Just over a year ago I had this amazing idea that I would start working with Shetland sheep. I thoroughly enjoyed working with their wool and the people that I had met while purchasing the fleeces. Shetland wool is soft and comes in an array of colors, which is really what drew me to the breed. Besides their lovely, colorful fleeces, Shetland sheep are very primitive and very small. They’re hardy little creatures, holding onto their primitive traits from their time living on the rocky and wet Shetland islands.
I worked on reaching out to various breeders across Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Indiana to find different lines of Shetlands to bring home. My first selected sheep were from a friend right in Ohio, who I had met several times before and seen her flock. I very much enjoyed seeing her collection of colors, which was another driving force on getting Shetland sheep – having a friend with her own flock!
As I progressed further through my search in finding sheep to make my flock, I learned about horned ewes and fine fleeced Shetlands. The interesting thing about the horned ewes are that they are fairly rare. Most commonly, Shetland rams are horned, while ewes are typically polled. This was really interesting to me and I wanted to focus on a flock of horned ewes to help save the rarer genetics. Fine fleeced Shetland are also less common. The North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association (NASSA) accepts three fleece types in Shetlands – kindly (fine), intermediate, and beaver (coarse). In 1927, the Shetland Flock Book Society produced a standard for Shetland sheep which requires that they be fine-fleeced. A select few breeders dedicated to maintaining the fine fleece traits of the Shetlands began a performance registration called Fine Fleece Shetland Sheep Association (FFSSA). The purpose of this group is to breed towards the 1927 Standard for fine-fleeced Shetland sheep using micron testing for various factors in wool softness and comfort. It took a bit of digging to find out about horned ewes and the 1927 fine-fleeced sheep, but in the end, I wound up finding sheep from four breeders in Ohio and two sheep from a breeder in Kentucky. I wished that I had found more flocks outside of Ohio, because there is a need for genetic diversity in all animal species.
My flock began with nine Shetland sheep in 2020. [Redcated] Fern and [redacted] Bitsy came from [redacted] in [redacted], Ohio. Both of these sheep are black, horned ewes with an intermediate fleece. Pheasant Run Cadence and Liberty Highland Gabe came from Stassia Anderson in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Cadence is polled with an intermediate fleece, and Gabe is horned with an intermediate fleece. The purpose of purchasing Cadence and Fern were for ewes who had already lambed before and had not shown to have any difficulties and were excellent mothers. Gabe had great lines on his sires side, excellent horn spacing and conformation. Merry Go Round Airlie and Merry Go Round Isla came from Jerri Ramsey in Berea, Kentucky. Both of these ewes are horned and from a flock bred to the 1927 Standard for fine fleece. Innisfree Sarah and Innisfree Allison were a happy accident. They came from Keba Hitezman in Pleasant Hill, Ohio. I traded Keba two of my Icelandic sheep for Sarah and Allison, and I feel like I got the better end of the deal! They are both polled, however their fleeces are extremely fine and it would be safe to assume they follow the 1927 Standard. The last sheep purchased was [redacted] Scarlett, who came from [redacted] in [redacted], Ohio. Scarlett is a horned ewe and bred towards the 1927 Standard. My NASSA member number is 3157, and you can search all of my sheep here: NASSA Database Search Criteria (mtn-niche.net).
All the sheep in the flock have their own advantages and disadvantages towards my goals. I like to think I have a happy mix of fine-fleeced sheep along with horned ewe genes, and to think that I have a solid foundation for a pretty solid flock… Or so I thought.
It was October 2020 and we had just put our two breeding ewes, Cadence and Fern, with our ram lamb, Gabe. I thought I had this all figured out. We’ll breed two experienced ewes this fall, so that come spring, we won’t be over run with lambs for our first time, and have ewes that have lambed and mothered before. And we’ll aim for April lambs, just before the season starts to warm and parasites come out of hibernation, that way the lambs will get a slow introduction to any parasites. This should be a piece of cake, right?
That ram lamb was small enough to climb under the wooden slats in the fence and get to the ewe lambs I had no intention of breeding! That morning, I found him in the wrong pen with all the young ladies and grabbed him! I picked him up with an arm around his middle and the other arm between his hind legs. As if that moment couldn’t get any worse, something just didn’t feel right. Where was Gabe’s other testicle? That whole day at work, I was thinking about our ram that had one testicle. I prayed I was just imagining it and that he was actually fine. It was early morning, right before work. I could easily have been mistaken. Again, nope. He had one testicle, the other was likely undescended. This is known as cryptorchidism.
