Shetland Sheep: Rich in History, Rich in Textiles

Shetland Sheep: Rich in History, Rich in Textiles! Our farm mission is to enjoy and promote the wonderful diversity of the Shetland breed by fully utilizing to the best of our ability all they have to offer historically. We believe the best preservation and management of this breed includes it's full spectrum of history. We encourage old and new shepherds alike to join in the fun by engaging in fiber arts, especially spinning and knitting, as this breed is so intimately linked with those aspects of the arts.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Miniature Shetlands?

As I cruised around the Country Store at the festival last weekend, I often got distracted by something...usually yarn or fiber. Stopping to touch everything and marvel at the things sheep can produce, and the amazing things people do with raw materials, I often find myself in conversation with someone I've never met. Having a streak of my father in me, talking to strangers comes extremely easy, and it's certainly not hard with sheep people! Sheepy people tend to be very friendly and kind. So it's no surprise that I often end up talking to people who know nothing about Shetland sheep.

I had stopped to admire this lovely, lovely, lovely shawl with a ruffled edge that REALLY caught my attention, when quickly, I found myself talking to a "stranger". We laughed, shared, and giggled, even though neither of us had really met. When she asked me what kind of sheep I have, I told her Shetlands. I always love waiting for the response I get when I tell people I have Shetlands. Sometimes, I can visibly see respect drop with a thud (old farmers). Other times, people light up like a lightbulb (young city people). But usually, I get a washover of no recognition. This time, things lit up! This person I was talking to had heard there were "mini Shetlands" on the grounds this year! WHAT were THEY good for, she mused?? Mini Shetlands? Uh oh.

There is no such thing as miniature Shetlands. Yes, Shetlands are smaller than most breeds, but they are not miniature! Mature ewes need to be 75-100 pounds and rams up to 125 pounds. A good Shetland's back should be higher than an adult human's knees. A mature ewe can be picked up by a strong adult, but it should be a challenge. I can pick up my ewes on days I eat my vegetables. When I'm tired, I can't. (How's that for technical! :)

Turns out, I knew exactly what my new friend was talking about. On Friday night, I had the chance to look at a bunch of Shetland sheep that had arrived early. FUN!!!!! It is always fun to talk with Shetland Shepherds, and look at sheep! I have to admit I was stunned by the size differences in the whole group. I can see why it would be extremely confusing to someone who doesn't know the breed! On one end of the spectrum, there were mature ewes that had lambed that looked to be around 40 pounds, stood lower than my knees, and were the size of my current lamb crop...yes, mature ewes with a lamb. I immediately thought of the 1927 Breed Standard that lists undersized as a disqualification at the bottom of the document. Undersized Shetlands are to be disqualified. Clearly, this was an example of that, no matter how the fleece is. These animals should not be registered, nor promoted as breeding stock. Sadly, they are both. Sadly, there were many of them in pens at the festival, almost all from the same farm!

Then on the other end of the spectrum were sheep that were hardly recognizable! They were huge for Shetlands! I'm not sure what's going on there, either. While large sheep are not listed as a disqualification, I really am confused as to how such large sheep fit into the breed, technically. These large sheep's backs stood at my hip (I'm of average height). Confusion! In all the farms I've visited, I've not seen either end of this spectrum anywhere. Only here at the show do I see such extremes in size. Funnier still, both breeders insist their sheep are pure and correct, insist with passion!

Later, on the ride home, I was thinking about the size differences. So if a 40-ish pound mature ewe with a lamb at her side is "right", then what would be "undersized"? Those small sheep were shorter than my Shetland Sheep Dog! In the photos I've seen dating to the early 1900's, the dogs were smaller than the sheep, not the other way around!! The sheep laying over the laps of the women rooing them covered all of their laps, and lots of ground around them (not including the rooed fleece, which was typically piled up next to the person rooing). These tiny sheep couldn't do that, even with a small person! And having now visited numerous Shetland sheep farms, I have NOT seen such small sheep ANYWHERE, except amongst the small group of breeders touting them as correct. Lastly, if such tiny sheep were "correct", then why don't the early breeders/owners of Shetlands in our country agree that they are correct? One early breeder told me she thinks they are undernourished, for she has NEVER had sheep so small, and she is one of the first to have this breed in the US. I've now called many early breeders. None agree the breed is that small. So I believe, with validity, that my instincts are right. Something is wrong here, and those sheep should be politely placed last in the class. They are undersized, and to be disqualified from breeding and registering.

On Sunday, as we meandered around the curves and bends in the road that annoyed us on the way down, we talked about our own flock. We got into the sheep very slowly. We read, visited farms, and learned as much as we possibly could. We recognized early on the tension at our local show, and the arguing among groups. This seems to be Shetland history here in the midwest! But now past the beginnings of building a flock, we can look back with pride. We found the pitfalls, and avoided them! Whew!!! I'm sure that even the tiniest Shetland sheep would warm my heart over, and I know I'd feel sick to have fallen in love with and cared for sheep that were not right for the breed. It would make me feel sick to have to change what I initially invested in. It would have especially made me feel sick to know I trusted a breeding farm, only to find out later we were mislead for selfish reasons. We are both very thankful we took our time and got it right! Our sheep are not tiny, nor are they large. They are just right. They match what all the early breeders described. They match the size proportions I see in the photos taken nearly 100 years ago in the Shetland archives. For this, I am very thankful, and I'm confident when I sell my yarns that I'm selling genuine Shetland fiber.

It all left me pondering a huge question. The people who are left at our local show have the sheep that look the most off to me. The show is where I see the most variances. The show is the only place I see tiny sheep, or super huge sheep. The show is where I see super short, blocky fleeces. The show is where I see huge, huge bone. The show is where I see the worst conformation, and believe it or not, the most fatal horns. When I go out to little farms all around my region, I don't see these things. I see refined bone, drapey fine fleeces of outstanding softness and color, I see bright eyes twinkling back at me. I don't see tiny or huge. Hummmmmm..............the show is where I'm supposed to see the best, but instead, I'm seeing sheep that are all over the place in bone, fleece, size, expression, and conformation. I've come to learn that if you want to train your eye on what a good shetland is, go to the show! You'll see a lot of what a good shetland isn't!

So back to my new friend in the Country Store! I explained the Breed Standard, and what a good Shetland looks like. She didn't want miniature of anything, and mentioned miniature cows as an example. I assured her that while some people like the small sheep, that they are not normal for the breed. The beauty of it all is anyone can breed for what they really like, and if someone really likes such tiny sheep, and finds them worthy of feeding and shearing, so be it! That's ok! She promptly spoke of sticking to standards and how important that was to not lose what makes the breed correct. I agreed! My new friend was very wise!

(P.S. Awhile back, a friend had emailed me saying she'd seen a picture of a ram in the Wisconsin Shepherd magazine...the publication of the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Co-op...the organization that puts on the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival. Was that Wooly Bear (the ram we took to the show last year)? At first, I said no...couldn't be. Well, I picked up a copy of the Wisconsin Shepherd at the festival, opened it up and explosive laughter!!!!!!!! That's my ram!!!!!!!! His photo is being used to promote the festival, and is several inches across and tall!!!!!!!! Black sheep, blue sheep............yep! That's our purebred Shetland ram lamb, Wooly Bear (sire of all our lambs this year), resting in his pen on the festival grounds September 2009! Ok! That was FUN!!)

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