At our inaugural BSBA Babydoll Stud Tour on 27 November 2022, we were delighted to welcome Linda Power who was the first person to start developing a Babydoll sheep breed for Australia. Linda called her sheep Babydoll Southdowns. We now call them Babydolls to differentiate them from the larger, leaner type of Southdowns that have been developed in the last few decades in Australia.
Linda has given us permission to share her talk and photos on our website.
My Woolly Journey
By LInda Power
For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Linda Power. I formerly owned and operated the Roblin Babydoll Southdown Sheep stud at Cootamundra and I am the founder of Babydoll Southdown Sheep in Australia.
So how did the whole Babydoll sheep vision come about?
I grew up on a farm and loved it when my father asked me to help him out with jobs on the farm. My earliest memories of this was when I was about 5 years old. The most exciting part of helping my father around the farm was when we were working with the sheep. I’m not sure why, but from that time onwards, and even now, I just love sheep. I just find them the most beautiful, intelligent animal with such a wonderful social curiosity.
When I moved back to Cootamundra with my husband Rob (after 10 years in Nowra on the South Coast), we purchased 25 acres that joined my family’s property. I started helping my father with farming and working with sheep again. My passion for owning and running my own sheep stud was ignited. My father’s commercial sheep were great but they were big and the Dorset rams could be huge and hard to handle. One memory of handling these rams was when I tried to hold one of these rams steady so the vet could extract blood for an OJD test. My feet couldn’t touch the ground. I ended up more like jockey riding the ram. My best effort was to try and ground my feet on the side of the race and it took all my strength to hold the big fella. When you are 5' 2" and weigh less than 80kgs (at that time), it’s not easy to hold a huge Dorset ram steady. Therefore, I was convinced that I needed to find a smaller sized sheep that I could handle on my own.
So in 2005 my search began for small sized sheep in Australia. It took months of searching the internet, sending emails and making phone calls to breeders. I found this wonderful little “Olde English Southdown” breed in the UK and US which they named Babydoll Southdowns. My first thought was to be able to import some of these beautiful, woolly and coloured sheep?! But it would be a long and expensive exercise, also near impossible due to all the regulations. So I had to find some “small” sheep in Australia. The search continued.
Knowing that Olde English Southdown sheep were first brought to Australia in the 1700s and Southdowns still existed, I contacted as many breeders as possible to narrow down a list of suitable stock to start my own breeding program. I found one unregistered breeder and one registered breeder with stock fitting the characteristics that I was looking for in my foundation stock. From a marketing angle and helping to promote their attractive qualities, I decided to be on par with the breed in the US and UK and market them as Babydoll Southdowns. This was to help distinguish them from the larger, modern Southdown that so many breeders are now producing. At the time, I did not realise how much of a misunderstanding this would cause amongst breeders, but the market for these sheep continues to grow.
Each of you will have your own perception of what a “Babydoll” sheep should look like. My vision was to work within the guidelines of the characteristics of the “Olde English Southdowns”. I did not want to stray too far from the original and turn them into something unrecognisable. My vision was to stabilise the Olde English Southdown breed in Australia once again and give them a new lease of life and a chance to become more than just tender chops on the dinner plate. I wanted them to thrive. To become the little darlings across the country and give people a chance to breed and learn about these heritage sheep that once graced many areas of Australia. I feel that the breed was losing some of its originality and charm and I wanted to help regain this through selective breeding.
Every day was exciting, watching and interacting with my new sheep and my love for them just grew and grew. I was proud of my foundation stock and there was a lot to learn about this breed. Not every sheep breed is the same and they all have their valued and undesirable characteristics. Every year was a learning curve with the Babydolls and some years not so good, but I loved working with these sheep all the same. As my father says, 'to get through the rough times, you must plan for the worst'.
Once I started to advertise and market the Babydolls, within a short time I had a waiting list as long as my arm and confirmed sales for my lambs for the first 2 to 3 years. The booming interest in the Babydolls was very encouraging.
