this was an article I wrote for The Finer Side Newsletter in 2017. i felt it needed to be here as well.
“Shetland Sheep in North America, Just how Diverse is Your Flock?”
Presently in North America there are shepherds who try to exclusively maintain sheep only from the original imported sheep for the sake of “diversity”. So what exactly does diversity mean, and are we really diverse? To answer that question we have to go back to the beginning of Shetland Sheep here in North America.
Shetland Sheep came to North America in 1980. The imported flock consisted of four rams and twenty-eight ewes. All of them were inspected by the SSS and subsequently registered with the Shetland Sheep Society. These original sheep had a lifetime quarantine imposed on them by the Canadian government. However, their offspring and future generations could be sold once the first lamb crop reached five years of age. In 1986 the first Shetlands moved from Canada to the United States and thus Shetland sheep began a migration across both countries.
For those who look to maintain sheep that are not inbred or closely related, sticking with just the original imports could prove detrimental from a genetic standpoint. The need to expand genetic material is crucial to the continuing viability of the breed. With the importation of semen by NASSA and also privately, through Jim Chastain, and later a smaller group, we were fortunate to have fifteen additional rams brought into our arsenal of genetics. Two additional rams were imported later into Canada, but their bloodlines are not available to us in the States.
Not much is known on the history of the original four rams’ bloodlines. What is known is that Mr. Benji Hunter did end up providing three of the original imported rams and the fourth, a white, was from Mr. Jim Johnson’s flock. There has been some confusion about this as a one time, Mr. Michael Rosenberg was going to supply the rams. But circumstances did not allow that to happen. Generally speaking, only rams are registered with the Shetland Flock Book and most are not named, thus tracking lineage can be difficult, but I have reached out to several in Shetland in hopes of gaining additional information.
When reviewing the rams imported through semen ( 14 rams), we are able to trace the majority of these rams’ lineage. What is found that while there were 14 rams imported, there are only nine distinct male tail lines within this group. Given the size of our population of Shetlands in the USA, this is quite alarming to only have thirteen distinct ram lines. Most farms have two or less with closer examination of pedigrees. To have a healthy gene pool from which to draw upon, one needs at least XYXY number of ram and ewe lines, or else one becomes prone to a population bottleneck. This is an evolutionary event that drastically reduces a population. With the added inbreeding of small gene pools, one can end up pulling out a lot of recessive traits that would not normally be often seen. This is a topic for a future article.
Utilizing the NASSA online database, begin to start tracing back the top line of your pedigree. This is called the primary tail male and begins with the sire, moving up to grand sire, great grand sire, great great grand sire, etc. see how far you can trace it back. All rams will follow the line of their sire, regardless of their dam’s sire, which is called the secondary ram line. But for now, we will just talk about the primary tail male line.
Let’s examine the rams a bit closer, beginning with the original Canadian imports of the Dailley flock.
Pierre, a white- supplied by Mr. Jim Johnson
Duncan, a grey ( which later was determined to be an Ag grey) - supplied by Mr. Benji Hunter
Hartland, another Ag grey-supplied by Mr. Benji Hunter
Colonel, a moorit-supplied by Mr. Benji Hunter
If your primary tail male ends up with one of these rams listed above, you will not be able to go further at this point and your ram would be considered a domestic ram line.
Next , we will examine the next group of rams collected and exported to the US in the early 1990’s by NASSA.
The following rams were all SSS approved and collected from England and Scotland.
Enfield Greyling, horned and an Ag Katmoget. This ram along with Shirehill Minder ( below) were the first to produce badger face/ katmogets. Up till this point, the only badgerface were produced from Dailey stock that was actually another pattern identified and currently recognized in the US as light badgerface. The light badgerface pattern is still prevalent on Shetland.
Shirehill Minder, an Ag katmoget, but is registered as fawn. He was the only fawn registered at the time with the SSS and was therefore collected, even though in speaking with his breeder, or having an ideal wool quality.
Greenholme Holly, a possible half polled black blettet
Campaign Timothy, was a black with good D shaped horns.
Willowcroft Jamie, a horned moorit who was very prepotent for correcting conformation faults.
Heatheram Lightning , a white
The next group of rams were collected by Mr. Jim Chastain and includes only Shetland Flock Book ram genetics. They are as follows:
Drum Jing, a horned white.
Keir Gordon, a horned white.
Drum ram, a horned black.
Island Skeld, a horned white.
Ridland 3956 YE, a horned white
Island Kirkigarth Brent , a horned moorit.
Then in the later 1990’s two more rams were collected. They were SSS approved as well.
Heights Orion, a horned moorit
Todhill Jericho, a horned katmoget
Lastly, in the mid 2000’s a final ram:
Robin Dillon, a ‘half polled’ gulmoget/katmoget. He was imported for the preservation of the gulmoget pattern. Even in the UK, most of the gulmogets trace back to this ram.
From this seemingly long list of imported rams, when tracing the tail male lines, we discover that the following ones go back to the same lines:
Greenholme Holly, Campaign Timothy, and Drum Ram all trace back to ISLAND IAGO
Enfield Greyling and Shirehill Minder trace back to WITTS END BLACK TWEED
Heights Orion and Robin Dillon trace back to ISLAND BENJIE
Todhill Jericho and Willowcroft Jamie trace back to ISLAND FUNZIE
Keir Gordon and Drum Jings trace back to ISLAND CHARLIE
Kirkigarth Brent traces back to ISLAND JOHN
Ridland 3956 YE traces back to an unnamed island ram
Island Skeld traces back to another unnamed island ram
Heatheram Lightning traces back to ISLAND LES
This list is quite a bit shorter at 9(out of 15 rams who had semen imported).and while many other considerations go into finding a proper ram with correct breed type, colors, and phenotype, it is important to look at the long term effect of just breeding for the best, regardless of ram lines. Ideally, each farm/flock should have 2-3 ram lines that they breed with, and when looking for a new line, are able to find other breeders who have different ram lines for genetic diversity.
An issue that is very current , is that most polled rams are now almost exclusively down from the Dillon ram, which means that they go back to Island Benji exclusively, with few exceptions. Polled breeders, who are interested in diversifying the ram line, would be best to find polled rams from lines other than Dillon or Orion- remember he traces back to the same ram as well.
The horned breeders who are breeding Fine fleeces see,to all have Orion as the main ram line. This makes sense as Orion and Dillon were two of the last three rams collected and imported to the U.S. However, from a preservation and diversity stand point it would be wise to incorporate a second or third ram line into these flocks.
To the flocks that trace back to the four original rams of the Dailey flock, a ram line from one of the imported semen rams would incorporate new genetics into those flocks.
My personal flock consists of three main ram lines now: Heights Orion/Roman Dillon( ISLAND BENJIE), Todhill Jericho ( ISLAND FUNZIE), and Heatheram Lightning (ISLAND LES). To be certain in preserving all lines and maximize diversity, I have also found ram lines that go back to Island IAGO, and Wits End Black Tweed to purchase from in the future. I have also been able to purchase three additional ram lines for use next fall, Skeld, Ridland, and a domestic line going back to a Dailey ram. In addition, I have secured semen for Drum Jings/Keir Gordon line( ISLAND CHARLIE) and have found only one farm that still has a Brent line, which I hope to secure a ram from in the future. This may appear to be a lot of work, but it only takes one ram to continue the line. And if we all act now, most of these lines can be maintained before they die out and become ‘dead end lines’. We must work with what we have, it could very well be all that we ever have, if we are unable to import more rams. Diversity means a wider range, let’s not be myopic and just focus on a closed set of genes. Open the flocks to incorporate the other genetic material here, before it’s too late.