Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Shetland Journey

When we first started out with Shetland Sheep, we did so as a 4h project. We were drawn to the small size of the breed and thought they would make great pets and 4h animals for our small children.
One thing that always struck us, however, was that Shetlands were known as the finest of the British breeds, and yet, we had often seen other breeds that had much nicer wool than ours. That curiosity led us to explore different Shetland bloodlines and wool types in hopes of stumbling onto some sort of magical animal that possessed the natural colors, small size, and soft fleeces that we had always read about. At times, this journey felt like searching for a unicorn or some other mythical being. I was pretty well convinced that the fine fleece Shetland Sheep was in fact a myth.
After visiting 15 Shetland farms and handling over a thousand sheep, it became clear to me that the fine fleece Shetland was not a myth, but it was indeed very rare in this country. The colors were there, and most of the sheep we saw were quite small, so we had that at least, but it was hard to acquire sheep that had fine fleeces. One thing we noticed was that the lambs would often times have soft fleeces, but after shearing, their second offering was much coarser. Often times, the average micron values for both the first and second fleeces looked pretty fine, but the fleeces themselves did not feel that way. That’s when we began to realize that fine fleeces were very much hereditary, which explained why we didn’t see many of them. There seemed to only be a handful of bloodlines that were producing them and you either had that or you didn’t.
We later acquired a few fine fleece rams and tried to improve our ewe flock that way. We had mixed results from that strategy, but after several generations, we saw enough improvement that it convinced us that we were on the right path.
In 2011, I attended a Shetland Sheep Society training seminar put on by two certified Shetland Sheep Society (SSS) Inspectors/Judges. That confirmed the thoughts we’d had up to that point in our breeding program. It took 10 years, but we finally felt competent to evaluate the breed and more importantly, to understand what was possible based on what the experts were telling us from the UK where the breed originated.
Around that time, members of what later became known as the Fine Fleece Shetland Sheep Association (FFSSA) uncovered an interesting excerpt from a book. The book was written by a Shetlander in 1790-1791. In the appendix of that book, he focused on the state of Shetland Sheep on the island. John Tulloch wrote the account to Sir John Sinclair, who was the Chairman of the Society for the improvement of British wool. I found the account to be very interesting in that it goes back to the 18th century and describes a problem that we still see today in the United States. He focuses on the deterioration of the renowned Shetland wool industry.
Tulloch explains that “It is impossible, he says, to learn whence the original breed came, or how long they have been in these islands, but the original breed is a small neat sheep, with a short tail, and carries wool of uncommon softness and fineness. The breed is now however greatly mixed, having been debased by several importations of sheep, first from Scotland, and then from England, which have greatly injured the wool, rending it much harder and coarser than it originally was. This evil is increased by the little care that is taken of the sheep, and by neglecting to keep rams of the finest kind, so that at present they look to the ewes only for the keeping up the fine wooled sort.”
Here Tulloch is talking about the deterioration of the wool in Shetland. What I found amazing was how much of a problem this was back in the 18th century in the breed’s homeland. As interesting as that paragraph was to me, it said nothing about what types of fleeces existed back then. I knew from traveling this country, that there were all types of fleeces, and most were not all that soft. But which ones were the correct type? Tulloch goes on to explain in the next paragraph.
“In consequence of this species of mismanagement, the number of fine wooled sheep, or, as they call them kindly sheep, much decreased so that it is supposed there are not at present in the whole islands of Shetland, above one thousand sheep of that breed, and even of the those that are called kindly, a very small proportion are of the very finest sort.”
This was all beginning to make some sense to me. Fine fleece Shetland Sheep were rare in the breed’s homeland in the late 18th century. The first sheep were imported to Canada in 1980 from Shetland. So, that explained why the fine fleece Shetlands were so rare, but I still didn’t understand why there were so many types in the U.S. Fortunately, Tulloch explains that in the very next paragraph.
