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.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Halter Training and Showing

With our local show coming up fast, I wanted to blog about how to show your Shetland sheep in the ring, since I have been told by the MSSBA president that I am not invited to the activities of the event I designed. I know my event was stolen so that a small group of people could use it as an outlet to promote and market their own idea of a more modern, commercial Shetland sheep, and I'm not invited because I keep my 1927 Breed Standard at my side (and they don't), for Wheely Wooly Farm adheres to what the breed has always been, not what we think. Shetland Showcase (stolen and renamed Handy Shepherd) is a whole concept I put together for a variety of reasons, mainly to bring support to our breed organization's member farms and the general public together for fun and support. I have no financial motive for planning and bringing to you this event. You can read all about that on earlier posts on my blog (March, and July, and August of 2010).

One of the ideas I had was short (45 minute long) classes for anyone (members and the general public). I wanted them to be about an assortment of things pertaining to our breed...but that is all on the previous posts as well. Halter training is something that I really wanted to give support on in a class (seminars, I called them), for each year at our local show, it became clear to me that our breed organization was failing to dispense info. to our membership on how to show sheep. There is info. about Shetlands not being a breed that is fitted, but people don't know how to show in the ring. So here it is!

Shetland sheep can be used for meat very nicely, however, they are shown very differently in the showring from commercial meat breeds because Shetlands are one of the world's premier handspinning and historically significant textile breeds. Therefore, the fleece should be left on, and be clean and free of vegetative matter or debris. There should be no clipping or shaping of the fleece of the sort commercial meat breeds have, to emphasize or de-emphasize a conformation characteristic. Fleeces should not be shampoo-ed or blow-dried...even if the sheep in the ring next to you IS.

Anyway, Shetlands can be shown in two acceptable ways...without a halter, or with a halter. The halter should be a rope halter that is flattering to the sheep. Many rope halters are really made out of some type of plastic (but the concept comes from rope), and are readily available at sheep supply places. The halter is traditionally put on with the thicker nose piece down under the chin, but I do the opposite. I have trained many sheep now, and I like the thicker part to the top for a nicer, and fairer response. I like happy sheep. But in the ring, you should put the thick nose band underneath, and if you've worked with your sheep on halter walking skills, it should no longer be a big deal if the thick part is underneath.

What shouldn't be in the ring? Husky harnesses, because they mush the wool and make it hard for a judge to fairly assess your sheep's wool and conformation, and dog collars, because sheep are not goats. Dog collars also crush the wool, and make the judge's job more difficult. Both husky harnesses and dog collars are not effective tools in training sheep, and can actually cause your sheep to be more panicked or afraid. This is frequently evidenced by sheep in the ring with these things on, becoming nearly unmanagable with fear. The pressure points collars and harnesses put on a sheep's body are extremely predator-like, which naturally provokes the fight or flight reaction. Fight or flight reactions take precedence over your soothing voice!! Halters on heads not only give you more physical control of your sheep, but do not provoke the predator/prey reaction, therefore, helping your sheep remain calmer.

If you plan on showing your sheep in Jefferson this year, you should get yourself a halter as fast as you can...get for the sheep you're going to show, and one for a buddy sheep. Then, put your halters on when your sheep are hungry, and walk them about your farm every day for at least 10-15 minutes, until a few days before the show. There is a very critical technique to this to achieve success!!!! I would love to share it with you, and I'm willing to share it with Shetland people because I genuinely want to see people enjoy and succeed with their Shetland sheep, but I'm not invited to my own event! So I am sad that the reality'll have to figure it out on your own. I know many of you have already tried to figure it out on your own and got frustrated. Hang in there! Rumblings are MSSBA has upset a lot of people, and maybe things will turn around. Then I can tell you the techniques you'll need to train your sheep. For you, it'd be nice to learn from a Shetland person who's trained many sheep, and succeeded in the ring.

What should never be seen in the ring? The hanging neck grip used on commercial meat sheep. The hanging sling is to give the judge the ability to evaluate the sheep's carcass, as if it was dead and hanging on the hooks already, except the opposite direction. This is not appropriate for Shetlands. Shetlands should be standing nicely, with their head in a normal, natural, comfortable position, and four feet square. This gives the judge a clear view of your animal, and makes assessment easier. Remember, Shetlands should have "level" toplines according to our breed standard. Hanging your Shetland in the carcass grip collapses the sheep's back and makes it tough for the judge to fairly evaluate your sheep's conformation. You can hang your sheep and poke in certain ways to straighten your sheep's back by force, but again, that's not appropriate for Shetlands. So just avoid that problem all together, and let your sheep stand natural and square, with a halter.

If you choose to not use a halter, be sure to halter train your sheep at home before the show anyway. There are techniques to teaching a sheep to stay with you off halter that are usually taught on that the sheep has clear directions on what to do, and you build a relationship....which removes fear in the sheep. Then, if the sheep picks the wrong choice, you still have control of it and can make appropriate corrections. Your sheep wants to trust you and do what you want...they are very sweet! So be sure to nuture that in them.

