This article first appeared in the May-June 2007 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.
Photos compliments of Liz Swanson and Short and Sweet Sheep Farm.
The ancestors of today’s Southdown sheep roamed the Weald of Sussex’s South Downs (a strip of rolling hill country covering an area six miles wide by 60 miles long) for thousands of years. Prized for their wool and their mild-tasting mutton, sheep from Sussex’s South Downs came to America early on, possibly as early as the sixteen hundreds, when down sheep were shipped to Jamestown (1609) and Plymouth (1628) colonies. By 1676 proto-Southdowns were plentiful throughout New England where they were known as “English Smuts”.
A distinct breed emerged roughly two hundred years ago, when gentleman farmer John Ellman of Glynde, near Lewes in Sussex, radically improved the native down sheep through rigorous selection within the breed to create the cobby, teddy bear-faced creatures we know as Babydoll Southdown sheep. However, in those days they were called simply Southdowns.
Southdowns became the British sheep du jour and were soon dispersed around the world. The first of Ellman’s creations reached America in 1803 and were well established here by 1900. Reverend Samuel Marsden imported them to Australia in 1794 and they reached New Zealand in the early 1840’s. However, the golden age of the Southdown, both here and abroad, lasted only until the late 1940’s, when demand for larger cuts of meat caused breeders to select for taller, leaner sheep.
Fortunately for today’s legion of Babydoll Southdown admirers, in 1986 one man, Robert Mock of Rochester, Washington, began searching for remnant flocks of the Southdown sheep of his youth. After four years he’d located just two groups comprising 26 sheep. Undeterred, he kept to his mission and eventually located a total of 350 old-fashioned Southdowns; many still carrying original Southdown registration papers. To distinguish these classic Southdowns from their modern, long-legged kin, he founded a registry and re-named the little ones Olde English Babydoll Southdown Sheep.
In the early years, only sheep two years of age and older were eligible for registration in Mock’s Olde English Babydoll Southdown Sheep Registry. Before an individual could be entered in the registry’s flockbook, a three-member board carefully reviewed its application. In 1991, the flockbook was closed to sheep of unknown breeding. Now, only offspring of duly registered parents are eligible for registration.
America discovers Babydoll Southdowns
The original Southdown re-emerged at an optimal time. Americans, grown weary of the hassles and horrors of big-city life, were looking to the suburbs and the country, to hobby farms where they could work out if they liked but also earn a bit of money from the land. When they met Babydoll Southdowns, it was love at first sight and interest in the breed began to take off.
Compact size, winsome looks, and ease of care continue to sell these diminutive sheep. Their cute-appeal is beyond reproach! Endearing, fuzzy faces and chunky, teddy bear bodies combine with the breed’s friendly nature to charm most everyone who crosses their path.
Babydoll Southdowns are polled (naturally hornless) and fully woolled from stem to stern. Bushy eyebrows and perpetually smiling faces are hallmark traits. However, according to breed standards the wool in front of an individual’s eyes, including the wool on its cheeks and muzzle, must be short enough to prevent wool blindness. Babydoll heads are of moderate length and broad, but not so broad as to cause birthing problems. Ears are sized in proportionate to each animal’s head and preferably covered with wool (short, rough hair is acceptable). Babydolls should have large, bright, brown or yellow eyes. Nose and lip leather must be black, gray, or blue, although some speckling is allowed. Fully mature Babydolls stand 18 to 24 inches tall measured at their newly shorn shoulders (modern Southdowns compare at 28-34 inches). These are wide, muscular sheep with short necks; long, level backs; and short, straight, wide-set legs. Because Southdowns were developed as dual-purpose wool and meat sheep, Babydolls should be stout, strong sheep with long, wide loins and well-sprung ribs. Their hindquarters are wider than their shoulders to allow for easy lambing.
The basic Babydoll color is Old World White (a creamy off-white with muzzle and leg hair ranging from pale tan to cinnamon to gray-brown) but the breed comes in colors too. Black sheep are becoming commonplace; some fade to gray as they age, thus providing handspinners with a wide range of natural-colored fiber. Spotted sheep with two-toned fleece and solid-black legs and faces occur, too.
While they require annual shearing, quiet, compact Babydolls can be easily sheared by hand. Their short-stapled, ultra-fine wool is a hand-spinners dream. Measuring 19-22 microns, it’s comparable to silky cashmere. It also boasts more barbs per inch than most wool types, making it ideal for blending with longer fibers such as Angora rabbit hair and Angora goat fleece or undercoat from camels, Highland cattle, and Curly horses.
Because of their small size, short legs, and placid natures, Babydoll Southdowns are at home in small enclosures; given a draft-free, waterproof shelter, a back yard, a paddock, even a dry lot makes suitable Babydoll habitat. They eat little compared to bigger sheep and the ewes tend to lamb with ease. Long-lived, docile, thrifty, and kind, all who own them deem them the quintessential back yard and hobby farm sheep.
Sheep in the vineyards
One breeder who knows the small-farm value of Babydoll Southdowns is Deborah Walton of Petaluma, California. Deborah and her husband, artist Tim Schaible, maintain Canvas Ranch, a 28-acre CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) sustainable farm where they raise a variety of organically-grown herbs, vegetables and fruits, along with Araucana chickens, Cashmere goats, and Olde English Babydoll Southdown sheep.
