Shetland sheep are known as a primitive, or “unimproved,” breed. They survived in extraordinarily harsh conditions for a thousand years on the Northernmost British Isles where they practiced being hardy and adaptable, long-lived and tenacious. As a result, they are an easy breed to care for. Not wimpy and delicate like Waterford crystal. Sturdy, like a Ball jar. Not to mention calm, docile and, did I mention cute? Your Great Pyrenees guard dog will be bigger than your Shetland Sheep. They are ideal for a small flock and ideal for micro-farmers (otherwise known as people in the suburbs who want livestock in their backyards).
What sets the Shetland sheep apart from other breeds are rainbows and linguistics.
There are 11 recognized colors in the Shetland rainbow (some are extremely rare) and at least 30 Old Norse terms used to describe their markings. The Shetland mystique holds that these terms are historical and romantic and specific to the Shetland breed. You could have an emsket bersugget yuglet grazing in your backyard. Or a snaelit bielset. You could have a mullit or a mirkface or a flecket. To decipher the code, visit Shetland Sheep Info or pick up the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook (my new favorite read).
To summarize: the Shetland Sheep is complicated. Do your homework and know what the breeder’s goals are before purchasing fleece. Windswept Farms in Michigan graciously let me use photos of their sheep for this post. Of their breeding program, they say, "Our primary flock goals are excellent conformation and health. Secondary goals are preserving a diverse range
of colors, patterns and fleece types." They will be shearing soon.