Shetland sheep are typical of Shetland animal breeds - small, hardy, and efficient utility animals. A very old breed, adapted to a harsh northern island climate, Shetland sheep can thrive where other sheep struggle, and they possess a diminutive cuteness that makes them enjoyable to be around.
Hand spinners enjoy the fleece of these small and scrappy animals. They may be any color, and their colors have Viking names. The fleece may be fine or partially coarse, and Shetland sheep may have either a single or double coat.
Ewes are good mothers, and produce small but hardy lambs, with twins not uncommon. While the lambs are small, meat quality is exceptional, and stays tender to a greater age than most sheep.
- Type - meat, fiber
- Size - small
- Production Capacity - solid production of small meat lambs and wool
- Special Features - very small size provides advantages for farms with limited space
- Best for Farms - excellent for backyard or small farms needing dual purpose fiber and meat
- Eggs, Milk, Meat Features - excellent quality meat
- Other Products - some market for colored hides
- Historic or Contemporary Significance - Primitive heritage breed with old genetics, and great utility value
- Housing and Space Requirement - small sheep may be kept in smaller areas, but care must be taken to allow these sheep room to forage so they maintain their strong survival traits
- Regional Adaptations - well adapted to extreme cold, and damp climates
- Feed Requirement - can thrive on rough pasture, and marginal forage
- Other Considerations - A difficult sheep breed to locate, they are costly to acquired, but this breed has the potential to develop a strong following among small farmers and backyard flock keepers.
A NOTE ABOUT SHEEP:
Sheep were not originally on my list for "animals I have to have on my farm", but they have sashayed their way to very near the top for a couple of reasons:
- They are easy keepers except for some parasite issues.
- You can produce excellent meat in the same time it takes to grow out a hog, and the meat is better quality than goat meat.
- They fit in small spaces very well, and are suitable for backyards and microfarms where livestock is allowed.
- Milk sheep produce milk that is high in milk solids and high in butterfat, and which is one of the best substitutes for human breast milk.
- Hair sheep do not require shearing, and many hair sheep breeds produce tender meat no matter the age of the sheep.
- Sheep may be grazed with either cattle, or goats, and also do well with poultry (in fact the poultry help control parasites).
- Many breeds are very prolific, and easy birthers. When chosen for those traits, they require very little in the way of maintenance to produce a fairly significant amount of meat each year, from a few ewes and a ram.
- Sheep can feed on a wide range of natural forage, and can thrive on fodder feeds and garden surplus also.
This puts them right at the top of my Must Haves, because I have also discovered that I really like the meat. Lamb is very versatile, and can be used in a wide variety of dishes that our family routinely prepares.
There are literally hundreds of breeds of sheep, and they tend to be very regional in nature. This means that when you go looking for a specific breed, it may not be readily available in your area, even if it is otherwise a stable and well established breed. You'll find that most local sheep are of a similar breed, or perhaps two breeds, and nobody much questions whether they are a good breed or not, they just acquire sheep and either raise them for wool, meat, or breeding, or they buy the lambs in the spring and butcher them in the fall, much like hogs. As long as they produce, everybody is happy and they do not bother to wonder if there is a breed that might work better.
I have also discovered that the average farming community doesn't know hair sheep from toffee. They are completely ignorant of the fact that sheep exist that do not require shearing. When raising sheep for meat, hair sheep can save you a good deal of money in shearing costs, and save you the bother of having to shear them yourselves when you do not want the wool.
When wool IS a desired crop, the prices are much better for specialty wools - but NOT through the standard wool markets. This means colored wool, fine wool, and ethnic wool types sell very well direct to artists. These sheep are actually worth shearing for the price of the wool, but only if the wool is marketed to specialty markets, and fiber artists, and NOT through mainstream wool wholesalers. A few of the specialty wool sheep also have very fine meat, making them a great dual purpose choice.
Milk sheep have been bred for higher milk production, but a high producing sheep will still produce only half to a third of what a high producing goat will produce within a single lactation. Sheep can produce a good amount of milk at one milking, but they typically do not produce for an extended length of time. Their milk is high in milk solids, making it excellent for cheese, and it has a fairly high butterfat content.
With goats, you can leave the kids on the doe, and milk anyway. Some owners will shut the kids up separately from the doe through the night after 1-2 months of age, and then wean them completely at about 4 months of age (some will earlier). Sheep do not produce as well, and those sheep that are very prolific are the ones that milk the best - but their lambs will also demand more. So keeping lambs on will make it much more difficult to milk ewes. Milk sheep require additional feeding, and if you want to try tandem milking you'll need to increase feed accordingly.
All sheep are NOT created equal, and one of the strengths of the multitude of sheep breeds is that they are often bred for specific climate conditions, and finding a breed that was developed for difficult climates or conditions can make a huge difference in the ability of your sheep to thrive under the conditions which you have available.
It is recommended that you ask about parasite problems in any breed of sheep you intend to acquire, and do some checking on the prevalence of those parasites in your region. Some kinds of parasites are so aggressive they have been known to take down entire flocks of sheep, and fairly rapidly. When prevented, they are controllable, but once well established, are much more difficult to eradicate or maintain damage control. Susceptibility to aggressive parasites varies widely breed to breed as well.