Five reasons to keep Shetland sheep - and five reasons not to
Why to keep them
1. Shetland ewes make fantastic mothers They are prolific, lamb easily and almost always bond immediately. Of all the lambs born into the Stokehill flock, only one was not accepted by his mother. This was because he managed to escape from his pen (a trait revisited in 'reasons not to have Shetland sheep') before his mother had acknowledged him, so she believed that the second lamb was her only one.
2. Shetland sheep come in a fabulous range of colours, which is good news for spinners, makes identification at a distance easier and brightens up the view. The colours also have great names to try to learn, such as 'katmoget' and moorit'.
3. They have good feet and are ideal candidates for the current 'no-trimming' regime. If you do need to upend them to inspect a hoof, they are small and fairly easy to manoevre. Their small stature also means that they do less damage to the fields than larger animals.
4. Shetland sheep have wonderful wool - perfect for spinners, needle felters and any surplus fleec makes an effective mulch around fruit trees or an unusual liner for hanging baskets.
5. Shetland sheep are browsers rather than grazers, which means that they clean up a field very neatly, rather than leaving the bits they don't like. They don't eat thistles, but pretty much everything else gets eaten, even nettles at certain times of the year. (If we ever notice that poisonous plants like ragwort or hemlock have seeded themselves in our fields, we remove them as these would be harmful to the sheep.)
So why not?
1. Shetland sheep are small and grow slowly, so if you are after a large carcass, they are not for you. They are often grown on into their second year, but they do produce high quality meat. So far, we have sold our wethers (castrated males) for conservation grazing rather than direct to slaughter from us, which gives them a longer period of growth.
2. Shetland sheep are browsers - hang on, wasn't that in 'reasons why?' Yes, it was there because sheep grazing down a field is great, but sheep working their way through an orchard is not popular. And they do, given half a chance.
3. Shetland sheep don't flock (bunch helpfully together) in the same way that commercial breeds of sheep tend to when you are moving them. They will scatter, particularly if you are in a hurry to gather them in for an inspection, the shearer, or when you had decided to do this 'one small thing' at the beginning of a long list of jobs .
And don't be lulled into a false sense of security by the appearance of compliance in this photograph - as that's when it all goes wrong........
4. Shetland sheep are balletic - they can stand on both, or even one, hind leg without needing the support shown in the photograph below They do this to reach up to branches, especially those belonging to prized fruit trees, (see browsing, above). They can leap several feet into the air from a standstill, over a hurdle, onto a hayrack or into your face as you try to vaccinate them.
5. Shetland sheep are too smart for their own good. They watch, wait and make the best use of opportunities as they present themselves. When you notice that tiny gap in the fence, don't waste any neuronal activity wondering whether to leave it until tomorrow. Do it now. Even as you look at it, the sheep will be following your gaze and plotting. Only when you have trailed around the field in your pyjamas, desperately hoping that you will see glittering eyes reflected in your torch beam, will you make this approach part of your way of life.
So......... what's your verdict?