“Of the sheep that carry the fine wool, there are two distinct sorts observable, one sort that yields short close wool, best for being carded; and another sort that affords longer wool, that would be more proper for being combed. The pile of the short wooled sort is close, and very much curled, or rather waved in the locks, like flax that has been cressed between the hands, the hairs being all parallel to each other, though much bent, waving thus. This wool has a clean glistening appearance in the fleece, as if it had been varnished. The long wool is often as soft as the other, though is seldom is quite so fine. It does not pack naturally so close, but is more open in the locks and is straighter in the pile. By the intermixture of breeds, you get all the varieties between these two sorts.”
Now all of my struggles understanding the breed were coming into focus. Tulloch is explaining exactly what I had seen with the breed here in the states. He is suggesting that there is a great deal of variety within the breed because of the intermixture of breeds. He is also suggesting that there are two distinct types of wool (kindly and longer), but that the finest sheep are found in the kindly category. This account completely aligns with my own experiences with the breed more than 200 years later. Up to 2011, I had always been told that this was a desirable characteristic of the breed. The more diversity, the better. The breed has “always been known for that,” old time breeders would tell me.
It turns out they were partially correct. The breed was indeed known for that, but Tulloch is suggesting that there is a nefarious explanation for this. In other words, Shetland Sheep are not supposed to have that type of fleece variability, but they did have because of intermixing of breeds.
This important article is as close to an owner’s manual as we are going to have with this breed. It clearly documents the historical issues with the breed and also explains the root cause of the problem. To me, this is much more valuable than hearsay from 100 American breeders.
I no longer get upset when we have lambs that aren’t the kindly type, because I now know that this is to be expected. Scott Bailey (Pike Hill Farm) wrote an article in 2009 detailing his visit to Shetland in 2008 and I was surprised to learn that only about 1% of the clip received at Jamieson and Smith in 2007 was classified as superfine (the finest grade). Another 10% were categorized as fine (the next highest grade). That is a small percentage of the clip in the breed’s homeland, but it is consistent with what Tulloch described. Those are purebred Shetland Sheep. According to Jamieson & Smith (the Shetland Wool Brokers that handle the entire clip in Shetland), those grades are so rare that they keep them for their own spinning.
I think the key takeaway from this is that you will find different types of Shetlands in the U.S. The breed was imported from their homeland with a lot of diversity already baked in. Breeders here were able to pull out the traits that they preferred, which only increased the amount of diversity. If Tulloch came to the U.S. today he would likely see greater diversity within the breed than what he saw in 1790, but he would also no doubt note that they are supposed to be fine and soft, regardless of personal preferences.
It took our farm many years to arrive at the point we’re at now, but at least this mystery is at last solved. Now, if only cameras had been invented back then, we might have even more clarity on the subject. What we do have, however, are the formal UK organizations that we can look to for guidance. Many of those members have been breeding Shetlands for decades, with flocks being handed down from one generation to the next. On top of that, both England and Shetland have a formal flock inspection/certification process in place. That provides us with a pretty high level of confirmation of John Tulloch’s assessment.
Since 2011, our mission here at Whispering Pines has been to focus on the rarer “kindly” type. To me, the research is pretty clear that this was the preferred type, in spite of the intermixing of breeds that occurred 200 plus years ago. I thought how cool it would be to just focus on that particular type. In a way, that sort of connected our farm to the crofters of yesteryear, and that appealed to me. That’s not to say that there aren’t other types of Shetlands, however. The Tulloch article clearly shows that there were. But it’s clear that the purest sheep were supposed to be soft and fine, regardless of fleece length or crimp style. That’s not to say everyone should raise sheep that way, however. This account doesn’t say how long the fleeces should be, how much crimp shall be present, or how dense the fleeces should be. But it does clearly explain that dense, crimpy, fine fleeces are preferred, even if they are somewhat rarer. Today, Jamieson & Smith is still finding the fine "kindly" fleeces to be rare in the breed's homeland. Rare or not, I still find the quest to be rewarding in that our farm is making a positive impact on the breed in this country, even if it's only in one small part of the United States.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2015 Breeding Groups - Whispering Pines Canterbury

