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Southdown Sheep

Vermont was a sheep state before it was a dairy state. Through much of the 19th century, sheep dominated the livestock interests here, outnumbering both cows and people. The first important breed in Vermont was the Merino, whose numbers exceeded 1.6 million by 1840. The Merino was known for producing fine wool and its desirability helped Vermont's woolen mill industry to prosper. By 1870, Vermont still had well over 500,000 sheep – and just under 200,000 cattle. As the demand for Merino wool declined however, Vermont's sheep population also declined and the conversion to dairy cattle was underway. Today, there are an estimated 25,000 sheep in Vermont.

Frederick Billings began importing Southdown sheep from several of the best flocks in Britain during the 1870s – about the time that sheep farming started to decline in Vermont. He selected this breed for its excellent meat and wool - believing that introducing a dual-purpose breed might help slow the decline of sheep farming. Billings's flock of Southdowns quickly became one of the best in the state. By the early 20th century, there were several hundred sheep at Billings Farm.

James Aiken, brother of Farm Manager, George Aiken with Billings Farm Southdowns, circa 1903.

Southdowns are known for their high quality meat and excellent fleece, averaging between four and five pounds in weight. This particular breed is known to be very blocky, resembling a rectangular box with feet. Southdowns tend to be docile and friendly, with strong mothering instincts and are well suited to close contact with humans.

Generally, sheep grazing is destructive to pastureland because the land is grazed down to its roots, exposing them to wind and rain. Unlike cattle who rip grass with a strong tongue, the front of a sheep's mouth has small teeth on the bottom and a firm gum on the top, enabling them to graze much more closely to the ground. The reforestation of Vermont which began in the late 19th century would have been much more difficult had sheep remained dominant in Vermont's agriculture.

Billings Farm began to redevelop a Southdown flock in 1993, acquiring "old-style" Southdowns from two locations: a farm in Putney, Vermont, and a living history farm museum in New Jersey. We keep between six and ten breeding ewes and each spring the ewes give birth to a lively group of lambs. A new ram is introduced to the flock every two years or so.

Few people realize the historical importance of sheep at the Billings Farm and the overall impact of sheep farming in 19th century Vermont. Southdowns were shown – in addition to our famous Jerseys – and contributed to this farm's reputation for agricultural excellence. Today, we raise a small registered Southdown flock, the dual-purpose breed first introduced well over a century ago.