A Wooly Return of the Easy Keepers

Olde English Babydoll Southdown Sheep
By J.F. Pirro

Diane Spisak uses Akbash dogs to protect the flock and Border collies to sort, catch and collect sheep when necessary.

For weeks, Jill Rossi tried to reduce the number of bottles that Joyce, one of her Olde English Babydoll Southdown lambs, was begging for—and getting—at Thistle Dew Farm in Quakertown, Pa. Free to roam the secluded 35 acres that’s home to a meticulous menagerie of farm animals, Joyce kept coming to the farmhouse’s front door.

“She’s resisting any attempts at weaning,” Rossi says. “She’s like clockwork for that bottle, and will follow me into the house and stand by the microwave, waiting for it to be heated.”

Dickens, another Olde English Babydoll Southdown lamb, is a “mamma’s boy.” While his twin sister frolics with Joyce at “100 mph,” Rossi says, Dickens sticks close by his mother.

All born the same March night, the lambs have begun grazing and nibbling on grain. In a good-natured trade, Joyce, who was born at neighboring Hamlet House Farm, moved to Thistle Dew Farm for use as breeding stock. Dickens, a wether, will live out his days as a pet and lawnmower.

Handspun Yarn from Olde English Babydoll Southdown sheep from Dream Come True Farm in Oxford, Conn.

Olde English Babydolls—the original Southdown miniature sheep from England—went nearly extinct here (as they had in England) before an independent and now collective preservation effort. There are now two registries, the North American Babydoll Southdown Sheep Association and Registry International (NABSSAR) (www.nabssar.org) in Wells- ville, Kan., and the Olde English Babydoll Southdown Sheep Registry (www.oldeenglishbabydollregistry.com) in Rochester, Wash. The heritage breed’s return to popularity is an interesting case study.

In the Northeast corridor, Dave and Linda Capozzi of Pozzi’s Korner in North Huntingdon, Pa., remember when Dave’s dad raised Suffolk sheep for over 40 years. After Capozzi’s dad passed away, Linda assumed the family would sell the flock and retire. “Little did I know I would come across the Babydolls that would never have to go to auction,” she says.

At Short and Sweet Sheep Farm in South Windsor, Conn., what started as a 4-H project of two pet Babydoll Southdown sheep for Liz Swanson’s daughter, Gussie, turned into buying a flock of nine, and transporting them from Missouri to Connecticut. “Gussie’s in college now, but we’ve lambed for a sixth year,” says Swanson, who also exhibits each April at the Connecticut Sheep Breeders Association’s Sheep & Wool Festival.

Pam Blasko, of Dream Come True Farm in Oxford, Conn., was so intrigued with the quest to restore the breed’s numbers that she sold her Corriedales, then grew her Babydoll flock to 14 before sparsing it to six favorites—her spinner’s flock. In fleece tests, the Babydoll’s wool is in the class of cashmere and spins well with other wools.

Blasko teaches spinning on her farm to scouts, 4-H clubs, the public and knitting guilds. When they visit, she explains the history of the sheep and explains their fiber, while teaching spinning on the drop spindle.

“Being a shorter staple, many spinners shy away from it, but once spun and worn, Babydoll usually becomes a favorite,” Blasko says. “Most of the farms I know that have Babydolls breed and sell the lambs. My goal is fiber, fiber, fiber! I want everyone to meet a Babydoll and sink their fingers into their fleece at least once, and to be able to adore those wonderful teddy bear faces.”

Known as “easy keepers,” Babydolls are perfect for hobby farms or rural homes with small acreage. With their sweet, serene dispositions, they make outstanding pets. As organic weeders, they fertilizer as they graze in wine vineyards and in fruit and berry orchards. They’re excellent companion animals. They can also be profitable: lambs sell for $450 to $650 each, and about half that for a wether. Babydolls are increasingly used for 4-H projects and in petting zoos, country fairs and in historical re-enactments.

Both ewes and rams are polled (without horns) and nonaggressive. They never wander. “They were an all-purpose breed to begin with,” NABSSAR’s Diane Spisak says.