Whispering Pines Canterbury is on most counts, our top ram. He’s great in some areas and very good in others. He is very refined, but I'd like to see more width in his front and back than what he has. This is somewhat subjective, but I also think this tends to be correlated with bone structure. The more refined type tend to be this way. You have to take the good with the bad in other words. I don't believe you can have good width on a refined ram. I haven't seen it anyway. The width of the pin bones largely dictates how wide apart the legs are. Fine boned Shetlands have pin bones that aren't that far apart relative to heavier boned animals. I reckon that tells a breeder when they are getting too refined or too heavy on the bone.
Canterbury is Mioget, which isn’t my favorite color, but it’s in the top three.

His head is also very nice for a polled ram and his tail is spot on. That leaves fleece, which is where he really stands apart from almost all North American Shetlands. He’s even finer than his father, Winter Sky Khan, who is also exceptionally fine. But I prefer Canterbury in every category. I just sent in samples for his third fleece and they confirmed what I thought about it “on the hoof” so to speak. I don’t know what to expect in the spring when I check all of our fleeces, but the early indications are quite good. His average is 20.0 microns first of all. I have said repeatedly that the average is just one part of the fleece equation, but that’s pretty rare for a three-year old Shetland fleece. Do I think it will hold there for his spring test? Maybe or maybe not, but it will almost certainly be less than 21.0.
The other thing I like about his fleece is its consistency from front to back. He doesn’t fall off in the britch much. He is right there with Rosewood in that regard, although I have never tested him for that like I did Rosewood.
Other noteworthy numbers are his standard deviation, which measures the variation from the top of the fiber to the tip. Canterbury’s standard deviation is 3.4. His coefficient of variation is 17%, which is about as good as I can expect on a fleece this fine. Some fine fleece Shetlands will have really low averages, but the standard deviations can't quite keep up. Khan was like that as was his father Black Forrest. Canterbury got his low SD from his mother and his fineness from both parents. I would say he is another example of how you can get offspring that is better than both parents through careful breeding. But you need parents that are exceptional in several areas. His are. I wish it always worked out this well, but it typically does not.
Overall, I like him a great deal. He will get a fairly large group of ewes this year since we kept 10 of his ewe lambs and five ram lambs from this spring. That is going to create problems for me in a year or two when all of our sheep are related to him, but you have to keep the best sheep and stay true to your rating system. If it's working, stay with it until forced to change. My goal is to get offspring out of him that are so good, I have no ram good enough to put them with. Canterbury is so good, he's forcing me to get better at this. I like that. A longtime breeder once told me that the fine fleece Shetland is a myth. Not so. They can be restored, but it takes a lot of effort and planning to do it. I think he is an example of it, and hopefully we can make more like him. Even with all of my planning and analysis, we've only managed to get one other Shetland like him. As Vince Lombardi said, however, when you strive for perfection, you will hit excellence. Hopefully,  I am up to the challenge. Hopefully, a few of his sons will live up to his legacy. Those will be some big hooves to fill though. And it won't help on his daughters.
Canterbury received the following ewes:
Florence (Jane Eyre's mother). Hey, it could happen again.
Turin (also had an exceptional Canterbury son)
Siena (also had an exceptional Canterbury son)
Genoa (also had an exceptional Canterbury son. I see a pattern here, which is why I am repeating these breedings)
Vogue (had nice lambs and I just think there's more in there)
Caramel Mocha (same with this one)
Kahlua (ditto here. This will be one I am anticipating greatly, much like when Secretariat's mother gave birth to him)
Sherrie (an exceptional Blue Sapphire daughter we have been waiting to use with this ram)
Sarah (spotted. Canterbury carries spots. This is a Stonehenge daughter that is very good, but that I think can be improved with this combination of genetics)
99 (same here)
Rosanna (same with this Stonehenge daughter, but I have a hunch about this one. Her lambs with this breeding will be exceptional or average, I think. She's a bit of a wild card, but I like her a great deal)
Treviso (I don't have the words to describe my expectations with this combination)
I also added Reawick, Pamela, and Kelly Kelly to his group as a cleanup. They belonged here all along, but I really want lambs out of Mr. Darcy.
There you have it. We can't set the table any better than this. Now my only job until lambing is to feed them properly. I expect big things, but I am always surprised that all of the ewes don't have lambs that are a cut above their mothers. With this group, that's simply not possible. If all of the lambs are as good as their mothers, I'll not be happy. That won't move us forward, and it will complicate the sales list. The reality is, however, that some of these ewes will be for sale, so we better have some lambs that can fill the void. I feel good about those odds. It has taken us many years to get to the point where I can say that.
I'll close with a sampling of fleece samples from Canterbury from the last two years, then we'll dream of lambs all winter with fleeces like this.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

2015 Breeding Groups - Whispering Pines Mr. Darcy

Mr. Darcy is a pretty ram lamb out of Genoa and Canterbury. He is a pretty ram. He is a grey ram. He is a fine ram. He is a...dark ram. When he was born, I thought he was black at first. He is the darkest grey katmoget we have ever had, and one that we are pretty excited about.

He led the pack from wire-to-wire this year as our favorite ram lamb. His average is 20.7, which I think is fantastic given the nutrition he has had all summer. His SD and CV are very good at 4.3 and 20.6%, respectively, and his SF is a healthy 20.1 microns. What I like about him is that he has his father’s fineness with his mother’s lock structure and color. He may not end up being our finest ram (and I would be surprised if he is), but I think what he offers us is so rare, that he will have a place in our flock for quite a while. I once said that I would like to have an entire flock of Shetlands like Genoa and she is not our finest ewe. I just don’t place as much value on fineness as others do. We have fineness, but after years of doing this, I have learned that the average micron is not the be all, end all. It’s not unimportant, but there’s more to this than that. We are excited to use this ram and he is getting his own breeding group this year even though I don't like to use ram lambs. He is simply too good to hold back a year, so we are rolling the dice.

