The Shetland Hen
There has never been a consensus of opinion on the Shetland Hen. Some believed them to be a small black fowl around the size of a pigeon (pointing to a fowl of bantam proportions). Others believed that it was a heavier type of fowl that produced green/blue eggs in reasonable quantities.
Since the 1970s we have played an integral part in the resurrection of the large type of Shetland Hen. This hen, which is likened to the 'Araucana' hen from Chile in South America, but with the exception of the beards and ear tufts, is relatively heavy, and has the characteristic tuft or 'Tapp' of feathers on its head. The breed comes in a variety of colours as no work has really been undertaken to standardise this yet.
We have now started a breeding programme with what was considered the original type of Shetland hen. These hens had previously been described to us before any fowl were located, as a type remembered by many of the 'older generation' of Crofters we approached, when our initial research was done.
The actual location of fowl was done when a retired teacher 'George Peterson' of Brae (formerly of Papa Stour) described birds that he had once owned and that had been maintained in a pure true-breeding state on the island of Papa Stour, and that were now residing in Muckle Roe.
These original fowl were viewed and, as they matched the type that has been described by many independent sources, they were purchased to start a breeding programme. These smaller black hens and black/red cocks have a 'glossy' black plumage throughout, with some of the breast feathers having a narrow red/brown stripe down the vein. The legs and beak are black and a very small comb is a dark red. The hens lay a good number of bantam sized white eggs. The incubation period is 21 days which consolidates the theory that it is a true hen and not a bantam which incubates for 19 days.
It was thought that the first type to be brought to the Islands were the smaller type (which most resembles the wild 'Jungle fowl', the ancestor of all modern Chickens). These were brought from the continent to the islands centuries ago.
The second type was thought to have been taken to Shetland from Spain. There is a theory that they could have been brought to the Islands by a Spanish Galleon (there were two Spanish Galleons actually wrecked on Shetland shores).
It can be said that both types of birds are aesthetically pleasing, productive and hardy, these attractive fowl will reward the modern crofter who wants to preserve a worthwhile tradition.
The Shetland Duck Story
We are proud of the fact that the true-breeding Shetland Duck is still in existence.
We have been breeding Shetland ducks for over twenty years on our crofts at `Burland', on the Island of Trondra, and have distributed them throughout Britain. The first ducks we purchased had been crossed at some point with a strain of Khaki Campbell, and showed a lightening (with the sun) of the then dark brown plumage. This we believed to be all that was remaining on the Island, until we came across a pure female on the island of Foula, and a small number from the east side of Shetland. We also discovered a line of ducks in the North Mainland, which lead to a future exchange of pure drakes.
All pure bred Shetland ducks that are available today have an ancestry coming from our crofts at Trondra.
Both sexes are similar in having an iridescent, glossy black plumage. This is carried throughout the entire bird, with the exception of a white bib, which commences at the lower mandible (beak) and is carried down over the breast. The only real difference between the sexes is that the duck has a black beak whereas the drake's is more of a dark olive green.
The breed is thought to have been brought here from Scandinavia by the Viking settlers. There are still a few breeds seen today that could enhance this claim, namely the Swedish Blue Duck, which has the same characteristic bib, yet differs by having been selected for blue plumage, and two white primary feathers on the end of each wing. There are also records of a very similar true-breeding line of duck in the Faroe Islands, which is now thought to be extinct.
The breed lays a good number of medium sized white eggs (the egg size increases with the age of the duck), coming into lay, in Shetland, in early April, and not finishing often until late September.
The birds are found to be very hardy, and are good foragers. This would have been necessary in years gone by, as they had to largely supplement their diet from the surrounding marshland and seashores of the croft. In doing this, they would have played a part in reducing the burden of the internal parasites which may have affected some of the larger croft animals. They would have helped, for example, by eating the host of Liver Fluke which created a great health problem for the sheep that grazed on the ground immediately adjacent to the croft.
The Shetland Goose
The native goose of the Shetland Islands is a compact hardy goose which has the added benefit of being sex-linked (i.e. sexable at day old).
The gander is always white (gold down) and the goose is always grey and white pied (grey/gold down). The birds are considered to be dual purpose birds which produce a reasonable number of white eggs per season if allowed (15-20) and a good carcass weight, all with no extra feeding other than adequate grazing. The geese will go broody and are capable of hatching a brood of goslings.
The Shetland goose would have been used for many reasons, such as keeping good quality grazing with even cropping and manure distribution cycles, and would have been used to eat many of the internal parasites of the larger croft animals, like the Liver fluke which caused problems with the sheep. Even feathers and down would have been used for their great insulation properties.
It is considered to be a domestic bird with 'Greylag' ancestry (the same for most geese breeds, with the exception of the Chinese and African geese, which descended from the Swan Goose). No detailed records exist (to my knowledge) of the main domestication period.
The birds, when culled, make a delicious carcass and have a 'gamey' flavour. They weigh in at around 6-8 lbs for the goose and 8-10 lbs for the gander, at maturity.
The birds have a well rounded breast and have little, or no, evidence of a keel upon the relatively flat abdomen. The bill is smaller than those of the 'Pilgrim' goose, for example, showing their good grazing potential, and is a reddish/blue colour. The legs and feet are fleshy pink coloured, and the eyes are blue.