In its relatively unimproved state prior to the end of the 18th Century the polled, grey-faced sheep which had grazed the Downs of Southern England for centuries possessed several qualities which were combined in no other breed in England. It produced a relatively good fleece of fine, high priced wool, its hindquarters were heavier than the front and it could thrive on low nutritional heathland.
.John Ellman, a Sussex farmer had, by 1800, brought the Southdown to new heights of meat productivity and early maturity which claimed the attention of sheep men throughout Britain. Where Downs wethers were previously not fit for the butcher till 3 or 4 years old, they were now ready at 18 months. The Southdown was infused with every meat breed in Britain and found favour in Europe and the New World.
Thomas Coke (later Lord Leicester) and the Duke of Bedford, who both organised the famous agricultural gatherings known as "Shearings' on their estates at the beginning of the 19th Century, were Southdown enthusiasts. In 1802 the Duke of Bedford paid Ellman the astronomical sum of 300 guineas for the use of one ram for one season.
Jonas Webb succeeded Ellman as the premier breeder of England and some sheep from his Babraham stud came to Australia in the 19th Century. Southdowns attracted the attention of British Royalty. George 111 started the Coodwood flock in 1787.
Arrival in Australia
It can be safely assumed that the Southdown was the first recognised breed of British Sheep to be introduced into Australia. It is certainly the first documented. Major George Johnstone reported, in official correspondence, the importation of a pure ram before 1800, and in a sheep census of 1804 the Rev. Samuel Marsden reported that he favoured and had used the Southdown.
In the late 19th Century several Australian breeders were using rams from the Sandringham flock which was founded in 1866 by Edward VII, then Prince of Wales. Sir Richard Dry, Australia's first native born knight, purchased sheep from the Duke of Richmond in the 1850s for his stud at Quamby, Tasmania.
In the hungry prison colony of New South Wales, meat was of infinitely more importance than wool and it is not surprising that the few people interested in sheep sought the leading meat breed known to agricultural experts of the period. The Southdown is frequently mentioned in 1820 commentaries on Van Diemans Land (Tasmania) and many of Australia's registered flocks can be traced back to an importation to there of sheep from Ellman's flock by a partnership known as the "New South Wales and Van Diemans Land Establishment" in 1826.
James Toosey who was manager of "The Establishment" or "The Cressy Company", as it was commonly known, must be credited with consolidating the breed in Australia. He returned to England in 1836 and bought more sheep from the Ellman flock. In 1835 he showed Southdowns at the Cornwall (Launceston) Show and continued to exhibit, import and promote Southdowns till his death in 1883.
Many flocks were established.in Tasmania from 1870 on, and representatives of these regularly went to shows and sales on the mainland. Brumby, Boutcher and Hogarth being the leading breeders.
Over a period of 150 years there were many importations of Southdowns from Britain, but in the last 50 years great benefits have come from sheep sourced in New Zealand.
The Southdown remained Australia's premier terminal sire from colonisation through till 1950.
Description of a Southdown Sheep
Firstly the sheep should have good character and appearance;
Head: Wide, with no sign of slug or dark poll. Nostrils full and wide. Strong lower jaw. Teeth fitting well up on the pad.
Face: Full, of medium length from the eyes to nose. Hair of soft texture, even mouse colour with no approaching black or speckled. No wool on face below or around the eye.
Eyes: Large, prominent and bright.
Ears: Of medium size and thickness, with soft hair covering of similar colour to face, wool cover is undesirable.
Neck: Wide at the base, strong and well set into the shoulders, with as few wrinkles as possible. Throat clean.
Shoulders: Well set, level with the back, well covered, not too heavy and allowing free movement, no depression behind the blades.
Chest: Ample width and of sufficient depth.
Back: Long, level and firm with a deep, firm, wide and well muscled loin.
Ribs: Well sprung with fore and hind flanks fully developed.
Tail: Broad, almost level with the spine.
Hind Quarters: (Including thighs) should be full, well let down with a deep wide twist allowing for a deep cut of meat and giving strength to the back leg and freedom of movement.
Hind Legs: Of medium length but strong with thick bone, having a slightly forward setting from the vertical line of the pin bone. Hocks should be thick and strong.
Fore Legs:The forearm should be strong and thick with meat. The canon bone should be strong and of medium length.
Feet: Should be black with the sheep standing square on. The pastern should be well sprung but not sagging. The legs should have no wool cover below knee or hock. Hair cover should match face colour and not have black or brown above the hoof.
Scrotum: Good size, well hung, carrying two normally well developed testicles.
Skin: Of a healthy pink not inclined to blue or spotted and should not have wrinkles over the body.
Flesh: Even and firm handling all over.
Wool: Short, dense and of fine texture with no brown wool or fibres. Suggested wool count 25 micron or finer.
Free and active, head well carried.
It is extremely important to bear in mind that the main object of breeding Southdowns is to provide the best sire for crossing with other breeds to produce the ideal prime lamb. The sheep desired is one with a maximum of meat with sufficient, but no waste fat and attention paid to keeping the weight on the more valuable cuts. Of great importance also is to present a sheep having clear face and legs which is attractive to the buyer.
Prime lamb sire
Shorter than other Downs breeds and 23-25 micron
Number of registered flocks
Registered ewes joined in 2023
More information on Southdown sheep
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