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.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why our farm rejects Appendix A

We are fortunate enough to have in our possession very interesting materials from the early days of Shetland sheep being in North America. An American breeder gave us the materials as a gift when they retired their flock. This breeder never used AI, for it was not available back then. All of their sheep were descended from the original Dailley import. This breeder's flock had a reputation for lovely, soft, colorful fleeces that were treasured and sought after by handspinners and knitters.

First, I will say that the sheep I've seen out of descendants of the Dailley bloodlines are not only super special in a number of ways (esp. because they most closely match the standard), but also, because they so closely resemble Mr. Bowie Senior's tup (young) ram in a photo in the Shetland Museum Archives. In fact, there are many, many pictures showing sheep that are very recognizably like that one tup. Note: Mr. Bowie Senior was the key writer of the 1927 Breed Standard. If that type of sheep was what HE OWNED, and wrote the standard for, good enough for me! I would think he'd have people take pictures of the sheep he was most proud of, or most wanting to protect, or make the best example of what he was trying to describe. I'm so thankful he did that, because the pictures we've seen lately in the midwest of Shetland sheep, don't look anything like that!

But that is just the fun stuff. The real stuff comes from the old paperwork we have. One piece, I will share with all of you! It comes from the Shetland Sheep Breeders Group, a group in Scotland, but not the Shetland Islands. In fact, the contact person's name on my piece of paperwork, is in England (that's not the Shetland Islands, either).

Our 1927 Breed Standard calls for wool to be extra fine and soft texture, longish, wavy and well closed. Great! That's exactly how it feels and looks! The fineness and softness of it is outstanding! Memorable! Very tactile! You can make any number of types of garments with it (which I do). You can knit with it, weave with it, and it spins easily because it's so fine and of such soft texture. It does not felt easily, nor is it of much grease. It is so extremely comfortable to wear, you don't want to even think of taking it off on a cool or cold day. It's extremely light and has just the right amount of ease. It's the hallmark of Shetland fleece. You can see that in the photos...the tup has longish and wavy wool, billowing tips in the breeze (remember...Mr. Bowie wrote that if the staples don't have tips, they are not Shetland!), draping around his body. Awesome photo!

However, I have here a copy of a ram inspection from the Shetland Sheep Breeders Group dating back to the year 1997. Each part of the ram was checked over by someone, with check marks indicating what the ram was like. I read it the first time....head...hmmm...wool on forehead, checked "absent". Hmmm, interesting....I would think a ram being inspected for breeding should have wool up there, for that is what our breed standard calls for, and it's easy to get/keep. Wool on top of the head is considered as important as a correct tail. Ok....eyes....the category "bright , alert" is NOT checked! Hmmm....Shetlands are famous for their bright, alert expressions! It's easy to pass on, and is a defining characteristic. Most other breeds do not have this, and lack of it might indicate either crossbreeding or poor health. I would think a good breeding ram should have proper expression. I started thinking he wouldn't pass.... I read on.....

Body....medium...ok looks good.....carriage and movement, checked "good..." ok (Shetland sheep have outstanding carriage and movement, very smart, strong, bright)....ok....down to fleece.....

Fleece has categories. Is it short (defined on the inspection as short being less than 2 inches, medium (2-4 inches...why would short or medium be on a Shetland inspection...'cause it's not on the standard... but those staple lengths are needed for other breeds....) and long (4 plus inches). They identify long as FOUR PLUS inches. That's good. Our standard, written by Mr. Bowie says LONGISH: that's the word long (4 plus inches), with -ish a suffix meaning not needing to be specific; vague. So longish means at least four inches, to any length of which is not as important. Both short and medium wool allows body definition to be seen, certainly not of beautiful drape, like Mr. Bowie's tup. The inspected ram was marked as having medium wool length (2-4 inches).....ok, hmmm.....the date on the inspection is early May. Since Shetlands have to be sheared near the summer solstice due to their rise and rooing, (if you shear them sooner, you get a mess...) I would suspect this guy was near a 12 month clip. Really? Two to four inches at a 12 month clip?? Medium length (2-4 inches) just before clip doesn't sound desirable for breeding, for longish (four plus inches, of which length is not needing to be specific) is what makes the famous Shetland fleece and variety of textiles. Medium doesn't match our 1927 Breed Standard, Mr. Bowie's tup, the Dailley sheep imported 30 years ago, or my own experience with my own sheep! Hmmm.....I read on. Further down, it says fleece in a new category:
straight, crimped, or wavy. I 'bout fell off my seat with laughter!!!!!!!! This ram was checked as having CRIMPED wool, with handwriting next to it saying '7 crimps' (per inch)!!!! So YES, the people in the United Kingdom DO know the difference between crimp and wave (we all know that already, for they DID write the English language, after all), because they have separate categories for them So YES, the tup in the photo has wave. Yes, our Breed Standard uses the word wave, because that's what they needed to create a Shetland sheep. But YES, this ram was checked as having NO wave!!! If he is a good breeding ram, he should have had WAVE marked, for our breed standard says WAVY, not crimp! At this point, I was thinking surely he would fail....

