…These flocks were very large, some ranging in the hundreds of sheep. The sheep were easy to control because they had a quiet disposition. They were gentle, docile. They were also one of the oldest breeds of sheep in England. Their fleece was very soft and springy. And, when the Sheppard tried one for dinner the meat was extremely tasty.
The Southdown’s arrived in the Americas as early as 1609. Arriving in the Jamestown Colony, in Virginia. From there a sheep industry began to flourish in America. And, by 1664, there were 10,000 sheep in the Colonies. In the Massachusetts Colony, the children were required to learn to weave and spin the wool fiber.
In 1698, America had a prosperous wool industry flourishing. Some Colonies were exporting wool goods throughout the colonies and overseas. England did not like that; her colonies were exporting wool from her Southdown’s. So she made sheep-trading and wool-trading illegal in all Colonies…Punishable with the loss one’s right hand!
Spinning and weaving became a patriotic gesture or act in the Colonies… done with excellence. And, wearing a fine outfit made from the wool of the Southdown fiber was done with pleasure, patriotism, and, pride. After the Revolutionary War, and a few years later, George Washington wore a fine suit of Southdown wool to his inauguration on April 30, 1789.
Now we must return to England to continue our story of the Southdown sheep…
Back in England, a man named John Ellman from Glynde Farm in Sussex County, England, was a very good and intelligent farmer. In those days, there were no ‘pedigree’ breeds of sheep. And, in 1780, he began to standardize the Southdown breed through selective breeding.
He had 500 ewes (female sheep) plus stud rams (intact males) and wethers (neutered males). He selected his 60 finest ewes and introduced them to his best rams. The remaining ewes, about 440, were placed with his next best three rams. Five or six days later he added two more rams and then repeated this every four or five days until each ram had about 50 ewes.
This technique strengthened the Southdown and brought out the characteristics that John Ellman was breeding to achieve. John, actually, for the first time, made a standard breed of sheep called the Southdown. It was hardy. It could forage the hills (the Downs) of the South of England, leaving behind fertilizer to improve the soil. The Southdown had a good fleece of dense, soft, springy fiber. And, the meat of the sheep was of fine first-rate quality.
The sheep John Ellman produced through his selective breeding system became the finest sheep of England. His rams fetched a pretty fee, too. In 1791, the celebrated ‘Coke of Holkan’ bought four rams from Ellman and paid 70 guineas. And, in 1802, the Fifth Duke of Bedford hired an Ellman ram for two seasons. And, it cost him 300 guineas, a very large sum in those days.
The quality and reputation of Ellman’s sheep became known not only all around England, but they began to be exported to Ireland and Scotland. Orders were arriving from overseas, as well. The King of England sent two Ellman rams, as a present, to the Emperor of Russia.
Ellman’s son, (another John), sold and sent sheep, to New South Wales, America, The West Indies, and to Portugal. This boundless time of quality breed exportation, about a hundred years, continued up until the Great War (WWI) period of 1914-1918, which heralded a permanent change in the Southdown’s status.
This drastic change in status for the Southdown was due to scientific methods introduced into farming and a flood of food goods from overseas, once peace became re-established. The effects of inorganic fertilizers and the near demise of homegrown wheat production, as a profitable enterprise, put the little Southdown’s virtually out of work fertilizing the fields. So, from 1914-1930, the flocks of England were reduced by half.
The Second World War (WWII) dealt the quality meat market of the Southdown almost a lethal blow. U-boats and rationing demanded quantity of meat for England’s survival. With the invention and introduction of refrigeration and the need for feeding greater numbers of people, larger cuts of meat were required. Therefore, England began to import larger sheep from New Zealand to feed its people. The small, tender, quality meat of the Southdown could not sustain the population during the war.
These larger crossbreed sheep took over the name “Southdown”. The original Southdown never recovered its status as the meat to feed the people of England. With this new technology, of refrigeration, people could keep meat longer without spoilage. So, larger cuts of meats would stay fresher longer in the cold refrigeration. England and the Industrial countries never returned to smaller cuts of meats.
However, the breed survived the war, in England. Only 40 flocks remained after WWII. Then, in 1951 through 1956, the meat of the original Southdown won the Smithfield championship… the grandest championship in all of England. Also, a small live export trade redeveloped during this time. The farmers (breeders) increased the flocks to 93 by 1957.
But, the 1960’s and 1970’s saw another intrusion into England’s farming. She began importing more foreign large breeds of sheep from New Zealand and elsewhere, and crossbred them with the original small Southdown. England, the “Stud Farm of the World” for a century, turned its back on its native breeds… to such an extent, that forward-looking farmers and scientists hastened to form the Rare Breed Survival Trust. And, by the early 1970’s, the original Southdown breed of sheep was extinct in England.
Back to North America…
In 1986, miniature livestock fascinated Mr. Robert Mock of Washington State, U.S.A. He discovered that sheep were the only domestic breed of livestock that, at that time, did not have a miniature counterpart in the general livestock population.
After months of research, Mr. Mock settled on the original Southdown breed, if there were any genetically pure left in the country, and if he could find them. “If” was the big word. So, Robert set out on a quest to find enough original Southdown sheep to make a breeding program and bring the original Southdown back to a healthy status in North America.
The first three small flocks were located within a 100-mile radius of where he lived in Washington State. Then searching the country for them became very time consuming, expensive, and at times filled with drama. The rest of the sheep were located from the Midwest to east within the country.
He found all older folks who had owned the original Southdown’s for years. At one farm, he called an hour after they had been loaded onto a truck and sent to auction. The owners were able to call the auction and have them returned with Mock’s promise to pay the bills and their feed. At that time, original Southdown’s were selling for $25.00 or less per head. And, no one could afford to keep them.
So, Mock bought many and convinced a good number of farmers of original Southdown’s with their original registration papers to keep their sheep. And that he, Robert Mock, would start a Registry for the original Southdown renaming it the “Olde English Babydoll Southdown” sheep. The Registry developed in the summer of 1991, with the help of Mr. Jacque Rogers from Oregon. During the first year of the Registry, 287 head of sheep were registered. And by 1995, 983 sheep were registered and 26 different bloodlines were established.
In 1999, another goal of the “Babydoll’ Southdown restoration project was completed. The little Babydoll Southdown’s returned to their homeland, the Sussex Downs (hills) of England, where they had been extinct for 30 years. Breeders from Canada exported a small flock of Babydoll Southdowns to England, and the first lambs were born in 30 years on the Sussex Downs.
The Babydoll Southdown’s numbers grew and eventually some Babydoll sheep fanciers envisioned a publicly owned, board-governed Association and Registry. The North American Babydoll Southdown Sheep Association and Registry (NABSSAR) was formed and became certified as a non-profit corporation, on June 10, 2003.
Those of us who love our Babydolls owe much to the forethought and efforts of those who came before us. They made a place in the world for the Babydoll Southdown’s of today. Continued growth and stable prices are the future of the Babydoll Southdown. The Babydoll will sustain itself through its tasty meat, its fine wool fiber, and especially from its offspring, their lambs.
Material for this page was partially obtained from My Little Sheep Farm; Olde English Babydoll Southdown Registry website article “15 and 7832 Babydolls Later and Still Growing,” 2006 by Mr. Robert Mock; and Registry article “John Ellman and the Southdown Sheep,” 1991 by Paul Wakehem-Dawson, Olde English Babydoll Southdown Sheep Registry website, “About The Breed…Origin and Background”.