What does this mean? Can he breed or is he sterile? Is this a heritable genetic trait?
I reached out to fellow breeders to learn if this trait was genetic and could be passed down to his offspring. Oh, you betcha it is. This meant that all offspring he produced would need to be wethered and sold as fiber pets. This also meant that something was wrong with Gabe and that he needed to be seen by a veterinarian. Being part of the Animal Welfare Approved program with A Greener World, I needed to ask for permission to wether Gabe at his 7 months of age. I opted to wether him because the undescended testicle could possibly cause torsion, and I needed to know if it actually was undescended and not just damaged as a lamb. If it was damaged, it wouldn't be a heritable trait and I could go on my merry way!
AGW approved my request to surgically castrate Gabe, and we made an appointment with Amanda Animal Hospital to have the procedure done. It was a quick out-patient procedure. Gabe was a bit wobbly when we picked him up, and we had him isolated for ten days to keep him from moving too much. We made sure he could still see and hear his flock. The testicle was in fact undescended, which means he carries a genetic flaw that would be passed to his off-spring. We still didn't know if Gabe was sterile or not. I had several breeders help me to investigate the reason for Gabe being cryptorchid. [Redacted].
I still have heard nothing about this issue.
In early March, we sheared all the Shetlands and did blood draws on everyone for biosecurity testing (Johnes, OPPV, and CL), and had testing to confirm whether Fern and Cadence were pregnant! We each swore we felt kicking, but it was nice to have lab confirmation that the girls were due in April!
Cadence was first to lamb a healthy ram lamb, and then Fern lambed twin ram lambs. We got to watch both of the lambings, and it was such an awesome experience. The following week, Chris runs inside and shouts that Scarlett had a lamb! I couldn’t believe it! We both felt so bad, because Scarlett was just a lamb herself, and lambed by herself, all alone. She had a healthy, gorgeous ram lamb who looks just like her! We’re thankful there weren’t any complications and that she is such a fantastic momma! We checked the whole flock and determined that Isla was likely pregnant too, and a few days later she had a lovely little ewe lamb, our only one! She is also a fantastic momma!
We know that it definitely helped the younger girls understand their new roles by having the older ewes lamb first. They were both able to experience their flock members bringing new life to the flock and see how to be a good mother. I still feel horrible that these little girls lambed before their time, but we’re so lucky to have such hardy little sheep, with birthing ease and excellent mothering instinct.
Per the AWA standard, all castrations need to take place within the first 7 days of life to reduce the stress and pain the lambs feel. Castration in lambs involves a small rubber ring that is placed around the scrotum to enclose the testicles in the scrotum and keep them away from the abdomen. Over time, the lack of circulation causes the scrotum to fall off and the lambs are wethered. I had never done this, but I had seen plenty of “what-not-to-dos” in various forums. I’d seen people use string and have their lamb die from tetanus, to people getting one or none of the testicles in the scrotum. Even people getting the nipples stuck under the band too. It was tricky banding them, as they were so small, everything was small! Chris held the lambs, while I held the band applicator. I successfully managed to have both testicles under the band with no nipples with them on all four of the lambs.
Not to add more salt to the wound, but now it seems all the lambs have begun to develop very weird scurs, which are just small horns. Some are just curling too closely to their head, so that if they develop further, they would hit their faces. Talking with several breeders it could be a variety of things. Were their dams lacking something in their diet during pregnancy? Is it genetic related where the sire and dams weren’t compatible? Is it related to wethering them so soon? How will this affect their sales, if a new sheep owner is uncomfortable trimming scurs? There’s a lot of questions floating around right now. And a lot of the answers will come much later.
Now, what to do with these five lambs that can’t be bred? I’m really hoping that I can sell them for fiber pets to people who have an interest in lovely colored fleeces from lovely little sheep. I’ve gotten a few inquiries on them, but nothing definite as of yet. I’m trying to be a practical shepherd. Of course, I would love to keep every sheep that comes on my property. I get attached to each of them, we all do, but we have to look to the interest of the farm. Keeping extra sheep that can’t be used for breeding or producing nice fleeces need to be sold. And what if we can’t sell them? Our decision is that we will keep them up to one year to their first shearing and then have them processed by an AGW approved processor. Obviously, none of us want to do this, but we have to for the benefit of the farm and the Shetland breed.
It feels like this first year with Shetland sheep has been a roller coaster, mentally and emotionally. I have thought about so much in just this past year. I knew being a shepherd wouldn’t be easy, but it can’t always be this tough either! Right?