The Shetlands' roots go back over 1,000 years, probably to sheep brought to the Shetland Islands by Viking settlers. They belong to the Northern European short-tailed group, which also contain the Finnsheep, Norwegian Spaeslau, Icelandics, Romanovs, and others.
Today they are considered a primitive or "unimproved" breed. This means that although they are small and relatively slow-growing, they maintain natural hardiness, thriftiness, easy lambing, adaptability and longevity. Shetlands survived for centuries under harsh conditions and on a meager diet, although they do very well under less rigorous conditions. Having retained most of their primitive survival instincts, they are easier to care for than many of today's "improved" breeds.
Shetlands are one of the smallest of the British sheep. Rams usually weigh 90 to 120 pounds and ewes about 75 to 100 pounds. Rams usually have beautiful spiral horns whereas the ewes are typically polled. They are fine-boned and agile and their naturally short, fluke-shaped tails do not require docking.
They are a calm, docile and easy-to-manage breed. Most respond well to attention and some even wag their tails when petted! In addition, the rams are usually safe to be around.
Classified as endangered by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) in 1977, Shetlands are now enjoying renewed favor and numbers. With the assistance of the RBST, Colonel Dailley of the African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, imported 28 ewes and four rams from the Shetland Islands in 1980. This is the only importation of Shetlands into North America documented by the RBST, and these are the forefathers and foremothers of most of our North American Shetland flocks.
There have been a limited number of private Shetland semen importations into the United States over the past 10 years, bringing in additonal Shetland genetics from the United Kingdom.