Northern European short-tailed sheep

Northern European short-tailed sheep
Shetland ewe showing characteristic short, hair-tipped tail of northern European short-tailed sheep.

Northern European short-tailed sheep are a group of sheep breeds and landraces from the British Isles, Scandinavia, and the area around the Baltic. They are thought to be derived from the first sheep brought to Europe by early farmers. They are hardy sheep, adapted to harsh environments, but they are small and have been replaced in most areas with later types of larger, long-tailed sheep.



These sheep are generally small and have characteristic short "fluke-shaped" tails, broad at the base and tapering to a hair-covered tip; the tails typically have 13 vertebrae compared with over 20 for other sheep; in most types the tail vertebrae are also shorter than those of long-tailed sheep. Their faces and legs are free of wool. The horns vary between breeds and often within them: they may be horned in both sexes, horned only in the male or polled in both sexes. Some types (such as Manx Loaghtan and Hebridean) can have more than one pair of horns.

They may be solid-coloured (commonly white, black or moorit – reddish-brown) or patterned, and white markings may also occur over other colouration. Some (such as Shetland and Icelandic) include a very wide range of colours and patterns. Some types moult naturally in spring, allowing their fleece to be rooed (plucked) rather than shorn. Twin births are frequent, with some (such as the Finnsheep, Romanov and Icelandic) often giving birth to "litters" of three, four or even more lambs. Breeding is usually seasonal, with lambs being born in spring or early summer.

Most types are very hardy and agile, being adapted to grazing rough vegetation in wet and cool climates, and they often have a strong preference for browsing. The North Ronaldsay is adapted to living largely on seaweed.


It is thought that the first sheep brought to Europe by early farmers were short-tailed sheep. Initially, in the Neolithic Age, these were small, double-coated, naturally-moulting brown sheep, of which the Soay is believed to be a relict. By the Iron Age these had been replaced throughout northern and western Europe by somewhat larger sheep, still short-tailed, but with a fleece of more uniform texture, variable in colour.

Sheep brought later from southern Europe were long-tailed, mostly white and much larger. These displaced the short-tailed sheep in most areas, and by the 19th century short-tailed sheep remained only in remote parts of the west and north, including Scandinavia, the area around the Baltic, Ireland, Cornwall, the Highlands of Scotland, and various islands. Long-tailed sheep then spread into most of these areas too, and by the 20th century short-tailed sheep were restricted to very remote islands and mountains.[1][2]

From the mid-nineteenth century (and especially after the middle of the twentieth century), some of the surviving short-tailed breeds became recognised as worthy of preservation for curiosity, for cultural reasons, as ornamental animals, or for conservation of genetic diversity. About thirty breeds or landraces of these sheep now survive.

