A heritage breed that originated in the late 1700s from the South Downs of Sussex County, England, Babydoll Southdown Sheep were imported to the United States in the early 1800s. Over the years, they grew in popularity in England and America, thanks to their cute faces, small size, sweet temperament and hardiness, with a lifespan of 12 to 16 years.
Typically, you’ll often see lambs available in white or black. As the black Babydoll sheep grow, they may appear browner, as the sun can lighten their coloring. Such is the case with my ewe, Coco. Babydoll sheep are commonly referred to as “smiling sheep” because they always look like they’re smiling.
Babydoll sheep offer organic grass and weed control, and with their small size, they’re much easier to handle than many other farm animals. Nitrogen-rich Babydoll pellets don’t create brown patches in the grass, too.
This breed makes great family sheep, especially if your kids want to get involved in 4-H. Once trust has been established, the sheep will eat treats right out of your hand. My family’s flock especially loves the occasional animal cracker.
With their gentle temperament, Babydoll sheep can easily become prey. Most of their injuries result from an attack, thus proper predator protection is key!
While they require annual shearing, their wool is one of the finest of all British breeds—short (typically 1 1⁄2 to 2 1⁄2 inches) with a micron count ranging from 24 to 29. Many sheep owners use the wool for needle-felting, but we typically send our wool to America’s Natural Fiberworks, a full-service fiber-processing mill in Somerville, Ohio, to have it blended and turned into various types of yarn.
Before purchasing Babydoll sheep, assess your land and resources. Every five ewes and their lambs require about an acre of good grass pasture. Because Babydolls are flock animals, they should always be kept with at least one other sheep.
Clean, fresh water should also always be available. We have a pond on our property that our sheep have constant access to, but we always make sure we have fresh water as well.
Consider shelter, fencing and other predator protection options. Many breeders and hobby farmers have a livestock guardian dog (LGD) or guard llama.
Babydoll sheep are easy-keepers and require only grass or good-quality hay and sheep minerals for maintenance. Depending on your geographical location, you may need to consider multiple sources to purchase quality hay. As we have seen in recent years, depending on climate and inflation, the cost of hay can fluctuate. In some situations, hay may even become scarce in winter months. Finding a local farm to source your hay directly is always a great option. You’ll likely get a better price and higher quality hay. We live in a farming community and have partnered with a local farmer to source our hay for many years now.
Consulting a veterinarian is always a good idea prior to purchasing your first sheep. Locally, we have a veterinarian who makes farm calls, which is a great option—we don’t have to haul our sheep to be seen.
At a minimum, our veterinarian visits our farm once a year and is always just a phone call away.
Getting established with a good veterinarian who specializes in livestock in your area is highly recommended. Based on your conditions, your sheep may need to be dewormed a few times per year. Annual vaccinations are also recommended yearly for adult sheep.
We enjoy following along on various Babydoll Sheep Facebook groups, as they can be valuable resources for questions.
As you assess your land and resources, consider where your Babydoll sheep can seek shade and shelter. Having a pasture with trees is ideal for natural shade in the warmer months. Depending on your geographical location, you will likely also need at least a 3-sided shed. The sheep will require cover and shelter from strong winds, rain and potentially cold weather elements such as snow and ice.
As you consider your structure, note which direction prevailing winds come from.
Fortunately, our property had a barn when we purchased it, and my husband added a shelter to protect our animals against the elements and offer plenty of shade in the warmer months. Keeping sheep closed in a barn is not a healthy environment for them. We have found that our sheep are much more comfortable in cold weather than in hot.
Along with proper shelter, consider where you will also store hay, grain and other equipment.
Babydoll sheep typically don’t challenge fencing as much as other animals, so our primary concern has always been protection from predators such as dogs, coyotes and foxes. For our fencing, we opted for 2-by-4-inch welded wire verses hot wire or even hog panels.
My husband and I built the fencing ourselves, and while we felt it was secure, we knew we should also consider adding a LGD or guard llama to the farm. Llamas are known to instinctively bond with other animals and provide a high level of protection from predators such as coyotes.
After talking to other sheep owners, we decided a llama would be the best option for us. We loved that they would eat the same things as our sheep, and we were lucky enough to find a guard llama that had previously been with Southdowns.
While you can purchase adult sheep, it’s most common to start with lambs. They’re curious and loving, and have a little spunk! When purchasing lambs, registration is very important unless you are buying wethers (neutered males). Nonregistered sheep have a much lower perceived value and are only worth their weight in meat.
