Rambling around Shetland, 4–sheep

While I was in Shetland, I also watched sheep—in addition to those I saw at the Cunningsburgh show. I could have spent the whole time running around looking at flocks, but I had other types of research to do that needed to precede the conversations I might have with the sheep and their people (for the most part). I did visit some flocks. But I also simply noticed which sheep were where.

This black sheep was not where it belonged, nor where it wanted to be.


It was actually loose, and able to get out onto the main road leading to the airport (the A970, which is the main north/south route). In the photo above you can see the road with the airport beyond it. Lots of sheep ramble around without fencing in Shetland, but not intentionally in locations like that. So before I went to the Jarlshof historic site, I stopped in at the nearby Sumburgh Hotel (which looks like a terrific place to stay) and asked at the desk if they knew who to notify about the errant sheep.

They got in touch with the owner. I noticed a while later (while I was touring Jarlshof) that he came by, and then there were three sheep outside the main enclosure, but all effectively blocked from getting to the road.


Those are sheep in Shetland, but they are not sheep of the Shetland breed. They are also in a location where there is grass and where their welfare can be monitored on a regular basis. The “which sheep are where?” question hinges, for the most part, on those two factors.

These Suffolk tups (rams) grazed in lush surroundings near the Crofthouse Museum: again sheep in Shetland, but not sheep of the Shetland breed.


Of course, I saw plenty of Shetland sheep of the Shetland breed as well. A number of Shetland tups were in inbye fields (inbye being close to houses, as opposed to hill-grazing areas), enjoying some feasting before they go to work in the fall ensuring that there are plenty of lambs next spring.

However, Shetland sheep are easiest to find if you get out away from the main human habitation areas: away from two-lane roads, and into places where there are single-tracks with passing lanes. Rumble across the subtle barrier of a cattle grid* and start driving more carefully, because sheep will be next to and wandering on the road. I don’t know if there are any other breeds in these areas, but I doubt it. Many people assure me that any other type of sheep won’t survive in that environment and without closer attention. Shetlands have a reputation for hardiness.

* British English. US English = cattle guard. Called this even when it’s sheep that are being kept from crossing outside the area.


I went to visit a flock that is fenced but lives on rougher pastures than the inbye sheep. These are the ewes. . . .


. . . and these are the handsome rams.


They’re owned by Mary Macgregor, who has published a book of Fair Isle patterns collected by Robert Williamson and whose croft is as close to Foula as I got.

On the way to see Mary and her sheep, I also passed a spot where a flock had been gathered for shearing. These are the post-haircut crew. I counted six shearers working, most with hand shears although at least one set of electric shears ran off a generator.


Nearby were some question marks. There appeared to be a mix in this field. That’s likely a Shetland on the left. The one in the middle has a Texel-y appearance (face, set of the ears, and stance). The one with its head down has four horns. There are genes for this in the Shetland breed, but they aren’t common. The tail would provide additional information, but the photo doesn't show its shape clearly enough and I didn’t take the time to get permission to go into the field or to simply ask the owner. At that moment, I didn’t really need to know; the pieces of information I filed mentally were “mixed flock” and “interesting horns.” Again, this was pasture, carefully maintained, and close to the relevant house.


In Shetland-spotting, the first giveaway is location. Another clue: color. White Shetlands abound, but colors also appear frequently, especially in the hill sheep. (Inbye Shetland sheep tend toward the white and moorit, or solid brown, and at this season were often rams. Colored sheep could also be Zwartbles, but they’re bigger and have a characteristic marking pattern of white-on-black—not at all like the markings on the sheep below right—and will be in the cushier digs.)

Shetlands (through the windshield):




Shetlands (the fence is behind them, and I took the photo from the road):


Shetlands, wandering around on top of a fairly bleak hill reached by a gravel, potholed road, and home to telecommunications sites, both currently functioning and abandoned:


Shetland, sheltering, not far from those other two:


Driving down the other side of that hill, different types of sheep began to appear as I got lower and closer to where people were living. These are likely Shetland-Cheviot crosses.


These are Shetlands (great color on the righthand one).


Scottish Blackface: another sturdy breed, able to live on rough turf, but not let loose on the hills with the Shetlands for many reasons.


On St Ninian’s Isle, a mix of crosses, with lots of green to eat and not too far from the tending humans.


Another thing that I became more familiar with was the predators that cause the most losses of lambs and weak sheep. For the most part, in Shetland that means birds, and I suspect they are primarily a problem to the hill flocks.

For example: the bonxie, or Great Skua. This one was flying over St Ninian’s Isle.


Another concern is ravens (and PDF here). I’m pretty sure that’s what these were; I’m only a casual birdwatcher, but the only crows in Shetland are hooded crows, which can also do a lot of damage to a flock, and they aren’t all-black like these birds (which I saw before they took flight).


Understanding the threats to a breed of sheep is also part of getting a good idea of what “hardiness” means and what influences people’s decisions of which types to put in particular environments and how to manage them.

Ending on a more directly sheep-y and positive note, I did get to visit with Mary and Tommy Isbister at Burland Croft Trail, and their sheep (it was their poultry I met with earlier in my trip). 


On my walk around the croft, I met up with some caddie lambs (bottle lambs in North America). This one had just had a good snack and had a face and neck covered with milk-spray.


While I was out at Mary’s, she took this photo of me. Windblown, but not rain-soaked.


Even the rainy days were good for sheep-spotting, although the clear days were better. I saw a few hundred sheep, maybe a thousand. That wasn't enough, but it was all I could fit into this trip.