The goal is this: that people establish a better working relationship with their flocks by learning how to halter train, and thus tame their sheep. This is a critical skill, for stressed sheep equals injuries (of you, or your sheep, or of your neighbor in the showring), frustration, and possibly medical problems such as bloat.

Here is a critical point. You can tame your rams and halter train them WITHOUT losing their respect of you. ALWAYS handle your rams as rams. Never touch their horns or the tops of their heads...that is sacred ground to them and means life or death...fight or not. Training your rams to walk nicely with you makes them MUCH easier to handle come hoof trimming time, catch time, sickness or injury time, or anything else you need to do to/with them. Teaching your ram to walk with you is NOT ruining him, rather, it is improving your relationship and earning you mutual respect. Critical stuff. Again, there are techniques to this...but I'm not invited!

So short of teaching the class, like I would enjoy doing, this will at least help. Here's the summary:
1. no husky harnesses, dog collars, or carcass hanging grips
2. practice everyday at home so you and sheep learn to trust each other and know what to do
3. if you go halterless, be sure you've practiced!!!!!!!
4. don't come to the ring with an unhandled, untrained sheep fresh off a pasture...
5. don't let anyone convince you that halter training a ram ruins him. Safety is everything with a ram. The more he respects you, the better. If he comes to understand you bring good things to his life, not challenge or threat, you are WAY better off.
6. no fitting, shampooing or blow drying

Remember: if you don't train your sheep ahead of time, you could become the dreaded neighbor in the show ring (sheep leaping over and over or crashing into everyone else, or worse yet, getting loose), or get hurt, or at the very least, show a not so good side to the judge while you and your sheep struggle around. All of these problems present a poor image to other farms, as well as to the general public. These problems make the sheep look, well, wild and undesirable when they really aren't. That is not good ambassadorship, nor good marketing. So please, take the time to train them and enjoy them and celebrate their sweetness. I am always available to answer questions. You can email me at

(on a different note...anyone trying out for the RedGreen look alike contest?)

Celebrating Col. Dailley's Flock Day part 2

If you haven't read the previous farm post, do that first, then come back to this one. :)

I just sent in a request to our breed organization's newsletter. As long as I've been a part of this organization, I don't recall ever having a time to express thanks...collectively as a membership... for all Col. Dailley had done. Time is passing. The further we get from the import date, and the more member farms retire out of membership, I think having an official day to remember and "celebrate"...really meaning express gratitude...would be a fitting thing to do. By celebrating, we can all remember how lucky we are that a man who was not a sheep person, not a spinner and not a knitter, would dedicate so much of his time to bring a little sheep here! Celebrating would also help to educate new member farms.

I don't have many ideas on what we could do yet, but I'm thinking an annual date could be determined, then each year, things could be in the newsletter about the import. I'd really like for ideas to come in from the membership. That's why I sent an email to our newsletter editor. If it all works, and my idea isn't stolen by another MSSBA member (giggle, giggle), you'll see more details in a newsletter soon!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Celebrating Col. Dailley's Flock Day

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to write to one of our breed organization's board members. One of the topics was the Dailley flock. In my many readings about Shetlands a few years ago, I had found a lengthy story on a website out of New England about a family that brought Shetlands out of Canada into the USA. It was really interesting, so I saved it. As time has passed, I've taken it out and re-read it...always finding it a valuable read.

The story tells much about a man in Canada who had remarkble intelligence and political skills on the world stage. Through his skill, diligence, and persistence, he was successful in bringing a small flock of Shetland sheep to my continent. He knew very little about the sheep, but he recognized early on how important it was to save this primative sheep from modernization and a very real threat of disease. Imagine, if a disease wiped out sheep in parts of Europe, this breed could be lost. Am I ever grateful for what he did!!!

Today, I have a bunch of descendents from those imported sheep. I am the recipient of his dreams...I have these sheep and they are protected and their numbers have grown since then, all things I'm sure he dreamed of. I received a gift. Disease pressure can no longer threaten this breed as strongly as it once did.

So I suggested to this board member that our breed organization, to express our appreciation for what Col. Dailley did for us, create a day each year to celebrate his work and the importation. I don't know what we could do, or how, but I know I would love to do something like that as a thanks. As long as I've been a member of our breed organization, nothing like this has been done to my awareness. I know Col. Dailley worked hard, and spent five years of tribulations in trying to care for and manage this first North American flock. I also know he sacrificed his garage for more than five years to bags of fleece!

Well, that message never got posted! Could it be that this board member...who might also be a member of MSSBA, take the idea and run....just like MSSBA did with the Shetland Showcase idea I proposed last year???? Sigh......

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Swifty, Swifter, Swift-O...Finally!

Look what's come home to Wheely Wooly Farm! (read....huge grin!)

