This time last year, after months of research and planning, we decided to get a small flock of sheep to live here on the smallholding. We were keen to get heritage, multi-purpose sheep, who could offer us the ability to produce excellent dairy, meat and wool. We also wanted a flock that would be well suited to life on a smallholding and easy to look after. After careful consideration (and a close contest with Icelandic sheep), we settled on Shetland sheep, who seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
Once we had made our decision, we contacted the Shetland Sheep Society, who very helpfully and serendipitously put us in touch with a lovely lady who needed to find a new home for her three Shetland ewes and one Shetland wether (a castrated male). She didn’t want any payment, just a good home to send them to. After a few friendly email exchanges and phone calls, plus a quick visit to meet the sheep, we happily agreed to take them on. Collecting the sheep proved trickier than expected as: we don’t own a trailer (mainly because they are incredibly expensive, even if bought second hand); we couldn’t find an unbraked trailer available to rent anywhere; and neither of us have a driving license that includes the option to drive a braked trailer (nor are we inclined to pay for lessons and a test to change this). In the end we rented a rather rickety, wooden, braked trailer and enlisted the kind help of a fully-licensed family member to drive it.
In order to make sure the sheep’s transition to their new home was a stress-free as possible, their owner suggested that we collected them in the early evening when they would be calmest. When we arrived at their paddock, she had already gently guided them into a small gated area. All we had to do was back the trailer up to them (a surprisingly challenging task), drop the ramp, and open the gate. With some encouraging Mary Poppins-esque words from their owner “in you go then – spit spot” they toddled straight in. The ride home along the country roads was unavoidably a little bumpy, but luckily the sheep seemed unfazed by the journey. As soon as we got home, they merrily trotted out of the trailer and began eating the paddock grass.
Nearly a year has passed and the sheep have been a pleasure to keep so far. For us, as brand new sheep keepers, they have been the perfect introduction to shepherding. They have also ticked all of the boxes on our small-scale sheep keeping wishlist. Here’s why:
Hardiness: Shetlands are a primitive breed of sheep from the Shetland Islands. The sometimes extreme weather conditions and rough grazing on Shetland, has resulted in the breed being very hardy. They can be kept outside year round, without the need for winter housing. Our smallholding is very small indeed (just over 1.5 acres) and we don’t currently have any outbuildings (aside from the goose shed, and a small garage that is full to the brim) so this is a big advantage of the breed for us. That said, there is no doubt that the sheep appreciate the option to go in a sheltered area when the weather is bad. We have a small copse (a mix of trees, shrubs and brambles) in the sheep paddock, which provides them with good protection from the elements.
Size: Shetlands are a relatively small breed of sheep. This means it is possible to comfortably keep a slightly higher number of them per acre than other breeds. We divide up the space that we have and rotate the sheep around it by moving them every 4-6 weeks. This gives the ground adequate rest, prevents parasite build up, and makes things much more interesting for the sheep, who love exploring new areas. Theoretically the little sheep are also less physically demanding to handle (but they are very strong and this can still be a challenge at times; rugby skills can come in handy here).
Health: Shetlands are generally very resistant to disease, which is great as our preference is always to raise animals organically, using medication only if needed and not as routine. Two of the most common complaints that shepherds have to deal with are fly strike and foot problems. Luckily, Shetlands have neat, short tails, which make them less susceptible to fly strike (we’ve not had a problem with this at all), and their sturdy feet (historically used to rough terrain) are less sensitive to foot troubles. Given the space and freedom to roam, the sheep also self-medicate by seeking out plants that contain the minerals and properties they need to keep themselves healthy. In the last year, we have only experienced a few very minor health issues with the flock: our wether somehow cracked one of his tiny horns – it wasn’t serious and healed quickly on its own without us having to do anything, although we did learn that if the bleeding had been worse, we could have stopped it by covering the wound with either clean cobwebs (!) or a dusting of cornflour); a few of the sheep have had a tick latch on to them while they’ve been exploring the copse, but these have been easily spotted and removed swiftly; and occasionally one of the sheep has gotten some soil or a tiny pebble stuck in one of their hoofs, which gives them a bit of a limp for a day or two before they sort out the issue for themselves and are right as rain again. If we have to call a vet out to visit any one of our sheep, the eye watering charges will be more than the sheep is worth, so we hope that the hardy Shetlands will continue to minimise our chances of needing to ask for veterinary intervention (so far, so good).
