Being absolutely new to farming/livestock/etc, I wanted my first breed of sheep to be a hardy breed that I could handle all by myself, a breed that would provide me with lots of value while not requiring a lot of my time and dedication. Shetland Sheep fill all of these requirements and more.
If, like me, you are new to sheep, let me give you a quick rundown of them. As with all livestock there are many different breeds of sheep, each with characteristics that tailor them to a certain purpose or environment. Some sheep are raised for meat, some for their fleece, some for milk, and some for skins. Some breeds thrive on sparse pasture and produce only a few lambs each year, others produce many lambs and are fertile year round. Sheep are ovines, as are cows, and eat pretty much the same things: pasture, grain, various fruits and veggies.
The first thing that drew me to Shetland sheep was their fleece. It is, in one word, legendary. They produce one of the softest fleeces you can find on a sheep, in more than 11 colors ranging from white through black and brown. Yarn made with it is most certainly soft enough to wear directly on your skin. Shetland fleece is also ideal for spinning into laceweight, from which you can make a glorious shawl thin enough to completely pass through a wedding ring. As a handspinner, fleece is my primary reason for having sheep (of course now that I’m a shepherd, having sheep is a reason in and of itself). That said, they also make for good eating. And there’s this neat little breeding program (mulesheep) that results in lambs which grow incredibly rapidly on grass and milk alone, ideal for raising for meat.
Shetlands also have a substantial benefit in their husbandry. They are a “hill” breed, which is in contrast to “land” breeds such as Merino or Rideau-Arcott. Hill breeds produce fewer lambs per year but they require no help with birthing or raising the lambs. Many breeds are seasonal breeders, the ewes don’t go into estrus until the fall time, guaranteeing you won’t have dead-of-winter lambs. Here in Canada that is a valued asset. Hill breeds also do well on rougher or leaner pasture, which will help in my quest to regain control over the wilderness.
Of course once you get to know the breed, you start valuing their more detailed traits: they are incredibly friendly and wag their tails when you pet them, they come in so many patterns and colors unlike many modern day “white is white” sheep, their small size is handy for loading into the back of a pickup truck by yourself, the variety in their genetics allows for really interesting expressions. Most importantly to me, the lambs are absolutely adorable and snuggletastic.
As someone who values self-sustainability, I have yet to find a better breed that fits in with my lifestyle and farm situation. I also value helping endangered livestock, and while Shetlands are thankfully no longer on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust list, it still fills me with pride to raise an animal that has been shunned by industrial farming. Having a completely problem-free first lambing season was also well appreciated. My eyes have been opened to the amazing value of sheep in the overall circle of life, and providing me with food and clothing is certainly a fair tradeoff to being given a fun and healthy life free of problems and worries. If you are thinking of adding sheep to your farm, why not give Shetlands a look?