By Barry Allen

Shetland cattle developed in isolation on the Shetland Isles over thousands of years.  They are most probably descendants of the Aurochs, the large, wild cattle which roamed Europe after the last Ice Age.  There may have been other influences – the Vikings will have introduced small numbers of cattle – but there is little evidence to suggest that they had lasting effect.  The harsh climate of the Islands ensured that the Shetland would, over time, change from the original large beast to the small, hardy cow we see today.  Its use by crofting families eventually produced the well-mannered and easily managed animal much appreciated by today’s smallholders.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was estimated that there were 15,000 native cattle on the Islands.  The crofting families depended on their “house cows” for their very survival.  Apart from their meat and (especially) milk, the sale of an old cow or a calf could be the only means of paying their, then, exorbitant rents.  At this time many of the cattle would be wintered outside, simply because there would not be sufficient housing for them.  The cows often lived into their 20’s producing a calf year on year.  The loss of a cow in those times was little short of a tragedy for the families. 

Jump forward to the 20th century and the dependency on the cattle had started to decline as the subsistence economy of the Islands improved with better transport to the mainland.  The crofters had been encouraged by the Board of Agriculture to cross their Shetlands with imported Shorthorn and Angus bulls to produce larger meat carcases.  It was their success in these ventures that almost led to their demise as pure bred numbers plummeted.

By 1910 a group of Islanders realised that something would have to be done if they were to preserve their native cattle.  They formed the Shetland Cattle Herd Book Society and produced the first Herd Book for Shetland cattle in 1912 with only 380 cows and 39 bulls.  Unfortunately, herd books ceased production after 1921 as arguments about the viability of pure bred Shetlands were raised, and though the Society continued in existence and held occasional meetings, it was 1981 before the next herd book was published.

By this time the breed had suffered another setback.  After the second World War, Government subsidies were denied to the breed unless they were crossed with a beef bull, and this continued until the Shetland’s classification as a dairy breed was changed to dual purpose in the 1950’s.  This damaging period led to pure bred numbers being further depleted.  What is now known as the New Foundation Herd Book was produced in 1981 and recorded under a hundred cows and 30 bulls.

Fortunately for the breed and thanks to the efforts of dedicated breeders on the Islands and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust among others, the Shetland steadily improved its chances of survival as more and more people became aware of its qualities, and people on mainland Britain started to provide a market for the animals.  There are now around 800 breeding females, with 180 calf registrations each year, the majority of which are from the mainland.  An organisation – the Shetland Cattle Breeders Association – was introduced in 2000 to represent breeders outside the Shetland Isles.

Shetlands are deep bodied cattle on short legs, fine boned and weighing between 350 and 500kg with the bulls rather heavier.  They have distinctive horns, short but curving inwards and slightly upwards.  Earliest photographs suggest they have changed little in recent years though they originally appeared in a variety of colours.  Selective breeding for black and white cattle in the 1950’s lasted for many years and even today the majority are this colour.  But around 10% are now red and white, and some of the older colours – grey, dun and brindled – are reappearing in small numbers.

The Shetland is still used extensively for crossbreeding, to even the largest beef breeds, but fortunately for pure bred numbers it is becoming increasingly popular as a conservation grazer and a multi-suckler.  A cow will suckle up to 4 calves, dependent on grazing quality.  But more than ever before it is popular as a smallholder’s cow.  Above all, its temperament suits the new cattle owner.  Its small size and docile nature give confidence to the inexperienced.  It will settle in the new home and bond quickly with its keeper.  When a cow was sold on Shetland a piece of cloth from the crofter’s wife’s apron would accompany her so that the new owner would be able to milk her.

It is fair to say that the Shetland is the original house cow and many are still milked today to provide milk for the family and some owners are now producing speciality cheeses for sale.  Perhaps more common today is the raising of male calves for meat.  Often overlooked in the past has been the quality of pure Shetland beef which today’s smallholders are now coming to appreciate.  Pure bred calves will grow quickly and finish within 30 months on a diet of summer grass and winter hay, without the need of expensive concentrates.  They will do this even on poor quality forage.

As calving can come at any time of the day or night, it is a considerable advantage for the smallholder to know he/she is unlikely to be faced with incorrect presentations or weak calves.  The Shetland’s ease of calving is legendary and its good width of hips combined with small calves makes this possible.

The present cows are well suited to a life in or out during the winter months.  Their adaptability makes them the ideal choice for the inexperienced or those in full time employment.  They mature early and live long.  It is not unusual for a cow to be producing calves into its late teens.  If keeping a bull is not for you, then it is reassuring to know that semen is available from Shetland bulls through the RBST.

Shetland Cattle Breeders Association website –