Shetland Sheep Breed Information, Facts & History

Shetland sheep grazing in the Shetland Islands of Scotland
Shetland sheep are the smallest breed in Britain, and have a wide range of colors and markings. Originating in Scotland and descending from Scandinavian lineage, Shetland sheep are hardy and can survive in diverse climates and on infertile land.

Origin of Shetland Sheep

Shetland sheep can be traced back more than a thousand years to ancient Scandinavian breeds. The modern version of the breed originated in the Shetland Islands of Scotland. 

Shetland sheep descend from the Northern European short-tailed sheep family. Some markings on Shetland sheep resemble those of the primitive British Soay or Mouflon sheep.

Shetland sheep originated in the Shetland Islands, but can now be found in the British mainland and other countries.

Shetland sheep were imported to North America around 200 years ago. The North American Shetland Sheep breeders Association was formed in 1994.

Characteristics of Shetland Sheep

Two Shetland sheep with black faces and grey wool
Shetland sheep come in nearly a dozen colors
OriginShetland Islands, Scotland
AppearanceSmall and short-tailed, with a wide variety of colorings and patterns
WoolShetland sheep have 11 colors and up to 30 pattern variations of wool. The fleece weighs 2 to 4 pounds (0.9 to 1.8 kg). Yield is often 65-80%.
Average staple length is 3.5 inches (8.9cm). Wool fiber averages of 23 microns.
MeatTender mutton, but not often kept for commercial meat production due to size
EnvironmentGood foragers and can thrive in less-than-fertile areas. They do even better on quality grassland with good pasture.
Common usesWool (primarily), also meat
FertilityShetland ewes are seasonal breeders and easy lambers.

The Shetland breed of sheep is known for its multiple colors and marking variations. 

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They have 11 primary colors:

  • Black
  • Yellowish brown (Mioget)
  • Dark brown
  • Reddish brown (Moorit)
  • Bluish grey (Emsket)
  • Pale greyish brown (Musket)
  • Fawn
  • Dark grey (Shaela)
  • Grey
  • Light grey
  • White

The sheep also have around 30 color markings and patterns. 

Shetland sheep have short fluke-like tails similar to the rest of the Northern European short-tailed sheep family. Their tail is covered with hair at the tip, rather than wool. 

The rams of this breed are often horned while the ewes are polled. 

Shetland sheep have high-quality soft wool that’s popular among hand spinners. They are also used for meat and milk production.

Shetland Sheep Fertility

Shetland ewes are seasonal breeders. They are easy lambers. It is not uncommon for them to get twins.

Shetland ewes make excellent mothers. They produce sufficient milk for their babies, and the lambs grow up fast and healthy.

Meat Production

Shetland sheep provide gourmet-quality meat that’s healthy, tasty, and lean.

The meat has a notably fine texture. This quality can be sustained until the sheep reaches at least three years of age.

Since Shetland sheep are small, they aren’t commonly kept for commercial meat production.

Shetland Sheep Wool Production and Uses

Wool from Shetland Sheep is soft and fine, with a wide variety of colors and patterns.

Shetland sheep have 11 colors and up to 30 pattern variations of wool. The fleece weighs 2 to 4 pounds (0.9 to 1.8 kg), and the yield is often 65-80%.

The staple length varies from 2-4.5 inches (5–11 cm) to as long as 6–10 inches (15–25 cm), with an average of 3.5 inches (8.9cm).

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Double-coated sheep will generally have a longer staple length than single-coated.

According to U.K’s Shetland Sheep Society, shoulder and neck wool can be as thin as 10-20 microns, while britch wool (wool fiber on the lower hind legs) can be as thick as 25-35 microns. On average, Shetland sheep produce fine wool fiber of 23 microns.

Shetland sheep wool makes various knitwear like sweaters, shawls, and other woolen products. Shetland fleece is famous for making ring shawls— a type of shawl that’s so fine it can pass through a wedding ring.

What Environments Are Best for Shetland Sheep?

Shetland sheep are hardy and versatile foragers. They do well in less-than-fertile areas. However, these sheep will thrive even more on quality grassland with good pasture.

Shetland sheep are commonly found in the Shetland Islands but are also reared in the British mainland, North America, and other countries.


Catherine is a farming enthusiast. She’s lived on a farm for the most part of her life and this stirred her interest to know more about agriculture—both crop farming and animal keeping. Coupled with her love for writing, Catherine enjoys sharing her farming experiences plus researching and writing on the latest in the sector.

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