Shetland Cattle

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Shetland Kye

Shetland Cattle are a small breed, the average height of a cow is around 48′ with bull’s being 52′. They are well proportioned animals with a small head and short incurving horns. The neck is comparably long and thin, but the back is short with wide hindquarters in keeping with the body depth. The average weight of a mature cow is 8.5cwt while a bull would weight on average 12cwt. Shetland cattle closely resemble the rare Norwegian South and Westland breeds. The wide muzzles of cattle cannot graze selectively like sheep, nor can they crop pastures so closely, thereby, protecting the wide range of ground hugging wild flowers and herbs such as wild thyme, violets, orchids, primroses, self heal and bird’s foot trefoil. Cattle do an important job in breaking up a mat of dead vegetation creating the opportunity for colonisation by wild flowers. Shetland Cattle are less likely to damage the soft ground due to the fact that they are lighter with broad hooves. Tests carried out on Shetland Cattle show that the meat has low saturated fat levels, similar to the levels found in lean chicken breasts. It is also high in ‘good fat’ omega-3’s and has high doses of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), thought by many to be a cancer fighter. Shetland Cattle have been present in the Shetland Islands for the past 3000 years and played an important role in the economy of the community as dual purpose animals giving a good milk yield together with beef of exceptional quality. For those unfamiliar with crofting communities, a croft is a small, usually tenanted farm, in the Scottish Highland and Islands, similar in size to a small holding. In Shetland the land is predominantly wet moorland with a high proportion of heather, which is easily churned by livestock. The Shetland cow was ideally suited to the crofting lifestyle because of its ability to thrive under adverse conditions, her small light boned frame made it more suitable than heavier breeds for wet, easily poached grazing. Traditionally known as the ‘The House Cow’ the Shetland cow played an essential role in the life of the crofting family, who would survive on milk, potatoes and flour. Calves would usually be reared and sold to produce some income, but aged cows, often well into their twenties, would be slaughtered for meat. In those days, before refrigeration, several families would share this cow, virtually every part being used and a large proportion of the beef would be salted. The increasing trend for improvement saw the importation of larger mainland breeds to ‘improve’ the native stock. At one point the number of pure bred Shetland cattle had dwindled to 40. A group of crofters worried about the demise of their native cattle decided that unless they took action something precious was about to be lost. Nowadays there are about 600 Shetland breeding cows in the UK, however only about 164 of these remain in their native Shetland. Their meat is still available on the market, and the last Shetland cattle breeders are represented by the Shetland Cattle Herd Book Society.

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Breeds and animal husbandry

Arca del GustoThe traditional products, local breeds, and know-how collected by the Ark of Taste belong to the communities that have preserved them over time. They have been shared and described here thanks to the efforts of the network that Slow Food has developed around the world, with the objective of preserving them and raising awareness. The text from these descriptions may be used, without modifications and citing the source, for non-commercial purposes in line with the Slow Food philosophy.