What is the difference?
This seemingly simple question is tricky...
It short, in Australia a Babydoll sheep is a smaller type of Southdown with a woolly head. BSBA breeders are adding coloured wool, patterns, spots and stripes as part of creating a new Babydoll breed.
The first Southdown flocks were recorded along with a Southdown breed standard in The Southdown Sheep Flock Book Volume 1 published in Britain in 1892. Reprints of this are available for sale online. The drawings and photos of sheep in this flock book are an indication of what the 'original' Southdowns were like. Like most British breeds, they were shorter and stockier than the same breeds today, which have mostly been bred to be bigger, leaner and longer in the last few decades.
Up until 2020, all sheep in Australia called Babydolls could only be registered as Southdown and were white. Since then, several Babydoll registries have been set up. Each registry is based on a range of criteria and assumptions. All are based on using Southdown genetics. It is possible to run a Babydoll breeding program for white sheep in the BSBA Babydoll, ASSBA Southdown and ASSBA Babydoll registries and to dual register Babydoll sheep as BSBA Babydoll + ASSBA Southdown or BSBA Babydoll + ASSBA Babydoll. The best choice of registry for any breeder will depend on what sheep they already have and where they want to source genetics for their flock in the future. Coloured Babydolls cannot be registered as ASSBA Babydoll or ASSBA Southdown.
In North America, a Babydoll sheep is a separate breed established around 1990 based on Southdown genetics imported from Britain in the 19th Century. They are relatively short (but not miniature), have woolly heads and may be white, black and sometimes spotted. These sheep often have much fluffier faces, shorter muzzles and perhaps not so much of a Downs style wool as the smaller Southdown type still found in Britain. Photos on social media often feature lambs up to one year old which leads to the impression that the adults have the same size and 'teddy bear' look. There are no North American Babydoll sheep genetics in Australia at the time of writing.
Babydoll Sheep Breeders Australia (BSBA) has developed a Babydoll breed standard to describe the type of sheep that we are aiming for as we create a Babydoll breed for Australia based on the Southdown and adding the option of colour. We also have a Babydoll Score Tool that our members can use to assess how Babydoll looking a sheep is.
Another consideration is the % of Southdown genetics known to be in the pedigree. A sheep needs at least 93.75% Southdown genetics to be considered for purebred Babydoll status in the BSBA Babydoll registry. Sheep with a lower percentage of Southdown genetics are still valuable in developing the Babydoll breed and can be registered as Emerging Babydolls.
Weirdly, in Australia, some breeders explain the difference between Babydolls and Southdowns by comparing photos of Babydolls in full wool with recently shorn, medium sized purebred Southdowns. When sharing happens, all Babydolls and Southdowns suddenly look like they have longer legs, longer neck, longer ears and a non woolly head. When you shear a well bred Babydoll sheep with 100% Southdown genetics it looks like a small version of the larger Southdowns.
Some Babydoll breeders prefer a heavy shouldered, short bodied, thick and short necked type of Southdown similar to those bred in Australia in the 1950s-70s. This is entirely their choice but is not the only way a Southdown sheep can be small enough to meet the Babydoll breed standard - have a look at photos of shorn Babydolls from North America for other options for body shape. Old-time Southdown breeders will tell you that the broad, dumpy body shape was associated with some serious problems at lambing time that led to the Southdown breed almost disappearing from Australia. We are lucky that it is not the only option for Babydolls.