occasionally use electric clippers, but I prefer the quiet of hand shears. I tried shearing New Zealand style, where the sheep is set on its rump and the shearer bends over it to work, but my back didn’t like that method at all. Neither did my sheep!

Instead, I purchased a sheep stand with a small bottle jack attached to it. I can move the stand (and the sheep) up and down as I work; it’s better for my back and keeps the sheep calmer. I still need to do some contortions to reach certain areas, and I sometimes set the sheep on their rumps to shear their belly wool, but this method has worked well for me. I’m not a fast shearer, so the comfort of the sheep and my own comfort are essential. While they’re on the shearing stand, I trim their hooves and give them their yearly CD/T booster shot. Because shearing is such a physical task, investing in good equipment will make the job a less painful chore. If you’re unable to do the shearing yourself, ask the person you buy your sheep from or another sheep owner in the area for recommendations. You can also search online for shearers in your state. Schedules fill quickly, and many shearers work full-time jobs in addition to shearing, so don’t wait until March to call for an appointment in April.

fresh shorn sheep

After each sheep is sheared, I spread out each fleece on a table and remove (or “skirt”) the dirty and stained bits, the belly wool, and any wool that’s especially messy with vegetable matter (VM). Wool is a renewable resource, so I keep only the best for spinning. The acceptable wool goes into a separate pile to make dryer balls after I comb and brush out the VM. The filthy wool becomes mulch around my plants and flowers.

I then bag up the fleeces and make an appointment with my local fiber-processing mill, which washes the raw fleece and turns it into roving that’s ready for me to spin into yarn. I could process the wool at home, but it’s time-consuming and requires a lot of water, so I’m happy to support the mill. Many factors go into fiber mill wait times, so contact your local mill for a time estimate before you send your wool to them. Every mill I’ve worked with has a website with the services they provide, often ranging from a simple fiber wash to processing roving, spinning yarn, and even producing finished products, as well as a pricing list for those services. You may have a fiber mill within driving distance, or you may need to ship your raw, skirted wool to a mill that’s farther away. Most mills charge for washing and processing by the incoming weight of the raw wool and may charge extra if they have to re-skirt the fleeces. Well-skirted fleeces can be stored for a long time, so it’s not imperative to get them cleaned right away. If I’ll be vending at any fiber festivals during the year, I keep the fleeces raw and then send any unsold fleeces to the mill for processing after show season ends.

wool in laundry baskets

From Fiber to Final Product

Spinning Shetland wool is a pleasure. When I started spinning, I worked with Merino wool, which I found slippery and difficult to control, although it made a soft and squishy yarn. As mentioned in “Sheep Standards,” Shetland fleeces that meet the requirements for Traditional 1927 designation are soft and an excellent choice for items that are worn next to the skin. I enjoy working with these fine fleeces, but I also enjoy the coarser wool that may be less suited for next-to-skin items. I’ve knitted and woven hats, gloves, and scarves from both “kindly” and “longish and wavy” fleeces. Both types of fleece produce beautiful and durable items. I prefer soft fleeces with a bit of “tooth” to them, meaning they’re more textured and so less slippery to spin into yarn and knit or weave. These fleeces produce strong yarns with a good amount of bounce and squish.

Felting is another way to enjoy and work with Shetland wool. I’m not an experienced felter, but the small things I’ve needle-felted and wet-felted have turned out well. I regularly felt dryer balls from the wool that isn’t quite up to my standards for spinning. I comb out the VM, pull the wool into long strips, and wind it into a ball. After winding each strip, I use felting needles to jab away until the wool is “stuck” together, and then wind on the next strip of wool. When the ball is around 2 ounces, I give it a good stabbing all over with the felting needles, and then put it into a knee-high stocking. I can fit four balls into one stocking, with a knot tied in between each ball. I use the washer to wet-felt the ball into a solid object and finish the process with the dryer. I’ve also accidentally felted knitted items, such as a hand-knitted Shetland wool hat that shrunk just enough in the wash that I couldn’t wear it. I gifted it to a friend’s young daughter, who absolutely loves it. I’ve become much more careful about keeping track of my woolen items and checking all pockets before washing anything.

shawl on model

Thrifty, amiable, motherly, and colorful, Shetlands have proved to be the right choice of sheep for my farm and my needs as a shepherd and fiber artist. I can take care of them and shear them on my own, and with proper care, they provide an abundance of beautiful wool every year.


Shetland Sheep Colors

The 11 registrable colors of Shetland sheep range from white to black and light to dark brown. In addition, there are 13 possible color patterns, making for a veritable rainbow of possibilities. The colors, from lightest to darkest, are:

  • White
  • Light gray
  • Musket, a light grayish-brown
  • Fawn
  • Mioget, a light moorit, or yellowish-brown
  • Gray
  • Moorit, any brown shade between fawn and dark reddish-brown
  • Emsket, a dusky bluish-gray
  • Dark brown
  • Shaela, a dark steely gray
  • Black

Keba Hitzeman is a farmer and fiber artist living with her husband on about 200 acres in southwest Ohio, where they raise chickens, goats, and Shetland sheep, along with a few dogs and cats. The farm is called Innisfree on the Stillwater and includes several areas that are intentionally planted with native flowers and trees, as well as pastures for rotational grazing.

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