Key Characteristics

Animals are long lived, fertile and maternal. They make good suckler cows and will produce calves well into their teens. Studies have shown that they are one of the best breeds for easy calving. They are usually docile and their small size means they are easily managed. Despite being originally bred on the Shetland Islands, Shetland cattle were traditionally in-wintered in byres so are not as hardy as some of our native breeds, but they are still well suited to out wintering in most conditions.

  • Shetland cattle used to be predominantly a dairy breed so tend to be fine-boned with plenty of milk, however most are now kept as suckler cows for high-quality beef production.
  • They are a small breed, with cows usually weighing around 350-450kg and bulls 550-600kg.
  • Their colouring today is usually black or black and white but rarer colours include red, dun, grey, brown and brindle, reflecting the diverse colours present in the old herds.
  • Animals have small, distinctively upswept "viking" horns. 


  • Shetland cattle developed in the harsh environment of their native islands and they were originally bred to be triple purpose to fulfill all of the crofter’s needs, although milk production was their primary role.
  • As the role of crofting declined so too did the Shetland breed and by the 1950s there were fewer than 40 pure bred animals remaining.
  • Numbers have increased since then and the breed is becoming a popular choice on conservation grazing projects. 


Cows have a relatively low yield, around 2500 litres per lactation but the milk is rich in butterfat.

The Shetland will finish within 30 months off poor quality forage with generally low production costs.

Shetlands are very hardy and able to thrive in most situations. Animals are well suited to most conservation grazing projects and will browse and graze most species. Their light weight reduces the risk of poaching in wet areas.

The Shetland will calve easily to most bulls, even of the large continental breeds.

Did you know?

Shetlands have an amazing cross-breeding ability. The Shetland is renowned for being easy-calving, even when put to a larger continental bull, though most breeders would serve heifers with a pure-bred bull for their first calving. Despite the Shetland cows being of a small size they retain the milking ability to rear a large continental cross calf. One farm used a Simmental bull on Shetland cows and found despite the cows only weighing 350-450kg the average 200 day weight of Simmental x calves was 324kg for steers and 290kg for heifers!

Breed Societies

For more information visit the Shetland Cattle Breeders Association or the Shetland Cattle Herd Book Society