Shetland cattle, from the Shetland Islands of Scotland, are a small, hardy cattle breed. Like most breeds originating from these isles, Shetland cattle are smaller than most due to the harshness of their native environment.
Shetland cattle are considered an ancient breed, dating back to the Viking Era. It has been suggested that they first arrived on the islands between 700 and 1100 AD.
Traditionally known as the ‘The House Cow’, Shetland cattle were key to crofting - a form of land tenure - in Shetland in the past. They provided meat and milk for the islanders and were used for draught work, pulling ploughs.
Like many traditional breeds, the Shetland has suffered greatly due to intensive livestock farming, so much so that the Scottish island breed is now classified at risk by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Efforts to conserve the breed is mainly done by the Shetland Cattle Breeder's Association, and according to the organisation, there are currently 800 registered breeding cows and approximately 180 calves born each year. In 2015, seven pure Shetland calves registered to the Zetralia herd in Australia.
Shetland cattle beef is a speciality, niche market. Cattle are kept on small-scale farms that rely on a high-income from sales and low-maintenance costs for feed. Both, Shetland milk and beef have been scientifically proven to be high in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) - a healthy fatty acid which may have anti-carcinogenic properties.
Shetland cattle are predominately black and white in colour; however, the breed can also be red and white, dun and grey.
Cows are smaller than most breeds, ranging from 350-450kg, while bulls can weigh 550-600kg. A long hairy coat during the winter and upward-curving horns add to their rugged look.
Desirable traits in Shetland cattle include:
- Small but adaptable - small and light-boned, Shetland cattle are easy to keep in a wide range of conditions;
- High fertility - good calving rates throughout their lives;
- Easy calving;
- Produce healthy strong calves that are quick to get up and suckle;
- Quantity and quality of milk;
- Conservation grazers - a light frame and large feet, prevent poaching on soft ground. They eat a wide range of grasses, including rushes, coarse herbs and thistle tops;
- Longevity - cows can calve beyond 15 years;
- Hardy - an innate ability to convert low-quality grazing into efficient milk and meat production.
Photo credit: Shetland Cattle Herd Book Society