Although Shetland sheep are an ancient breed, possibly even dating back to the Iron Age, they have become rarer in Scotland as Shetlanders abandoned sheep farming for the oil industry in recent times. In 1977 the British Rare Breeds Surivival Trust classified them as endangered. Since then, efforts to rehabilitate them have been successful and they are no longer considered to be endangered. They were exported to Canada first in 1980 and then to the United States in 1986, where there are now estimated to be some 1,000 head. These are small, compact animals which produce good lamb but are not the best for mutton.
They come in a variety of colours, expressing the moorit gene for brown colour. They come in a number of shades, from golden brown or, reddish brown through to a dark greyish brown, as well as a bright white or black. Many colors are still identified by their Shetland dialect names - "Emsket" for dusky bluish grey; "Shaela" for dark steely grey resembling black frost; "Mioget" for light golden brown, etc.