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What are Shetland Sheep?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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Shetland sheep are a diminutive breed of sheep that comes in a variety of colors and patterns and produces very fine wool. They originated in the Shetland Islands, although they are currently raised by sheep farmers in many areas of the world. They are often raised for their for meat in addition to wool. They are very hardy and easy to raise, although they are slow growing breed.

Shetland sheep are actually the smallest of the British breeds of sheep, with adult rams weighing 90 to 125 pounds (40.8 to 56.7 kg), and adult ewes weighing slightly less at 75 to 100 pounds (34 to 45.4 kg). Rams have attractive, curved spiral horns, and the ewes are hornless. Shetland sheep are fine boned with a short, fluke shaped tale. They come in many colors such as white, brown, black, silvery grey, light brown, and reddish brown. There are also several patterns with distinctive markings.

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The wide range of colors is a plus for wool production, since the wool is often used undyed for traditional knitwear, although white wool commands the best prices. Shetland sheep produce wool that is very fine, and it is preferred wool of hand spinners all over the world. It has a soft feel that lends itself well to sweaters and other types of clothing and blankets. An extra fine type of lace shawl is a specialty in the Shetland Islands; called a ring shawl, it's actually so fine that it can be passed through a wedding ring.

Originating in the Shetland Islands in Scotland, Shetland sheep are considered to be a British breed. They are also raised by sheep farmers in several areas of the world, in many Northern European countries such as Scandinavia and Finland as well as in Canada and the U.S. The most common uses are for wool and meat. They are said to produce tasty cuts; since they are slow to grow, however, they often need to be raised for a longer amount of time than other breeds used for slaughter. They are also used at times for conservation grazing, a strategic practice that is supposed to help preserve the grassland areas.

The Shetland sheep has kept many of its primitive instincts and is considered to be very close in nature to wild sheep. The ewes are good mothers that give birth to their lambs easily and produce a lot of milk. Shetland sheep are able to survive under very sparse conditions if necessary. They tend to be conservative in its grazing practices and generally don't overgraze the land. This makes the breed extremely easy to raise, since it is mostly able to fend for itself and needs very little human intervention to thrive.

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