Wheely Wooly Swifty

Yep! After the sad loss of my last Border Collie in 2000, I decided to wait before getting another Border Collie, for my heart was really broken. That dog, a female I called Shimmer, or Shim or Shim-dog or Shimmy, or Shim-Shim was half Border Collie/half Queensland Heeler. She was a high-powered dog that made me look like I knew what I was doing. She trained herself to follow along, sit, lay down, stay, be good around horses and all those things. She was constantly by my side. She accompanied me on countless trips on horseback into the back country of the Colorado Rockies, sometimes high above treeline, all summer for several summers, where I worked. She NEVER ran away or chased anything (in fact was often the only dog allowed in camp), and could follow a sharp command almost faster than her physical self was capable of. Her ears were always on. I loved that dog...had her a long time through thick and thin. It took a long time to get used to life without her.

After her loss, we acquired a Smooth Coated Collie. He decided his name was Rollie the Collie...and so it was. We loved Rollie more than I thought I could. He was a gorgeous dog that was easy to train, easy to keep up, and we took him everywhere. He was the resident goofball...even taught himself to fetch, bringing the Flippy Flop back dangling on his canine tooth. Everybody loved him. Then we acquired Simon, our Shetland Sheep Dog, whom everyone mistook for a Collie. He was fabulous and SMART!!! He too, accompanied us everywhere. The two together, Rollie and Simon drew people like magnets. Everywhere we went, people pleaded to pet and see them...thinking they were mother and puppy! Both were very hard losses. I thought that losing Shimmer was hard!!!! and that it would get easier after the first one!!!!!!!! Wrong!

I knew that I'd wait to get a Border Collie again, if at all. You have to be set up well in your life to keep a Border Collie around. I don't mean money. I mean circumstances. There is no dog on the planet that can do what the Border Collies can do (I know some would debate that!..giggle, giggle). I love every split second of their radar ears, their watchful eyes, deep crouches and quick reactions. They can REALLY tune in! I so love that!! But if you don't have time to tune into them, they can turn into serious challenges and be very destructive. They HAVE to work. There are no negotiations about that!
Little Swifty, day two in his new home

So here we are now. I'm set up well in the circumstances in my life to bring a Border Collie home. The waiting was good. The time was right. And now, I am only bustingly delighted to be on the path with this dog! He's possibly slightly less than purebred...I'm not totally sure because pedigrees don't mean as much to me as working ability in a dog. I know what to look for in a dog, and I know what I want to see. He's four months old now, and has been here since July. His first year is going to be all about learning how to be a good dog in a variety of settings with a variety of people. He loves rides in the vehicles, chases his tail in the water (and gets it!), and stares down a ball like you wouldn't believe!!!!!! And he has APTITUDE!!!!

When I picked him out, he was with his litter yet. I would never buy a dog that was picked out for me. I spent a long time watching the puppies interact with each other, their surroundings, and with people before I picked the one I wanted. I know what I want to see. Swifty naturally showed amazing talent without fear, but was receptive to handling and voices, yet he is still such a little one! I absolutely thrive on the challenge of shaping an animal; whether it's a sheep, a horse, or a dog or even my favorite chickens.

So here we go! Full swing into that shaping! And he has been no disappointment! He taught himself to fetch a ball in two nights. He is trustworthy outside, even if a chicken lopes past! (We are EXCEPTIONALLY careful with our chasing allowed....EVER) He is a natural at housebreaking, and his ears are ON! (well...except for DH sometimes!)

And he's fast! There is nooo way your gonna get that ball under him! I call it dexter ball...a great game to build up his lateral strength slowly so that when he grows up, he'll be ready. The plan (and you know how plans go!) is to start him on sheep next spring. We will ONLY use him for daily needs in rotating our Shetlands around, for my farm flock is receptive to that. Not all Shetlands are. I hope to shape him into being my helper if someone splits left or right. Shimmer never worked a sheep in her life, yet she could help me with the horses just fine, by just daily living and daily circumstances.
And thus, our journey begins!
(Yes, that's a swiss bell. All my dogs wear bells...couldn't live without that.)
(P.S. Annabelle loves him!)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hey Michigan Readers!

THANKS for the blueberries!!! Scrumptious this year they are!!!! I frequently hear from customers how much they enjoy the yarns they bought from our farm...sometimes I even get to see what the customer made with the yarn. I love those days!! So here's to all you Michigan readers...if you or someone you know raises those scrumptious blueberries, please say thanks from Wheely Wooly Farm!!! Tell them we've been making muffins galore for breakfast and the freezer. Talk about FRESH, moist, flavorful....I've never tasted blueberries so delicious as the berries from this year! I've bought a lot!!

SOOOOOOO much more to come!!! We've been having so much fun and have lots of new news!!!! I hate to leave ya all stranded, but I'll be back...hang on! Next up: Swifty, Swifter, Swift-O!