The Babydoll Southdown Scoop

The Babydoll Southdown sheep breed is popular in Northern California, but — in my humble, shearing experience — myths contribute to their popularity in our region. Every year, I hear the same surprise and bewilderment in the voice of a new customer who has asked me to shear their Babydolls. They feel a bit duped, and the best I can do is to let them know they’re not alone.

I had this conversation again a couple of days ago and thought “I should write a post on this.”

Babydoll Myth #1: They’re great for vineyards. They’re so short, they can’t reach the vines.

One small flock owner put it best when she said, “Can’t reach the vines?! It seems like their only purpose is to eat my vineyard!” Babydoll Southdown sheep do have shorter legs than other breeds. But if you’ve ever spent time in a vineyard, you already know that vines can grow low to the ground and that, as grapes grow, they hang down. Many a Babydoll has feasted on Northern California’s world famous grapes and vines.

Babydoll Myth #2: They can’t look up.

I am not sure where this one comes from, and I don’t know if it is meant to describe eye movement, head movement, or both, but it is used to further support the notion that Babydolls are great for vineyards. The Babydoll’s head and/or eyes cannot, allegedly, look up and thus cannot see the vines and grapes they might otherwise wish to eat. Not so. (Even it were true, it doesn’t matter if the outcome — eating stuff they shouldn’t — is the same.) And even a blind sheep can eat food, just like a blind person.

Babydoll Myth #3: They can’t hop or jump.

Just watch them for a while. You’ll probably see a hop, skip, or jump. One customer recently mentioned her Babydolls were attempting to jump an electric fence. They didn’t make it, but they tried (and were still trying). As a shearer who is often trying to hold on to a Babydoll, I can personally vouch for their agility and ability to hop away, rapidly. Shearers, in fact, describe them as “jumpy” in conversations in which one shearer is new to the breed, has an upcoming job, and wants a sense of what to expect.

Babydoll Myth #4: The shock of an electric fence carries through the wool on their faces.

It may, but the sheep don’t always act like it. I have gotten a few new shearing customers this way: the wool grows long enough on the Babydoll’s face that the electric fence no longer appears to work, and — though they stick their noses right between the wires — they appear to feel nothing. They will either graze through the fence openings, and/or push on it until they can run right over it to graze wherever, and on whatever, they please.

Babydoll Myth #5: Their small size makes them easy to handle.

There is some truth to this, in that greater strength is required to catch, hold onto, and control a 300-lb. ram than an 80-lb. ewe. Some flock owners don’t feel strong enough to — or comfortable with — handling larger sheep, in the 200+ pound range, and so select a smaller sheep breed. Makes sense. (I believe some flock owners are also unnecessarily wary of and frightened by their sheep, which is something we can — and do — work on together when I come out for a shearing job.)

As literature has taught us, however, though something may be small, it may still be mighty and fierce (and mighty fierce). I remember the first time I sheared a Babydoll. Though I was in proper shearing position, with the sheep flipped over and leaned back on its butt, that little ewe was standing on four legs between the two of mine in a split second, before I even knew what had happened. Short legs means the sheep is close to the ground, which means the sheep has a low center of gravity and easy access to leverage, which means the Babydoll can be nimble and surprisingly difficult to control.

Several factors that influence how easy a particular sheep is to handle. These include, but are not limited to:

  • How much exposure the sheep has had to people, and the nature of that exposure. Some sheep that have been raised as pets, for instance, may be very easy for their owner to handle, but incredibly difficult for a shearer to handle. They’re used to being treated like a pet, not as livestock, so being flipped over and handled by a shearer in a decidedly non-pet way can offend a pet sheep’s delicate sensibilities.
  • How primitive the breed is. To generalize, I’ve noticed that the more primitive the breed (the smaller the degree of human intervention over time), the more nimble, agile, determined, and intelligent the sheep. This can make a sheep more difficult to handle, but other factors matter as well. Shearers, at least, expect that primitive breeds will require more handling work, in general, than others. (And shearing is a very specific type of handling that most flock owners may not have need to do themselves).
  • How experienced the handler. The more experienced people (and any helper dogs they might have) are with handling sheep, the easier the sheep are to handle — to some extent. I’m not being facetious. There are a lot of folks who do more sheep chasing and yelling than they do handling, and this makes the sheep stressed and not easy to handle. Good handling also keeps the sheep more comfortable: you know not to hurt the sheep by setting it on its tail, for example, and to avoid touching its joints when it’s older and has arthritis. Things like that.
  • How well fed and full of energy the sheep is. Sheep have a lot more strength and determination, and the energy to support that, when full of food.

This piece includes absolutely no research, no quantitative data, zero animal science, and is based purely on client stories and my own observations and experiences. I’d love to hear about your experiences with this breed in the comments section.

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