Mr. Darcy is another example of how long it can take to achieve certain breeding goals. I knew Pompey was throwing dark katmogets. Genoa was dark. I also knew Canterbury was modified. I had to wait two years, but I knew right away that I wanted to start crossing Canterbury to Pompey’s daughters. One can downplay the importance of color (and I’ll be the first to do that), but when you unlock the Shetland genetic code, I think you run with it. The dark grey katmoget is my favorite Shetland color/pattern. Emsket is a close second.
Don't make the conclusion that we are only using him for his color. He offers something that our other rams don't have.
His ewes were:
Mustang Sally
Kelly Kelly

These are all high quality ewes that we have been waiting for two years to use. Each offers something different, but all of it is good. We also have Stonehenge lambs in here, which is something that intrigues me.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Breeding Groups 2015 - Whispering Pines Rosewood

Rosewood is the one in the middle in the picture below.

Whispering Pines Rosewood is the last of the ram lambs that we kept from 2014. He wasn’t the only one that we liked, but we kept whittling the large pool down to the best-of-the best, and he was the only one that we felt made sense to keep at the end of the day. If we aren’t planning to use rams, we don’t keep them. But when you start with over 25 ram lambs and only keep one, you know he is something special, and Rosewood is.

Rosewood is out of Stonehenge and Kahlua, so he has a very impressive genetic base. That's one of the things I look for in a ram. Once in a while you get some pretty nice rams out of an average ewe, but rarely do they produce consistently. The best rams are out of excellent parents, who in turn are out of exceptional parents themselves. That's what we have here. Stonehenge is out of Khan and Kahlua is out of Vogue. I didn't personally like Khan's fleece, but it was really fine and I liked him overall. Now I do really like Vogue's fleece, but it's not as fine as Khan's. What we were able to do here is cross two different lines and get a ram that has some of the best features of those genetics.
Rosewood pretty much has it all, quite frankly. We’ve had finer rams, but his second fleece is still super fine. It did creep up a little bit, but that’s what you expect with two year old Shetlands. We’ll see where his fleece is this spring before we make any final decisions. His fleece isn’t as nice handling as Stonehenge’s, but it is more consistent. Here is a picture of his britch.

We sent in both a mid-side and britch sample and there isn’t much of a difference. The results are as follows:

·        Mid Side: 23.1/3.5/15.4/6.1/21.5

·        Britch: 25.2/4.5/17.8/7.9/23.5

The SF on his britch was still superfine. I never know how much experience readers of this blog have with Shetlands, but those of you who have them certainly know this is not typical of the breed. Shetlands typically fall off drastically somewhere around the hips, and that part of the fleece isn't usable for next-to-skin garments. I would agree that Shetlands should have some britch, but it should not start mid-side and get worse all the way to the tail.
I have to confess that I was not going to use Rosewood this year. In fact, he was on our sales list all summer. In fact, I was going to use Stonehenge again. But as I forced myself to take a fresh look at things, I realized that we have four Stonehenge daughters that are being bred this year and one son that we have never used before. Then I started rolling the genetic possibilities around inside my coconut and on the eve of putting the groups together, it came together in my head. This ram really does have it all and although Stonehenge would not have been a bad choice, I wanted to see what we have in this sire. If I like what I see next spring, I may very well use him on the Canterbury lambs from this year. That was another reason why I wanted to try Rosewood out on a few ewes this year. It's a trial run, so to speak.

His group this year was small, but these ewes are proven producers that I think will benefit from what he brings to the table in terms of fineness and uniformity. His ewes were:

Whispering Pines Blue Sapphire
Wintertime Itasca
Whispering Pines Venice

Honestly, I could have put all of these ewes in Canterbury's group as well, but I just felt there was much to gain doing it this way. I think all of these ewes have good fleece uniformity, but I think he will improve them in that regard. He is also finer than they were at the same age, so I think this group is promising. As I said, if it works out like I expect, he might get a larger group next year. I just have too many rams and that makes it difficult to use all of them in the way I might like. We also have five ram lambs that will be ready to use next fall if I wish to do so. All of them but one, however, are Canterbury sons, so that doesn't really work very well.

Finally, I did put Pearl in with Rosewood as a cleanup group just to ensure that she gets bred. I put her in with one of the ram lambs and one never knows how that will work. I really dislike using ram lambs.

I really like this group and am anticipating great things out of it.