So this report says this ram had medium wool that was in between 2-4 inches in May, probably just before clip, and that it had crimpy (7 crimps per inch) wool. WOW!!! He didn't have wool on top of his head, and he was lacking a bright, alert expression. Hmmmm.......but wait! He is checkmarked as approved as a suitable Shetland ram for pure breeding, with a signature on the bottom!!! WOW!!! Then, I noticed that written at the top is a handwritten note in all caps that says "RAMS FOR AI" Hmmmm......! That clinched it!

Now, he may have been a nice sheep with a fleece someone wanted to get more of. That's ok! But that doesn't make him a good choice for a good SHETLAND ram. Nor does he match key language on the 1927 Breed Standard, in key areas.

And so there was my really good giggle! Rams in Scotland (not in the Shetland Islands) were passed for having the wrong wool! (...and wrong expression...and absent wool on top of head.)


So I visited their website (this was awhile ago). They have very nice looking sheep. Many had much better conformation than we've seen in the midwest of the United States the last few years. But something was really super queer to me. The sheep had someone else's fleece on them. The fleeces were skin tight, and the people were dressed in short sleeves. I've not seen (skin tight) in any of the Shetand stuff I've researched, except right after clip/roo when the wool starts growing back out (in the case of rooing, with fuzziness). If the photos were taken a few weeks after clip, why would they do that, when you can't see what their fleece is like? They must be nice fleeces, or they wouldn't be growing that. How would you hand shear such a short fleece?? (Shetlands have long been hand sheared with scissors-type tools, or tin can lids, or even sharp bone fact, crofters were well known for being slow to accept power plant clipping. Or roo it?? What would be left?? How would you make socks that would stand up with so much crimp?? Let alone stockings that rose above knees?? Would a fisherman wear such stretchy, elastic crimp in his sweaters out at sea, while pulling big ropes through huge pulleys, hauling in a big net full of squirming fish? How would you efficiently hand spin so many short staples when you need to buy food and supplies for your family? Where are the staple tips Mr. Bowie Sr. wrote about? How would those sheep survive 100 inches of rain without some pampering??

So do they roo those "short" fleeces? I'd like to see that! In the midwest, where I live, people who have short wool on their sheep shear in Feb. and March. How can that be? What a mess for the next year's clip!! The only way you could shear so early is if the rise has been bred out. I sometimes get too excited to get a fleece, so I shear it an exception to my usual method of waiting. But I always have to go back and re-shear that fleece because of it's rise, which I do around July.

So back to this ram. He had the wrong wool (length and staple character), he lacked a bright, alert expression (was he crossbred or not feeling well? fact, in between his lack of bright alertness and shorter wool, I would have worried he was possibly ill if the breeder said he was purebred?), and he lacked wool on the top of his head. My point? Other groups have more modern day production dreams/needs/markets. They've designed their ram inspections and specifications for those needs and markets, as this inspection clearly shows. That's ok! But that doesn't make for good Shetland sheep breeding in an organization devoted to preserving and protecting (the group I belong to, NASSA) the genuine Shetland sheep; the sheep responsible for the famous textiles over hundreds of years, the sheep we want to raise on our farm. We drool over those extra fine, soft textured, longish and wavy, well-closed fleeces, and we appreciate how little feed they take to produce! Since Appendix A had been around for the breeder of this inspected ram, is this what it produces?? Is this how the sheep get evaluated?? We've been so happy with the instructions on conformation, expression, gait and fleece the 1927 Breed Standard, without Appendix A, has given us. The Standard, standing alone in it's amazing simplicity, WORKS!! I've learned so much more about spinning and knitting because of the fleeces the Standard alone gave me. By the way, the Shetland Sheep Breeders Group wrote Appendix A (outside the Shetland Islands). That's why our farm (and our breeding program) rejects Appendix A.

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