Breeds and landraces

  • Åland – From the Åland Islands, an archipelago forming part of Finland; originally brought from Gotland. Horned or not in both sexes, various colours including white and grey. Very rare.[3]
  • Boreray – Survivors of the sheep kept by the crofters of the St Kilda archipelago off the west coast of Scotland, now living only on the island of Boreray but formerly also kept on the larger island of Hirta. Horned in both sexes, usually creamy white with dark face and legs, but may also be dark all over. Descended from earlier short-tailed Hebridean sheep, crossed with Scottish Blackface.
  • Castlemilk Moorit – From the Castlemilk estate near Glasgow in Scotland. Horned in both sexes, moorit (reddish brown). Bred as ornamental parkland animals from Manx Loaghtan, Shetland and wild Mouflon.
  • Cladagh – From Ireland, surviving longest in the Aran Islands and a few still in existence in the early 1970s. Mostly polled, white-faced, mostly with white body but some with other colours.[2][4]
  • Dala Fur sheep – From Sweden, one of the Swedish Landrace group of breeds. Males mostly horned, females polled. Usually white. Very rare.[3]
  • Estonian Ruhnu – From the Estonian island of Ruhnu. Some males horned, white or cream with grey head; some individuals have one or two wattles beneath the head; tail short or medium-length.[3]
  • Faroes – From the Faroe Islands ("Sheep Islands"). Similar to Icelandic sheep: usually horned in males, many different colours and patterns.[5][3][6]
  • Finnsheep – From Finland. Horned in males only, usually white in North America, other colours in Finland. Multiple births frequent (up to seven or even nine live lambs).
  • Gotland – From the island of Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic. Polled in both sexes, usually grey. Descended from the horned Gute sheep, also from Gotland.
  • Greenland – From Greenland. Mostly horned, but may be polled in either sex. Descended mainly from Icelandic and Faroes sheep transported to Greenland in the early 20th century.[3]
  • Gute – From Gotland, one of the Swedish Landrace group of breeds. Horned in males, and often in females. Many colours and patterns.
  • Hebridean or "St Kilda" – Formerly found throughout western Scotland, survived in the Hebrides archipelago off the west coast (but not necessarily St Kilda itself), and then as an ornamental animal. Horned in both sexes, often with two pairs of horns. Originally varied in colour, but nowadays always black, fading to brown in sunlight and often greying with age. May moult naturally.
  • Heidschnucke – a group of three breeds from northern Germany. Includes:
    • German Grey Heath – Grey, horned in both sexes.
    • White Polled Heath – White, polled in both sexes.
    • White Horned Heath – White, horned in both sexes.
  • Icelandic – From Iceland. Either horned or polled, many different colours and patterns. Multiple births common. Includes the Leader Sheep, a strain bred to lead flocks of other sheep to and from their pastures.
  • Lítla Dímun – Lived feral on the island of Lítla Dímun in the Faroe Islands, becoming extinct in the mid-nineteenth century. Similar to the Soay; perhaps derived from the earliest European sheep, very small, black, with horns in the male only.
  • Kerry Mountain or Kerry (not to be confused with the long-tailed Kerry Hill from Wales) – From the south-west of Ireland, became extinct in the early 20th century. Horned, both white and other colours.[2][7]
  • Manx Loaghtan – From the Isle of Man. Usually two pairs of horns in both sexes, but may have only one pair or as many as three pairs. Originally variable in colour, but now always mouse-brown (lugh dhoan in Manx).
  • North Ronaldsay – From the island of North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland. Horned in males only, many different colours. For much of the year forage mainly on seaweed, outside a wall which surrounds the island just above the high tide mark.
  • Polish Heath or Wrzosówka – From north-eastern Poland. Horned in males, grey.[8]
  • Ouessant, Ushant or Breton Dwarf – From the island of Ouessant off the coast of Brittany. Very small, usually black or dark brown, horned in males.
  • Romanov – From the Volga Valley, northwest of Moscow in Russia. Either horned or not in both sexes. Born black, turning grey, often with white markings on head. Multiple births normal.
  • Roslag – From Roslagen, Sweden, one of the Swedish Landrace group of breeds. Usually white, horned in the males.[3]
  • Russian Viena – From western Russia. Either horned or not in both sexes. Variable in colour, with various patterns of grey and white.[3]
  • Scottish Dunface or Old Scottish Short-wool. Formerly found all over the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and probably similar to sheep kept earlier throughout the British Isles. In some areas horned in males only, in others horned in both sexes, in which case often with more than one pair, brown face, coloured streaks in short, fine wool. The Shetland, North Ronaldsay, Hebridean and Boreray probably derive from it, and perhaps other types.
  • Shetland – from the Shetland Islands, off the north coast of Scotland. Usually horned in males only, small. Many different colours and patterns. Very fine fleece, often moulting naturally.
  • Skudde – From Prussia and the Baltic states. Large spiral horns in males; females may be polled, or may have scurs or small horns. Fleece white, brown, black or grey.[9]
  • Spaelsau – From Norway. Either polled or horned in both sexes. Most often white, but many other colours also occur. Includes feral strains living wild on the coasts of Norway.
  • Soay – From an ancient feral population of sheep on the island of Soay in the St Kilda archipelago off the western coast of Scotland; now also found on the nearby island of Hirta. Horned in both sexes, very small, brown with white belly (the "mouflon" pattern) or sometimes all black, sometimes with white markings on head; moults naturally.
  • Swedish Landrace – Formerly widespread in Sweden; survives as several types including the Gute, Dala Fur and Roslag sheep.[3]
  • Värmland Forest or Swedish Forest – From Värmland in Sweden, one of the Swedish Landrace group of breeds. Males and some females horned. Lambs born dark, but become grey, brown or white as adults; often has white markings on head.[3]


Further reading

  • Ó. R. Dýrmundsson and R. Niżnikowski (2010). "North European short-tailed breeds of sheep: a review". Animal, 4 , pp 1275-1282. Abstract

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