When I first started looking at breeds of sheep, a knowledgeable shepherd advised, “You’ll be feeding it every day. Get something you are happy to look at every morning.”
I had heard many sad stories of people having to get rid of their animals during droughts due to the high price of hay, so I wanted animals that could easily live on native grass. I also wanted a smaller framed animal that I could handle alone if necessary. So, I started reading books and online articles about sheep and goats, and narrowed down a few breeds. Then we went to the sheep shows at the Fort Worth Stock Show to see what I would enjoy feeding.
The Southdowns had an intelligent, lively look about them and an old-timey appeal. To me they looked like “Sheep,” straight out of an antique engraving. They are a moderate-framed breed; standard Southdown ewes weigh between 160-200 lbs. and stand 28-32″ at the shoulder. Their legs are long enough for them to move around easily, but not so long that they can jump over things. They have long been a popular choice for students because of their smaller size and docile temperament (they are however said to be “stubborn” — we have owned nothing but terriers and Chow Chows, so I know something about stubborn). Finally, we were told “They get fat on grass.” SOLD! A few months later, we were in the Southdown business.
The Earth-kind choice. From its origination in the Downs of England, Southdowns have thrived in poor soil. In fact, the Downs sound very much like our own land here in northeast Texas. According to the Southdown Society of England (link to full article below), “The downland soils tend to be chalky and not naturally fertile so that the close-folding by the sheep on small areas manured and trod the soil. This meant that bread wheat could be grown successfully the following year.”
Efficient feeders such as the Southdown allow the hobby farmer to avoid the rising costs and environmental impacts of commercial feeds. Southdowns are an excellent choice for a grass-fed natural meat business. The American Southdown Breeders Association has been marketing lean, flavorful Southdown lamb as a premium product, developing a brand like Angus beef.
Mothering ability: My personal experience with Southdowns is that they are protective and form tight bonds with their babies. Our ewes know where their lambs are at all times. Mature ewes usually have twins and sometimes triplets. The breed standard states that “The ewe should be active and productive under average care through her eighth year and often through her tenth year.”
Show Lambs: Southdown lambs are popular in 4-H and FFA programs because they are so easy to handle and economical to feed. They can be shown either as breeding sheep or market lambs, and are shown sheared to the hide.
Wool: Although the Southdown is primarily considered a meat breed today, it can also be used for wool. In the June, 2006 issue of The Banner sheep magazine, Barbara Clorite-Ventura listed 37 breeds of sheep in order from finest to coarsest. The Southdown was #12. She described the fiber as being “very elastic,” having a fiber diameter of 24-29 microns, a weight of 5-8 lbs., lock length: 1.5-3 inches. I am told that the elasticity of the wool makes it perfect for socks. Hand-spinners may keep a Southdown for socks, hats, elastic cuffs, and other stretchy projects.
An interesting article about the history of the Southdown breed in England by the Southdown Sheep Society in the UK.