Two of the most well-known registries for this breed are the North American Babydoll Southdown Sheep Association and Registry and the Olde English “Babydoll” Southdown Sheep Registry.
I would warn against purchasing lambs through Facebook or other online groups, as we have heard of many instances of scamming situations. Never put down a deposit for a lamb without thoroughly checking out the farm you are purchasing from. This is where registration is so important. Each breeder should be listed on one of the registries.
When purchasing lambs, make sure they’re registered so the necessary paperwork can be transferred. Note that the ear tag in the ear of the sheep matches the ear tag number on the paperwork. If you plan to breed your lambs in the future, registration will be worth the cost and effort.
Additionally, make sure rams and ewes are registered with the same registry. If not, you may not be able to register lambs produced.
Once you have found a reputable breeder and confirmed registration, consider how you will transport your lambs. We typically purchase one or two lambs at a time so we can use a large crate for transport. This allows us to put the crate inside our vehicle, so we don’t have to worry about outside weather conditions.
Transport services and delivery options exist with most breeders. As always, research your area and contact others that have used the service or delivery option before.
When you bring your lambs home for the first time, have a small area ready with hay and fresh water. Take some time to let the lambs acclimate to you and their surroundings. During the first few days, we like to offer grain (lamb-specific feed) as a treat.
Building trust is a process and takes time. Treat-training is a great way to help your lambs learn to trust and come to you when called. With our ewes and wethers for the first few days, we would spend a few hours a day near them, so they became comfortable in our presence. This is a great activity for younger children with proper supervision. To this day, our girls still love to sit in the pasture and sing and read to our Babydoll sheep! If you have other animals or livestock guardians, take introductions slow.
As flock animals, sheep need other sheep for constant companionship. If you’re looking for Babydoll sheep to assist with mowing or for harvesting fiber, a wether (which can’t reproduce) may be your best option. They cost less, are great with children and can be housed with ewes, rams and lambs. We started with wethers and can’t recommend them enough.
We now have ewes but not for breeding purposes. If you plan to purchase a ram for breeding, consider obtaining a wether or an additional ram for his companion. It takes Babydoll sheep two full years to mature into adult size, and breeders in the Midwest typically plan for lambing to occur in late March or early April.
Lambs are fed by their mothers or bottle-fed, if needed, and are ready for their new homes in about 60 to 80 days. Many reputable breeders have a waiting list, so keep that in mind as you consider the timing of starting your flock.
Babydoll sheep are fairly low maintenance, but they must be shorn each spring. Shearing doesn’t hurt them and is necessary so they don’t overheat and die in the summer months.
Thus far, we haven’t opted to shear our sheep ourselves. We usually try to partner with a local farm to have our flock shorn, and we have also used a traveling shearer that comes directly to us. For small flocks, it can be difficult to reserve a traveling shearer as they tend to make appointments early in the spring and gravitate toward booking larger farms first.
Last year, the traveling shearer we reserved canceled on us more than once. Luckily, nearby farming family members were able to help.
CDT vaccination is required yearly for adults, and we typically administer it the day our sheep are sheared. We also trim hooves at that time as well as when needed throughout the year, based on maintenance checks.
Deworming is another essential part of Babydoll maintenance. Worms can be a major problem for sheep and can cause them to suddenly become very ill and die. Deworming is particularly important for lambs as their immune systems are still developing.
We follow the FAMACHA system and deworm as needed. As you get to know your flock, you’ll quickly be able to point out those who may have an issue. It is imperative to have a trusted farm veterinarian that you can call during those times.
Our sheep have provided a wonderful way for our girls to learn important life lessons about responsibility, patience, constancy, communication and patience. We took our time researching the types of animals we wanted to bring to our farm, and it evolved naturally. We knew it would be important to start small so we could dedicate the attention and care required.
Our hobby farm has brought our entire family so much joy! It seems like our favorite days are ones spent outside watching the animals interact or working with our girls to help care for them. We are always learning something new, and we love doing it together as a family.
Start Small & Set a Budget
Make your plan and set goals. Many breeders raise lambs to sell, while other hobby farm owners opt for purchasing wethers and ewes for harvesting wool, 4-H projects, or strictly for enjoyment purposes. Before purchasing Babydoll sheep, consider all their associated costs, including shelter, protection, maintenance and care. As noted in the main text, the cost of quality hay can fluctuate based on climate and inflation.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.