Thriftiness and Diet: Shetlands are thrifty sheep who are happy to browse their surroundings for a wide variety of plants and trees to eat in addition to grazing the grass. This means that they not only help our geese to keep the grass in check, but are also able to control the growth of brambles, nettles and other weeds by munching the baby plants before they can establish themselves. It does, however, mean that we have had to put a few tree protectors up, to stop the sheep nibbling the bark and leaves. Generally speaking, the sheep shouldn’t need supplementary feed at all. However, as we don’t have huge amounts of land, we gave ours a small amount of hay over the winter (ten small bales in total). We also have a bin of organic feed, which the sheep don’t need, but we give it to them as an occasional treat to keep them trained to follow us (rotating them to graze fresh areas of the smallholding would be chaotic if we didn’t do this). We also liven up their diet with additional natural fodder that we collect from around the smallholding. For most of the year there is a wide choice of alder, beech, willow, ash, hornbeam branches; in autumn there are leftover apples; and, in winter, soft holly leaves, ivy (berries removed), fruit tree prunings, and hedgerow cuttings. Our sheep adore these leafy offerings.
Wool: The wool of Shetland sheep is highly prized. It is, perhaps most famously, used to make Fair Isle sweaters. Shetlands can be any one of eleven colours (wonderful shades, of whites, browns, greys and black), and within the colours are an array of thirty different markings. Our little flock are made up of three grey katmogets and one fawn katmoget. Katmoget is the type of wool marking – ours have dark (almost black) wool on their legs and tummies and much lighter wool everywhere else. The natural colours of Shetland wool can be really interesting on their own, so there’s no need to dye the fibres. The Shetland Sheep Wool Company sell a range of natural yarn, which shows some of the lovely colours it is possible to get from Shetlands). We would love to be able to card, spin and knit our own wool, and have visions of creating our own, no doubt slightly wonky, jumpers. An added bonus of some Shetlands is that the sheep naturally shed (roo) their fleeces in spring, meaning it isn’t necessary to shear them at all. Unfortunately our little flock are only partially committed to rooing, and shed some, but not all of their fleece, so we do have to get them sheared.
Dairy: We haven’t come across a great deal of information about Shetlands being kept for milk, but as a primitive, multi-purpose breed, we assume that they could be. They are known for being quite milky sheep, which helps them to care easily for their lambs, and theoretically means they could be used for dairy. And milkiness is a trait that could be factored into breeding the sheep if we wanted to consider that option at some point in the future. When we collected our sheep, their old owner mentioned that the eldest ewe was extremely milky, so we have high hopes for her. We would very much like to make our own sheep’s milk cheese (particularly curd, feta and halloumi), and yoghurt, as well as make use of the raw milk as it is in the kitchen. This is something we hope to explore more in the coming years.
Lambing: Shetland sheep are known to be good mothers and easy lambers. They can lamb outside with little or no intervention. If we borrow a ram from another local Shetland sheep breeder, we would have the option to rear some additional sheep for selling on or for meat. Again this is something we hope to look into more in the future.
Meat: Shetland sheep have a high muscle to bone ratio, so each one produces a good amount of meat even though the animals are smaller than other breeds. Shetlands are slower to grow than commercial breeds, and the meat is known to be lean and deeply flavoursome. The lamb and hogget both have a reputation for being absolutely delicious, but it is Shetland mutton that is perhaps the most highly valued. For various reasons we eat very little meat these days, but if we can produce our own slow grown mutton from a sheep that has had a long, happy and healthy life, we would be very happy to introduce it to our diet.
Temperament: Shetlands (indeed many sheep) can have a reputation for being skittish and jumpy, but because ours have been reared on a small scale, kept in a tiny flock, and are used to human company, they are extremely friendly. They come running over to the gate to greet us; baa to get our attention if we are elsewhere on the smallholding; happily wag their tails if we give them a scratch on just the right spot of their fleece; and follow us around the paddock in the hope we might pick them a handful of blackberries, an apple, or a branch of dogwood leaves to munch. The fact that they are so good natured, means we can easily check them over for things like signs of fly strike, or ticks, without flustering them at all; and if we do need to handle them, they are easier to catch.
No doubt there will be lots more ovine stories and experiences to come and we’ll look forward to sharing more about the sheep soon.