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.


Michelle said...

An excellent article! I would like to see this in The Shepherd for FFSSA!

Kelly said...

I 2nd that, well done!!! I could not have summarized all that information that well if I tried. Kudos.

Kim Nikolai said...

Excellent! I agree with Michelle, this needs to be published in The Shepherd.

Kim Nikolai said...

Excellent article! I agree, I'd like to see this published in The Shepherd.