Diane Spisak has three areas in a large barn with pastures radiating from each section. Babydolls at Pozzi’s Korner in North Huntingdon, Pa.

One of the oldest English breeds of sheep, the Southdown originated on the South Down hills near Lewes in Sussex County, England. In 1780, John Ellman began standardizing the breed, which made its way to America in 1803. In England, the sheep were crucial to soil fertility, and large flocks grazed the open downs by day. At dusk, they returned to the lower arable land for folding.

Since downland soils tended to be chalky, the close-folding on small areas manured and trod the soil, allowing for successful bread wheat crop the following year. Soon, other forage crops were added, like field turnips, Swedes and kohl Rabi. The Golden Years of classic downland farming lasted from 1845 to 1880.

World War I consumed shepherds and farmhands, dairy farming became king and artificial fertilizers gradually gained popularity. The some-359 pedigree Southdown flocks in England shrunk to 245, and then down to 200 after World War II. The Southdown largely became a grassland breed, but when it couldn’t compete for consumer demand for larger meat cuts, crossbreeding in the 1960s and ’70s led to the larger, leggier American Southdown, a line that minimized the popularity of the original miniatures. In England, the breed was placed (and remains) on the endangered watch list by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, though in 1999, originals were returned to England.

In 1986, it was the Olde English Babydoll Southdown Sheep Registry’s Robert Mock who saved the miniatures. He began a four-year search for flocks of the original small Southdown. His first four years netted two small flocks of 26 sheep, and then after some promotion, others—350 in all (many with their registration papers from England). To distinguish the original lines, he coined the name Olde English “Babydoll” Southdowns, and formed a registry of 2-year-old or older adults, the foundation flock, then closed the registry in 1991. Thereafter, in 1995, he began registering lamb crops from the original foundation flock. “If he had not done that, there wouldn’t be the little Southdown,” Spisak says.

Mock took the standard from the Southdown Sheep Society in England, adapting it only to allow for colors other than white (or mouse), like black or diluted/spotted stock, a point of contention among Spisak and her association and registry. Measuring 18 to 24 inches shorn, from straight up the front leg to the top of the shoulder, Mock, whose registry is a sole-ownership, is bothered that NABSSAR, which is member-owned and run, allows for heights of 17 and 26 inches, though both are faults. Babydolls weigh 70 to 150 pounds.

Thus far, Mock has 500 members in his registry and has registered 10,525 lambs. Since forming as a nonprofit five years ago, NABSSAR has been doubling its yearly growth. In 2008, the registry had 53 active members and registered 390 new sheep. “It’s been a consistent, steady growth,” Spisak says. “We have not saturated our market, though all of my lambs are still spoken for by time they’re born. There’s room for both groups.”

Babydolls are well-suited to the Northeast. Pam Blascko and three Babydoll Southdown lambs 2 weeks old from Dream Come True farm in Oxford, Conn.

No small operation, Spisak, who moved from New Jersey to Kansas in 1979, keeps 25 adult ewes and five rams on 27 acres. This past spring, lambing season produced two sets of triplets, 18 sets of twins and five singles. She uses Akbash dogs to protect the flock and Border collies to sort, catch and collect sheep when necessary. Her husband Drew is a vet and animal chiropractor. Spisak has three areas in a large barn with pastures radiating from each section. There are also two small pasture shelters in two other outer pastures.

Chief among Spisak’s priorities are breed education, including breed conformation. NABSSAR publishes a quarterly news journal. For two years now, in June, she’s successfully secured Babydoll Southdown classes at the Southern Slam Open Sheep Show in Indiana.

“It’s what an association exists for: to promote, preserve and protect a breed,” she says. “It helps to have our sheep out in public. It educates breeders themselves. People get used to seeing their own sheep, so they can get farm blind because they have no others to compare to. It’s always beneficial to talk sheep for a weekend.”

The author is a widely-published writer and English teacher at Emmaus (Pa.) High School. For over 25 years, he’s written in nearly every journalistic genre and been published in 75-plus national and regional magazines, as well as dozens of daily and weekly alternative city newspapers.