2 January 1998

The amazing

technicolour

sheepcoat

Shetland sheep are famous for the vast range of fleece

colours and markings they exhibit. Theyre getting more

popular, too, with 3000 registered ewes and many thousand

more run commercially in the Shetland Isles.

Jeremy Hunt reports

A GREY katmoget nudges a moorit out of the way. "The one over there is a bleset. Id like to breed a krunet or a smirslet but Ive not managed it yet," says Elizabeth Brown as she holds out a handful of feed.

This lilting terminology has its roots in the windswept islands of Shetland, home of crofting communities whose livelihoods have long been associated with the fine wool of the hardy Shetland sheep.

Now its common parlance among the 400-plus members of the Shetland Sheep Breeders Group as they refer to the huge variety of fleece colours and markings inherent in the breed.

As Mrs Browns own ewes compete for the contents of the feed bucket an impressive ram bleats in frustration from the adjoining field on this remote north Cumbrian smallholding.

"When you turn the ram out with the ewes in the autumn you always wonder what colours your lambs will be in the spring," says Mrs Brown who has been breeding Shetland sheep for 14 years and is now secretary of the breeders group.

On the kitchen table in the farmhouse at Bartiestown, Hethersgill, near Carlisle she spreads out a new poster produced by the group and beautifully drawn by Surrey breeder Sue Russo.

It depicts the 63 different fleece colours and markings that can occur in Shetland sheep. No other breed in the world carries such a myriad of fleece tones.

Mrs Brown points out some of the fleece names. "There is the blaget, flecket, bersugget, gulmoget, fawn mirkface, bioget and sholmet to mention just a few. Part of the fascination of the breed is this wonderful variety of wool colour and these evocative names."

Greys and fawns, spotted and banded, white socks and white blazes, snow white to pale brown, deep chocolate to jet black each with its own intricate and definitive markings – the Shetland is never a breed to be bored with.

But Mrs Brown, whose husband Edward is well known as an auctioneer at Harrison and Hetherington in Carlisle, says the breeds appeal is more than fleece-deep. The group is keen to encourage more commercial farmers to keep Shetland sheep.

Although there are a number of large flocks on the Scottish mainland, as well as the Wear familys flock of several hundred ewes based near Bristol, most breeders group members are smallholders. Shetland Island farmers run their own Flock Book Society.

Renowned wool

The breed evolved in isolation in Shetland from the late 8th century following its introduction by the Vikings. Its wool – the finest of any British breed averaging 23 microns – is renowned for its fineness of crimp.

It is one of the Rare Breed Survival Trusts success stories. There are now 3000 breeding ewes in the UK registered with the breeders group, but there are still many thousands of ewes run commercially in the Shetland Islands.

"The quiet temperament of the breed, its small size and its easy management have

enhanced its

popularity. The

colours and

quality of

the wool

attract

those

who love to spin, but the Shetland is not a Bambi wrapped in a coloured blanket.

"The Shetland crosses well with terminal sire breeds to produce a good prime lamb and that is equally important for the breeds future."

The breeders group has an active dialogue with the British Wool Marketing Board and a special buying scheme for different colours of wool has been set up. Breeders are to be commended for their active stance on scrapie and now have a voluntary scheme in place to enable rams to be genotyped for the scrapie resistant gene.

Scrapie-resistant

A similar scheme is underway in the Shetland Islands where breeders believe their entire sheep stock will be scrapie resistant within five years.

Back in the field at Bartiestown and the failing daylight of autumn heralds tupping time. The ram continues to bleat longingly at his ewes.

Who knows what his efforts will yield – a grey skimlet, a dark brown blaeget or a fawn snaelit. Whatever the outcome the colours of his progeny will be striking and the wool among the finest of any breed in the world.

The Shetland Sheep Breeders Group: (01228-577374).

A moorit Shetland ewe. Names like moorit, katmoget, bleset, smirslet and krunet refer to the huge variety of fleece colours and markings.

Elizabeth Brown with a favourite grey katmoget Shetland ewe.

The grey katmoget

stock ram in the Bartiestown flock.