Faye Whitney of Whitney Acre Farms started out with two Shetlands and now owns 27, the largest flock of registered Shetlands in Massachusetts. Currently the executive secretary of the North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association, she has served on the Board of Directors and been the secretary for 12 years. Shetlands caught her interest in 1993. “I inherited my family farm, and we were down to just two horses. My husband (Phil Lussier) and I thought we should have livestock, and keep sheep to keep brush down.” Their Ashfield, MA farm was started by her great-great grandfather, Walter Lesure, who also raised sheep that appear to have been Merinos, according to an old photo, notes Whitney. She is the fifth generation to work the land.
She located the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy that promoted and protected heritage breeds, and decided, “Let’s get a minor breed and do a good thing.”
Learning about Shetlands “purely online and purely by book,” she located Linda and Tuthill Doane at Maple Ridge Sheep Farm in Braintree, VT, the first farmers to import Shetlands into the United States.
Going up to choose her sheep from the Doane’s flock in September or October 1993, with their Shetlands in full fleece, she noted that the couple had, “Very cleverly had their lambs placed right by their driveway,” increasing her wish-list of two sheep to acquiring lambs.
“At that point we didn’t know anything,” so the first year, she checked her impulse to buy the lambs, and bought a fully-grown ram and ewe. The next year, she bought another ewe and a ram lamb.
Initially, she thought she would raise them to sell as breeding stock. But she discovered that around Ashfield, MA the wool market is stronger. “It’s a lot easier for me to sell fiber than it is for me to sell sheep,” she said.
She attends the iconic Mass Sheep and Woolcraft Fair in Cummington, MA each spring where she sometimes she sells out for the year. Often, people place orders or hear of her through word-of-mouth or online.
“I don’t take everything I have with me to the fair.” She sells fleece, roving and yarn, eggs and chemical free hay. A few years she sold knitwear fashioned out of yarn from her fleeces, but not made by her as she knits too slowly for production. She enjoys knitting and spinning, but doesn’t have time to pursue either.
Although Shetlands are dual-purpose animals, meat and fiber, “I just can’t bear to eat something I brought into this world,” she said. She also doesn’t show them.
“They all have their personalities. Anybody who says a sheep doesn’t have a personality hasn’t worked with sheep; Shetland’s have more.”
She finds they are good mothers, and in 22 years, has had to assist in only one birth. Long-lived, they almost never get sick, and take care of themselves. They are known for their foraging and hardiness.
Ashfield, MA is colder than their place of origin. “People think the Shetland Islands are very, very cold. The conditions there are very wet. It rains a lot, the wind never stops blowing, the temperature range is 40 to 60 degrees, the temperature is raw; they get snow, but not very much,” said Whitney.
Her two border collies, Lucy and Meg, do not herd the sheep. Shetlands do not flock when stressed; they spread out, to ensure survival. Huddled in a pack makes them easier prey for predators. “What the dogs are really good at is herding the cows.” Currently they own two Dexters and a Jersey.
“Ironically, we got sheep, because we didn’t want cows,” but the cows keep more brush down than the sheep. Now cows, “a boatload of chickens”, and horses reside on two parcels totaling 140 acres, and one big and one smaller barn on the farm started in 1853. Her sheep overwinter in the barn, though she knows others that overwinter theirs outside in a shed.
She shears her own, shipping fleeces to Still River Fiber Mill in Eastford, CT with an average six-month turnaround. She finds shearing five or six sheep with hand-clippers a day is manageable, shearing anytime from February to October, though the best time is May. She seeks to shear on the rise, the edge where last year’s growth meets the new year’s growth. If you shear enough times, you can see or feel the rise. “Hit the rise, it’s coming off like a zipper. You know it when you see it,” she said.
Shetlands come in 11 colors and have more than a dozen marking patterns. They are now raised in every state except Florida, though Whitney’s not certain about Florida or Louisiana. You can always just start with two like she did.