When I started with my foundation flock, we had some dry seasons and I had to hand feed. One advantage I found with these sheep, compared to my father’s commercial crossbreds, was that they could easily maintain a good weight and they did not require a lot of additional supplements. But on the other end of the scale, a problem I did discover during better conditions, was trying to keep the pregnant ewes in good condition, but not overly fat. This is where hilly country comes in handy to help give them daily exercise.
Over my years of breeding I obtained new stock from different sources, trialling cross breeding with merinos and a couple of other breeds. I found the crossing with Saxon merinos to be the most successful and this allowed me to be able to supply small sized sheep with the cute Babydoll features to buyers who had no experience with sheep or those that just wanted pets and grass eaters. The Babydoll Merino crosses allowed new buyers to purchase such lovely small sized sheep without the expense.
When I sold the wool from the Babydoll Merino crosses, the wool buyer treated the fleeces as merino wool and I got a very good price. These crosses also used to produce a longer staple than the pure Babydolls but without the very greasy feel of merino and the commercial cross fleece. It was a wool desirable to people with craft interests.
I find there is no real training like the practical side of working with the sheep and gaining experience of breeding and handing the Babydoll sheep in real time. Every situation is different and it is a challenge to within work the limits that nature provides us.
Even though I may make it all sound like a battle and doom and gloom, some days it did feel like this, but I had my most joyful times interacting with these beautiful woolly animals every day, especially watching the ewes and their lambs interact.
I found that my sheep were easily trained in such a way that every time they saw me walking in the paddock I would end up with a long line of sheep behind me expecting me to lead them to a source of food. Apparently, it was a funny sight and I was known in my family as Bo Peep. This training certainly made it easier to move them around my property, which was quite hilly, and most of the time all I had to do was to let them see me standing at the top of the hill and call out to them. When my number of sheep hit 100 plus, this could be a lot of sheep to come running towards you and not a good time to be standing in the gateway.
My favourite time each year was watching the lambs playing with each other and with their mothers - lambs jumping and sleeping on the backs of their mothers or having their daily lamb races at dusk. As I painted numbers of the sides of the lambs to make it easier to identify them without the need to get close and disturb them, I could almost be tempted to hold race days each year and make a few extra dollars playing bookmaker for enthusiastic punters. I’m joking, of course, but it makes me laugh picturing a crowd gathered at my farm with tickets in their hands cheering on the little woolly racers.
I spent sunny days laying in our hilly paddock watching the sheep grazing. I had the odd sheep come to inspect the strange lump laying down in the grass and sometimes they’d give me a gentle nudge with curiosity. I would sit with my poddy lambs and sometimes they would sit in my lap while napping in the sunshine. This was such a privilege and cemented the trust and bond that comes with bottle feeding lambs every day. Any loss of these little fragile animals, was heart breaking and I use to cry on my husband’s shoulder every time. But it came to a point that I had to accept that it was all part of breeding sheep and any time spent with them was precious, no matter how short.
There is a trail of events that happened in short time frame a couple of years ago and this is why I am not still on my lovely farm with such beautiful sheep. I do think of my days with the Babydolls frequently and miss not being with them. But I am so very grateful and astounded that so many of you have carried on the growth of this incredible, heritage breed that was once in danger of disappearing from our Australian shores and was only known as sweet and tender meat. Looking around here today, I know that you all agree that these sheep are so much more.
Although, I have made the difficult decision to no longer breed sheep and take a different direction in my life for various reasons, I decided to have a permanent reminder of time spent with my beautiful sheep in the form of a tattoo of myself and my first two poddy lambs placed on my shoulder.
Thank you for letting me share this day with you all and I wish you all the very best with your own woolly journey.
A big thank you goes to Stephanie and Ben at The Vintner’s Daughter Winery for inviting me to tour their vineyard and Babydoll Sheep stud.
A big thank you goes to Jennie of Roogulli Babydoll Sheep stud and president of Babydoll Sheep Breeders Australia, for inviting me to join the tour and speak about my life with my own Babydoll sheep and my stud.
Photos courtesy of Linda Power.