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The Controversy Over Spotted Babydoll Southdown Sheep

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Out of the three registries for Babydoll Southdown sheep, two accept spotted Babydoll sheep genetics and one does not. Ask anyone in a Babydoll Facebook group what they think, and you'll almost certainly have a heated discussion on your hand. So who is right? Are there purebred spotted Babydoll sheep? Should they be allowed in registries? Is there any historical documentation about their existence? Are people using other breeds and unethically claiming the offspring as purebred spotted Babydolls? How do you know if a sheep is a purebred spotted Babydoll?

purebred babydoll southdown spotted sheep ram lamb
Paprika - an OEBSSR Purebred Spotted Babydoll Sheep from Black Sparrow Ranch

Who Says What?

There are three breed registries for Babydoll Southdown sheep:

  • Olde English "Babydoll" Southdown Sheep Registry

  • North American Babydoll Southdown Sheep Association & Registry

  • Babydoll Southdown Sheep Breeder's Association

Of the three, OEBSSR and BSSBA accept spotted genetics and NABSSAR does not. The individual registries do not go into detail about their decision to accept spotted genetics, at least not on their websites, but here is what they list as the breed standard regarding spotted wool or fleece:

  • OEBSSR - "All colors acceptable, black, dilutes, and spotted."

  • NABSSAR - "We do not accept spotted sheep. Please do not register spot carriers with us."

  • BSSBA - "White/off-white, black, ... black with white markings, and spotted."

So, who is correct? One could argue it would be OEBSSR. They are the original Babydoll Southdown sheep registry that was founded in 1991 by Robert Mock, the American who saved the breed from the brink of extinction. Since all registered purebred Babydoll sheep can be traced back to his foundation flock, and the registry he founded allows spotted genetics, it can be assumed that he believed spotted genetics were acceptable.

But perhaps we should go back further.

The History of the Breed

What are now known as Babydoll Southdown sheep actually started as just Southdown sheep and were standardized by John Ellman in the late 1700's in Sussex County, England, specifically the "South Downs" area. Their small size and flavorful meat were ideal at the time for small families and eventually the breed made it to the United States in the early 1800's. A series of events including World War I and II and large scale factory production of meats caused a divergence which led to people preferring much larger cuts of meats and breeding those characteristics into the Southdown sheep. This caused two distinct lines to form: the larger Southdown sheep which is considered the standard size and breed in the US today, and the "Babydoll" Southdown which is considered a miniature sheep even though it was the original. If not for Robert Mock's fascination with miniature livestock, and his diligent efforts to search the country for the remaining original "miniature" bloodline, the Babydoll Southdown would likely not be around today.

So if Robert Mock's foundation flock of Babydoll Southdown sheep had original bloodlines (and sometimes even registrations) that traced back to the Southdown sheep John Ellman popularized in England in the 1700's, what was the standard for wool color in the breed at that time?

The Proof of Spots

Written by Arthur Young and dated 1794, the Annals of Agriculture Volume 22, specifically mentions the original English breed of Southdown sheep: those that would eventually go on to be known as the Babydoll Southdown sheep:

"Respecting wool, he is convinced, that were the South Down breed to be left in a wild state, they would, in a few years, become entirely black: for there are in all the flocks, every year, notwithstanding all the care that can be taken to prevent it, great numbers of black and white lambs; some with large black spots, some half black, and some entirely black. He has had twelve and fourteen of the latter in a year, though he never kept a black lamb or ewe; from whence he draws the conclusion, that their original color was black, and that nothing but art and care produced the white wool."

This confirms that in the original Southdown flock in England, the breed we know now as Babydoll Southdown contained white/off-white, black, spotted, and mixed colors of wool. A precedent for spotted Babydoll Southdown sheep exists.

But how rare are spots?

The Rarity of Spotted Babydoll Sheep

An inquiry to one of the registries that allows spotted Babydoll genetics requesting figures on what percentage of their registrations are listed as spotted did not illicit a response. However, any breeder who has tried to procure their own spotted Babydoll lamb will tell you that they are few and far between. This is partly because the genetics that go into producing a spotted color are complex and often require much trial and error. Some farms which specialize in spotted Babydoll flocks have endless waiting lists and it is not unusual for spotted Babydolls, or even "spot-carrier" Babydolls to demand a much higher price than a solid-colored sheep of the same quality. As demand for the unusual patterns and vibrant contrasted colors increases, the prices will likely follow until the supply catches up.

So when you do find one, how do you know it's the real deal?

Finding a Reputable Breeder of Spotted Babydoll Sheep

There are ways to protect yourself and ensure that the spotted Babydoll you are interested in purchasing is both registered and purebred. Most importantly, you will want to assure you are working with a reputable breeder. More often than not, these breeders will have dedicated websites or social media pages. They might have photos of their flock and reviews from previous buyers. The sheep you are purchasing should always be registered, and if spotted, should be registered with OEBSSR and/or BSSBA. The breeder you are purchasing from should be able to provide you with the sheep's lineage as well as registration papers (or application) and their own member credentials. All of these materials should show matching documentation, meaning the member number they give you matches the name of the breeder on the registry website. The name of the breeder you are speaking to also matches the name of the breeder or owner on the sheep's registration paperwork.

So what's stopping someone from passing off another breed as a spotted Babydoll?

A Sheep in Spotted Clothing

Babydoll sheep breeders often caution buying spotted Babydoll sheep from a breeder who has other spotted breeds of sheep on their property automatically assuming because one breeds multiple types of sheep that they must be either too incompetent to keep the breeds separate or intentionally mixing the breeds to fraud their potential customers. This is at best misleading and at worst highly damaging to a breeder's reputation. Could this happen? Yes. Does this happen? Maybe. Is it the norm? No.

For one, most breeds which would pass off as a spotted Babydoll are themselves a highly sought after and expensive breed such as the American Harlequin. The miniature Harlequin sheep is more rare than even a spotted Babydoll, and can often fetch double the prices of a spotted Babdyoll leaving no reason to want to pass it off as such. If you were to breed a Babydoll with a standard breed, it would likely be outside the height requirements of a Babydoll sheep and therefore easy to disqualify. Another consideration is that the Babydoll sheep has very unique facial characteristics that are unlike most other sheep breeds and these characteristics are often lost with even one generation separation.

To ensure you are getting a purebred spotted babydoll, buy from a reputable breeder, procure only registered sheep, request and research their documentation, and look for characteristics that meet the typical breed standard. DNA tests are also an option. If it seems much too good to be true, it likely is, but to assume all spotted Babydoll sheep are simply mixed breeds passed off for purebreds, is damaging to your fellow breeders who work hard to bring healthy, quality lambs to their customers and uphold the standards of the breed we all love.

To Spot, or Not?

Whether you choose to bring spotted Babydoll genetics into your flock is a decision you should only make after carefully considering your goals as a Babydoll Southdown breeder. Breeders and their customers seek different attributes in sheep: some focusing more on conformation, some on wool quality, some on sweet temperaments. Before color of wool or fleece is taken into account, we should all prioritize raising healthy sheep that will preserve the breed so that the smiling, teddy bear faces we adore can be enjoyed for generations to come.

Beth Byard

Black Sparrow Ranch

Miniature Harlequin and Babydoll Southdown Sheep



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