Southdown Sheep: A Billings Farm Legacy

Famous for high-quality ice cream and cheddar cheese, Vermont has a reputation as one of the premier producers of dairy products in the United States. Because of this, you might be surprised to learn that the Green Mountain State was once famous for its sheep, with as many as half a million here by the mid-19th century.

Southdown sheep played a major role at Billings Farm from the 1870s until the World War II, when the farm maintained a flock of several hundred. Today, we’re continuing this tradition with a small flock of Southdowns that are featured in our educational programming.

Highly valued for their combination of top-quality meat and heavy fleece (weighing around 4-5 lb. per shearing), Southdowns are docile and friendly, with great mothering instincts. Below, we’ve gathered everything you need to know about our flock, from what they eat and how we care for them, to the role they played in Billings Farm history.

A Brief History of Sheep in Vermont

Through much of the 19th century, sheep dominated the livestock interests in Vermont, outnumbering both cows and people. In 1812, wealthy merchant and former United States Consul to Portugal, William Jarvis, moved to Vermont to establish a large-scale sheep farm. In Europe, Jarvis had managed to obtain an export license for Merino sheep, prized for their superior, water-resistant fleece.

The public went wild for the new product and “Merino mania” soon gripped Vermont, with many small farms being consolidated into larger operations. At the peak of the boom there were almost one million sheep in the state, with an alarming amount of forest being cut down to provide grazing for them. This created a series of environmental problems: sheep are much harder on pastures than cattle because they graze grass down to the roots, exposing soil and causing erosion.

By the 1840s, due to changing tariff laws and competition from farmers in the newly settled West, the sheep boom was turning to bust. Vermont farms, with their mountainous and rocky terrain couldn’t compete with western farms whose costs were often much less. Wool prices dropped from 57 cents per pound in 1835 to 25 cents per pound in the late 1840s, forcing many Vermont farms into bankruptcy. This crisis was compounded by the 1848 discovery of gold in California, when thousands of New Englanders left their farms and headed to the West Coast in search of fortune.

Soon, the conversion to dairy cattle was under way.

Southdowns at Billings

Even as the Merino boom was beginning to fade, plans were afoot to introduce sheep to Billings Farm. During the 1870s, Frederick Billings and his farm manager George Aitkin decided to import a flock of Southdowns from Britain’s top breeders, notably the Prince of Wales. This was in line with their efforts to increase agricultural productivity at the farm, exemplified by the introduction of Jersey dairy cows.

James Aitkin with the Billings’ Southdown flock, circa 1880.

First bred in Sussex, England, during the late 1700s, Southdown sheep are a hardy and adaptable breed, able to cope with a variety of climates. Highly regarded for their superior meat, good-quality fleece, and calm dispositions, Southdowns are excellent all-round animals that are relatively easy to care for and maintain. The typical adult weighs between 150-200 pounds, with a sturdy frame and fine to medium coat.

Within a few years, the Billings’ flock was one of the best in Vermont, with the farm actively seeking to encourage breeders to invest in their bloodlines. This was a well-publicized effort, as seen in the advertisement below.

The Billings Flock Today

Billings Farm continues the legacy set by Billings and Aitken by keeping a small flock of Southdowns and a ram (depending on the season). The life of the Billings Farm flock follows an annual cycle that would be familiar to George Aitken and his farm crew. During the colder months, the sheep are kept inside to protect them from the snow and freezing temperatures. When in the barn, they’re fed a mix of hay and grain and as many are pregnant during this time, they’re monitored regularly by our farm staff.

Lambing begins in late March. Each Southdown produces one or two lambs every year (occasionally, three), with a gestation period of around five months. This is an exciting time at the farm, but hard work for the farm staff who work overtime to monitor the health of the new arrivals. Because lambs are born with very light coats and early spring can be extremely cold, we immediately outfit them with a woolen sweater knitted by one of our staff – making them stylishly warm!

As the weather warms and the pastures fill in, the flock can finally be let outside to graze. Soon after, the ewes’ shaggy coats are sheared and their fleece is gathered. We showcase this rite of spring at our annual Sheep Shearing & Herding with Border Collies celebration.

Shearing

Held the first weekend in May, Sheep Shearing & Herding with Border Collies is one of the highlights of our season. Our master shearer demonstrates the various techniques used over the centuries – from simple, steel hand shears, to hand-cranked clippers, and today’s electric shears. In the fields, a half dozen of the area’s champion Border Collies demonstrate their keen instincts and training as they round up sheep.

This is a wonderful family event, with sheep shearing, Border Collie demonstrations, and hands-on activities including carding wool and lamb handprints.

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