In 2004, Deborah received a grant from the USDA’s Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to study the cost-effectiveness of using miniature sheep as weeders in organic vineyards, a task at which they excel. Walton’s wee Southdowns aren’t tall enough to damage trellised vines or nibble the lower limbs of fruit trees, nor do they girdle the trunks of the vegetation they patrol. “Their small hooves help break the soil surface without compacting it,” Deborah tells us. “They handle hills well and can get into a field or vineyard much earlier than machinery can. They’re a viable alternative to pesticides and expensive mowing operations and as a bonus, their recycled grass—manure—helps improve soil fertility.
“Our sheep have been featured on the CBS Evening News and in Fortune and Gourmet magazines,” she continues. “Nowadays we lease flocks to some of the finest growers in the business, but that’s not the total picture. We also sell finest-quality lambs to breeders as well as vineyard and orchard owners, and we market value-added products like pure Babydoll Southdown wool-filled baby comforters and Babydoll wool pillows via our Web site. These products are quite unique. Studies at the Holstein Institute in Germany show that people who sleep with wool get longer, more restful sleep—about 15 percent more REM sleep—than those who sleep on polyester pillows.”
Two breeders share their insights
Elizabeth Bell Schermerhorn and Liz Swanson are typical Babydoll Southdown breeders who raise wee woolies as pets and for fiber. Both were introduced to the breed by their daughters.
Elizabeth, an artist who raises three kinds of sheep at Pasture Rose Farm in Dickerson, Maryland, tells us, “My daughter chose to raise Babydolls back in 2000 as a means to buy a games pony to compete with, and she did just that. They’ve since become a passion and now each of my five children own a ram or ewe and we all share in the breeding game.”
Liz, whose Short and Sweet Sheep Farm in South Windsor, Connecticut, is home to 18 Babydoll Southdowns, smiles as she adds, “My kids were raising rabbits and chickens for 4-H when their leader decided to get a few sheep. My daughter, Gussie, got involved and somehow convinced us to get a Babydoll Southdown ewe and a wether ‘just as pets’, with no intention of breeding. We quickly became hooked and within three months, Gussie wanted to breed them. Our two sheep quickly became 11; a little over five months later we were watching our first lambs being born.”
Babydoll Southdowns are clearly addictive.
“They’re wonderful sheep,” Liz adds. “We like them for their size and friendly personalities. I’m 5’1″ and can flip most of our sheep for shearing and hoof trimming and I’m able to hand shear even our biggest ram. This breed can easily be raised on a small piece of property or a dry lot, they never seem to wander far, they know their names and how to get our attention, they recognize the yellow Triscuit box—and don’t try hiding an apple or banana behind your back because they’re smart and they never miss a trick!”
Elizabeth concurs. “There are so many good things about these sheep. They’re sweet and friendly, they mature early, they sometimes twin their first year lambing and often have triplets thereafter, and their wool is divine! It’s smooth as butter and is easily blended or spun solo.”
“Our first year of lambing,” Liz says, “we sold a ewe and a wether to Pam Blasko of Dream Come True Farm in Oxford, Connecticut. Pam taught Gussie and me to spin our Babydoll Southdown wool. I send most of our fleeces to a commercial mill for washing and processing into roving, then I spin and dye the wool and I’ve started selling our yarn. But I hold back a few fleeces to wash and card at home. It’s such a rewarding feeling to know you’ve taken the process from start to finish: lambing and raising the sheep, shearing, and the processing the fleece yourself.”
Is there anything bad about these sheep? “The only downside,” Liz says, “seems to be their name. Olde English Southdown would have worked; the ‘Babydoll’ in their name trivializes them to serious sheep farmers.”
“That’s right,” Elizabeth adds. “Unfortunately they’re not always respected in the sheep world because they’re erroneously viewed as a sheep that has been bred down to become a ‘miniature’, and that’s simply not true. In the fall of 2006 the breed gained recognition by the American Sheep Industry Association and I continue to request admission to classes at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. These will be steps in the right direction. Babydoll Southdowns aren’t toys, they have great value as a hobby breed and a producer of fine wool fiber. When sheep industry leaders take an unbiased look at the Babydoll’s history and fiber, they’ll realize it’s an awesome breed.”
And is there a market for these little sheep?
“Oh yes,” Elizabeth says. “The lambs sell all by themselves. They are way too cute to resist! Here in the Mid-Atlantic, the market price is $500-650 per lamb and steadily climbing. Most breeders have a waiting list for spring lambs.”
Liz agrees. “We sell our lambs as pets or 4-H projects and to other breeders. We get so many inquiries that we could sell two or three times more lambs than we produce each year.”
A second registry emerges
Robert Mock’s registry continues to thrive, and rightfully so, but breeders gained a second venue for registration when the North American Babydoll Southdown Sheep Association and Registry (NABSSAR) opened its doors for business in June of 2003. Where the Olde English Babydoll Southdown Sheep Registry is a traditional, sole-proprietorship registry maintained by the father of the Babydoll Southdown, NABSSAR is a membership-owned non-profit that both registers sheep and promotes the breed online.
Both are excellent groups that are eager to work with new breeders, so check them out, then choose Babydoll Southdowns—we’re sure you’ll be glad that you did!