A Brief History of Shetland Sheep 
The Shetland Islands are in a remote, sub-arctic region located in the far north of Scotland. Historically, these Islands were controlled by a series of fairly independent earls who, at different times, allied themselves with either the Scottish or the Norwegian crown. The Shetlands finally became part of the United Kingdom in 1707 following the Act of Union.

The Shetland Islands were deeply influenced by Norse culture, unlike the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles which were more Gaelic in their outlook. To this day, Shetland islanders celebrate their Viking heritage with a mid-winter festival known as "Up Helly Aa," during which Viking-costumed Shetlanders set fire to a replica Norse longship (see image below.)

Up Helly Aa Celebration by Anne Burgess

These sheep may have resembled the Scottish Dunface, a breed which is now extinct. The Scottish Dunface is believed to have resembled its cousin the Scottish Blackface. 

 On the right is a very old photograph of a Scottish Blackface sheep with a particularly long fleece to give some sense of what the Dunface may have looked like. 

Another sheep which shares the Shetland's Norse origins is the Icelandic sheep. While Icelandic sheep are considerably larger than Shetland sheep, there is an undeniable resemblance between the two breeds.

The shaggy Faroe Sheep (pictured in the Faroe Islands stamp to the right) is certainly a close cousin of the Shetland. The Faroe Sheep's wild, shaggy appearance also provides some insight to what the Shetlands' ancestors might have looked like.

 Domesticated Soay Ewe by Tomek Augustyn   
At some point, the Scandinavian sheep the Vikings brought to the Shetland Islands bred with populations of sheep already well-established throughout the Scottish isles. These primitive ancestors of the Shetland sheep might have resembled the tiny, deer-like Soay sheep, a breed with prehistoric origins which, until relatively recently, survived only in small, feral bands on the 250 acre island of Soay in the very remote Saint Kilda Archipelago. 

Perhaps the genetic contributions from these native Scottish sheep would explain the diminutive size of the Shetland breed, which has always been among smallest breeds of sheep in the British Isles.

Breed Standard and Diversions

Flag of the Shetland Islands    
Over the centuries, other varieties of sheep made genetic contributions to the Shetland breed. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of attempts were made to "improve" Shetland sheep through selective cross-breeding. By the early 20th century Shetland enthusiasts were becoming concerned that the breed might disappear completely.

Consequently, in 1927, the Shetland Flock Book Society established a breed standard and sought to preserve and promote the breed.

Shetlands in North America

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrant Peale    
We know that Shetland sheep were imported to North America during the 18th Century and that Thomas Jefferson himself owned one of the first documented Shetland flocks in the new world. Jefferson's flock included a very foul-tempered four-horned ram (today, four horns are normally a characteristic of a Hebridean, not a Shetland ram) which was responsible for inflicting serious bodily harm on individuals foolish enough to stroll across the White House lawn. In fact, Jefferson's ram was so unruly that the animal eventually had to be destroyed after it killed a small boy and a valuable portion of Jefferson's livestock. 

Understandably, Jefferson's interest gradually shifted away from Shetlands toward other breeds of sheep. The former President moved on to raising Tunis and Merino Sheep after his initial nerve-wracking experiences with Shetlands.
North American Reintroduction
By the turn of the 20th century, no known flock of recognizable Shetland Sheep had survived anywhere in North America. In 1948, George Flett, of Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan imported three Shetland ewes and one ram from a Shetland flock located in the Orkney Islands. This flock was maintained by Flett's family in total isolation for nearly 50 years. There are still Shetland Sheep with exclusively Flett genetics living in the Canada and the United States. 

Col. Dailley was a champion of 
endangered wildlife & livestock breeds.
However, the vast majority of Shetland sheep in North America descend from the 1980 importation of 32 Shetland sheep into Canada by Colonel G.D. Dailley, who deserves great credit for establishing the breed in North America.
Colonel Dailley's Shetlands were vigorous and possessed fairly diverse genetics. The sheep adapted beautifully to life in Canada. Finally, in 1986, Linda and Tuthill Doane of the Maple Ridge Sheep Farm made contact with Dailley and subsequently imported the first Shetland sheep into the United States.

In 1996, the first frozen Shetland sheep semen was imported from the United Kingdom into the United States by Elite Genetics, Inc. Since that time, artificial insemination has played an important role in maintaining the genetic diversity of North American Shetland Sheep. Subsequent shipments of frozen Shetland semen from the UK have taken place during the intervening years. Three of our Avon Grove Charter Shetlands are the descendants of AI donor rams from the UK!

Are Shetland Sheep Changing?
A Long-Coated Shetland Ram    
A Long-Coated Shetland Ram
In recent years, the appearance of Shetland sheep in the UK, and to a lesser extent in North America, has been changing. Many breeders have been selectively breeding away from the traditional double-coated, primitive-looking Shetland fleece and selecting for fleeces with more dense, merino-like characteristics.

 Merino Sheep have dense fleeces    
In addition, Scotland's once iconic multi-colored Shetland flocks have become increasingly rare. Basic economics are driving this transformation. White Shetland wool is more marketable, easier to process, and is consequently more valuable to breeders with large commercial flocks.
This change in the appearance of the breed has led to the emergence of a "refined" form for Shetland sheep with an appearance very different than the traditional double-coated Shetland.                                

Today, some Shetland breeders in the United States market their 
sheep as "primitive" Shetlands (with traditional double-coated fleeces) and "fine wool" Shetlands (with single coated, shorter, more Merino-like fleeces.)

A hundred-year-old photo of a Shetland with a traditional fleece

By making distinctions like these breeders are making a statement about their differing visions for the future of the breed.  In North America, there is even a Fleece Shetland Sheep Association which limits membership to breeders of single-coated Shetlands with dense fleeces.

On the other hand, back in the Shetland Islands, on a small island called Foula (which residents claim is the most isolated, inhabited island in the UK,) breeders have been marketing the wool from their sheep as "the most traditional and authentic Shetland wool available." The Sheep of Foula have the wild, unrefined look one might expect of the original representatives of the Shetland breed. The Foula Wool website describes the island's sheep in wonderfully poetic terms:

"The passage of time has lead to an inevitable modernisation of the 
Shetland Sheep Flock. However due to it's extreme isolation and 
fiercely independent community spirit the island of Foula has been 
fortunate to retain an exceptionally traditional strain of Shetland Sheep 
known locally as Foula Sheep."

A Bowmont Ram (Shetland x Saxon Merino)
To further complicate matters, the recent emergence of the "Bowmont" (which is essentially a cross between the Shetland and the Saxon Merino) represents the most direct and arguably most extreme form of "breed-improvement." The popularity of the Bowmont has increased considerably since the breed's initial introduction in 2004. As you can see in the photo of a Bowmont Ram (to the right), this new breed looks almost nothing like a traditional Shetland sheep.                  

While the appearance of livestock breeds inevitably change over time, it would be a genuine tragedy if the more traditional forms of Shetland Sheep were to disappear forever. While raising "primitive" Shetlands may ultimately be less lucrative than more "refined" versions of the breed, traditional Shetland enthusiasts will always be able to sell their wool to a growing number of specialty fiber producers/processors.