British Sheep Breeds

The Southdown

The Southdown sheep breed is the oldest of the Downs breeds and one of Great Britain's native breeds. It originated in the Sussex Down hills, specifically around Lewes in East Sussex. The Southdown is said to have a pedigree which is 'older than that of the peerage'. Other Downs breeds are the Hampshire Down, Dorset Down and Oxford Down.

The first concerted efforts to improve the Southdown were taken by John Ellman of Glynde, near Lewes who paid great attention to selecting his best animals to breed from. He did not introduce any other breeds. Later Jonas Webb in Cambridgeshire carried on this task eventually obtaining a somewhat larger animal which was used in the development of other Downs breeds such as the Suffolk.

Southdown SheepCredit:,_Suffolk_Show.jpg

By 1341 it was estimated that there were 110,000 Southdowns in Sussex. Only the Hereford sheep surpassed the Southdown in terms of quality and fineness of wool. The Southdown's popularity reached its highest point between 1790 and the First World War with flocks of 1000 or more found on large estates and smaller numbers on the smaller holdings of peasant farmers.

By 1813, the eastern South Downs was supporting 200,000 Southdown ewes. These were kept under the 'folding system'. The ewes were grazed on the open downs during the day then were moved to the lower arable lands and penned in 'folds' for the night. The chalky land where the ewes were folded was fertilised by the droppings of so many sheep and trodden into the soil. New forage crops were introduced such as field turnips, Swedes and others. This type of sheep husbandry was predominant from 1845 to about 1875 and it served the land and land-owners well.

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But with the Great Depression, wool and cereal prices fell. Increased imports from the New Countries and an extended period of bad weather saw new methods of farming gradually begin to make inroads into the old ways although the fold system continued for some time. The 20th century heralded the beginning of pedigree recording with 114,495 Southdown ewes and 359 flocks being registered by 1911.

When the first World War broke out, shepherds and farm labourers enlisted in their thousands, leaving flocks to shrink in size. Soon, improved artificial fertilisers made folding obsolete and the Southdown became a grassland breed. Between the World Wars, Southdowns were imported into many countries, with New Zealand being a major target. The Southdown was used as a terminal sire in New Zealand to produce 'Canterbury Lamb'. Huge numbers of fat lambs were marketed off the Canterbury Plains in the South Island of New Zealand. Back home, the Southdown continued to do well in carcass competitions and on the show scene.

By 1945, the number of registered breeding ewes in England had fallen to 4,400. The breed became smaller and smaller in size. Ewes became less robust and rams were too short to mate with commercial ewes. When numbers fell to 1300 registered ewes in 1987, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust listed the Southdown as endangered.

The Craig family of Ringmer, near Lewes, then led a push to breed larger animals. Fourteen New Zealand rams were imported. New Zealand, together with the United States, was already selecting for sheep with longer legs and less inclined to run to fat. There were also infusions of new blood from Southdowns from France and today's Southdown is thus larger and more active.

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In the United Stated, stock from the Ellman flocks was exported to Pennsylvania between 1824 and 1829, followed by further importations from the Webb family studs again into Pennsylvania and also Illinois and New York.

The first Southdowns to go to Australia arrived in 1783. They were used as terminal sires to produce top quality fat lambs for local consumption and for the overseas market. When the ban on imports of New Zealand sheep was lifted in 1974, a number of top quality Southdowns were imported into Australia from that country.

The Southdown is seen as the ideal sire to put to maiden ewes. Although active and vigorous, the lambs are slightly smaller and thus not so demanding of young ewes. Purebred lambs are quick-growing, reaching market weight at an early age. Crossbred lambs produce high grade meat and a well-fleshed carcass.

The Southdown is polled and is small to medium in size. The face and lower legs are lightly coloured being anything from mouse-brown to grey. The hair on the face and legs should be soft and unspeckled. The ears are also covered in soft hair and of a similar colour to the face. The nose is dark. There should be no wool around and below the eye and no wool below the knees and hocks. The skin is pink and there should be no wrinkles on the body.

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The breed is early maturing. Ewes lamb easily and have plenty of milk. Lambing percentages often reach 150% with single lambs averaging 4kg and twins 3.75kg. The breed has good adaptability to most conditions. Rams weigh between 190 and 230 pounds and the ewes are slightly smaller weighing between 130 and 180 pounds. The wool is of medium consistency with a ewe fleece averaging five to eight pounds. Staple length varies between 1.5 and 2.5 inches. The wool is dense and short and should have no evidence of brown fibres.

The Southdown has a wide but shortish head with full, wide nostrils. The eye is large and prominent and the ears of medium size. The neck is wide at the base and strong. It is well set into the shoulders and should be virtually wrinkle free.

The shoulders are well covered but allow for free movement. The back is long and level and the loin well-muscled. The chest is wide and deep and the ribs well sprung. The broad tail is set up almost level with the spine. Well let down hindquarters give a deep cut of meat upon slaughtering.

The legs have thick bone and the Southdown stands squarely and is an active animal. Because of its history of centuries of being kept in folds, it has great tolerance to being confined and is docile and easy to handle. It is hardy and will maintain its condition where other breeds would be hard pushed to survive.

The Southdown is well suited to small farm situations.