NO REGRETS: James Gray, inset, and some of his small flock of Shetland sheep
NO REGRETS: James Gray, inset, and some of his small flock of Shetland sheep

SHETLAND sheep have mainly been favoured by hobby breeders to date.

However, they may have a more important role to play on farms of the future, due to their easy-care qualities and ability to thrive on rough pasture.

James Gray chose the breed when he was looking to start up a small flock and he has not regretted his decision.

“Shetlands of the Grays” is the prefix of the Hamsterley-based flock which James manages with the help of his parents, David and Emma and brothers, Henry and Ed.

At 17, Mr Gray will soon be going away to university and his mother was keen for the family to select a small breed which was easy to handle.

After some research, he chose the Shetland and in the summer of 2016 bought a group of 12 ewe lambs and gimmer shearlings from the Wadley flock owned by fellow breeder, Philip Cowan, of Witton-le-Wear.

These are a variety of colours and include the Moorit, which has a red/brown fleece.

Lambing takes place at the end of March to early April and all of the ewes lamb outdoors. A tup is borrowed from a neighbour each year and this season the plan is to keep half a dozen ewe lambs as replacements, with the surplus offered to other flocks.

A mature female will weigh about 50kg, with single lambs finished at roughly 30kg. The main slaughter period is about Christmas time.

“This year the entire flock lambed for the first time and the result was 14 strong lambs,” says Mr Gray.

“The Shetland’s native home is challenging and my ewes generally have only a single lamb. The breed usually has black feet and that may be why Shetlands rarely suffer any problems; I have only had a couple of very mild cases of lameness."

The Grays benefit from an all-year-round supply of lamb for their freezer, with some of the meat sold to private customers whose feedback suggests that the flavour is excellent.

“Shetland meat is fine-textured and ours are mainly grass-fed,” he explains.

“Thinner ewes may receive a small quantity of concentrates, along with the smaller lambs at the end of their finishing period. However, grazed grass is the staple diet and I believe this system improves the taste of the meat.

“My favourite way for my mother to cook Shetland lamb is to roast it in the Aga for several hours with garlic, rosemary and red wine.”

Mr Gray’s father is a land agent and his grandfather also joined the profession. However, he is keen to make a career in agriculture and hopes to take a course in farm management at The Royal Agricultural University, in Cirencester, or at Newcastle University.

The options for further education will depend on the grades that he achieves in his A levels and he is currently studying for exams in economics, geography and psychology.

In the mean time, he works part-time on a local farm and also goes beating during the shooting season.

Lack of time is the main reason why the sheep have not yet been exhibited but Mr Gray plans to attend a number of events next year, including the Wensleydale show. He feels that he made the right choice with the Shetland and believes they may increase in popularity.

“There is a lot of emphasis on biodiversity and therefore a number of schemes for farmers to join, to help to maintain the landscape in good order. I think that Shetlands may have a greater role to play in land management in the future, because of their hardiness and ability to cope with poor grazing. Their small stature means that they cause minimal poaching, which is another advantage of the breed.

“I have never kept sheep before but I have always wanted to have my own flock. Some people may not relish the prospect of having to go and check on their livestock before work or school, especially when the weather is bad,” he says.

“But it gives me a sense of pride when I visit my sheep and I can see that they are healthy and thriving.

“In addition, it gives me a welcome break from my school work.”

The Shetland Sheep – colour classifications

There are 11 main whole colours for Shetland sheep, with many shades and variations in between. The colours are classified using words from the Shetlandic language, which has a strong Norse influence. Examples include the Emsket (bluish-grey), mioget (yellowish-brown) and shaela 1 (dark grey).