Southdown Sheep, The Pride of Sussex

by Elizabeth Wright

Southdown sheep have grazed the Sussex downland for many centuries; archaeological investigations have revealed that they were probably around in Neolithic times. The current breed are small, stocky ‘hornless animals with ‘teddy bear’ faces and a leg at each corner.’’ An easy-care animal possessing many good qualities. Real characters with docile nature making it a children’s’ favourite,” said one Sussex farmer, “The Southdown is a very gentle breed and isn’t built to jump fences..They’ re hardy and fast maturing, even on a spartan diet.” The fleece is short, fine and compact, the meat of excellent flavour, helped, it is said, by the animals eating wild thyme , yarrow, trefoil and other aromatic herbs growing in the chalky soil. ‘One of the great sheep of history.,’ Commented Kenneth Pointing in his book, ‘Sheep of the World.’(1980) .

One of the earliest written references to sheep on the South Downs was in 1773, when Gilbert White, author of ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’ wrote a letter to the Hon. Daines Barrington mentioning some interesting observations regarding Sussex sheep. The animals on the hills to the West of the river Adur, ‘’were horned, with smooth white faces and white legs..But as soon as one passes the Adur and mounts Beeding Hill, going East, towards Eastbourne, all the flocks at once become speckled and hornless and are called ‘poll sheep’.He added that the shepherds will tell you that this has been since time immemorial The white faced sheep have long since disappeared from the district, but the ancestors of the latter variety have lived on these dry, chalky uplands for centuries and formed the basis of today’s mouse coloured Southdowns, Sheep remains were excavated at Ditchling Beacon at a prehistoric encampment of the Ancient Britons .The author of ‘A survey of the agriculture of Sussex’ said,”‘It seems almost incredible from the earliest illustrations of these speckled-faced sheep ,that in so short a time the modern Southdown could have evolved-but it was the genius of John Ellman of Glynde who, by careful selection, brought this breed ‘to as near perfection as it is humanly possible to do’.

In 1798, Edmund Scott wrote that on the Downs extending from Eastbourne to Shoreham there were 150,000 ewes kept, from which nearly 100,000 lambs were annually reared. The principal reason the hill farmers kept their sheep in large concentrations on downland was their role in benefiting soil fertility. Each night the animals were brought in and ‘folded’, kept in small areas, where their manure was well trodden into the chalky and infertile ground. Wheat, turnips and swedes could then be grown successfully the following year.

Sussex farmer, John Ellman (1753 – 1832) of Place Farm, Glynde was the original developer and pioneer of the true Southdown breed that we know today. He was born on the 17th October, 1753, in the village of Hartfield, near East Grinstead, and in 1761, the family moved to Glynde. An astute and enlightened farmer, he said, “I have spent much more time between the plough handles than in a grammar school,” and set about improving these small speckled faced heath sheep that then were vastly different from the compact, neat and active little aristocrats that we see today..By careful, selective breeding, paying great attention to skeletal and physical points, he aimed to produce “a well balanced animal suited to downland conditions which would rapidly and thriftily produce a good leg of lamb.”

He had never heard of Mendel’s proven theories of inherited characteristics, but there is no doubt he recognised a number of hereditary features that were dominant and fixed. He found these local Southdown sheep to be a breed of great antiquity and rare promise,’ but the method of breeding was casual and conservative.’ He set up a system to weigh the fleeces of his rams, keeping and using only those that gave the heaviest return. He liked to see a Southdown sheep with plenty of wool on its head, with a forehead tuft, “to serve as protection against the fly.”.

He listed the following main qualities he required:-

1/ The sheep must be well bred i.e. the offspring of parents possessed of good qualities.

2/ The shape and skeleton must not be too large for the keep, nor the size of the bones large and coarse.

2/The proper portions of parts or the make of the sheep indicates good disposition.

4/ Sheep should handle soft and mellow in the flesh..

Within ten years Ellman’s pure bred Southdowns were producing top quality wool, improved, he said, by the unusual practice of shearing lambs. Agricultural writer Reverend Arthur Young, praised Elllman’s stock, stating, “There is nothing that can be compared with it. Unquestionably the first in the country. The wool the finest, the carcase the best proportioned.” Many felt that the wool from Southdown sheep was the ‘nearest English fleece to the highly prized Merino wool.’ Although tightly stocked and thriftily kept, the meat was constantly highly rated. There was no waste in the carcase, ‘ the bones are small, the meat tender and delicate of flavour and the joints are of just the right size to make them popular amongst butchers and the consuming public today’..

To attract buyers to Sussex to purchase pure Southdown sheep, a sheep fair was established in Brighton-known as the Toye Fair, which, for the first few years was successful, with as many as 20,000 sheep being sent there. Ellman’s name attracted many people to his Glynde stud ,George III, George IV, Francis and John, Dukes of Bedford,, Lord Walgrave, the Duke of Richmond, the Duke of Sussex, the Earls of Leicester and the Duke of Bedford, who in 1802, paid a record price of 300 guineas to hire a ram for two seasons. Three Sussex farms held much of the breeding stock ;at Glynde, Beddingham and Landport.

By 1803 Ellman owned some 1,708 sheep, and his shepherd was awarded a prize for rearing 799 lambs from 600 ewes. ‘The name Ellman’, wrote E. Walford Lloyd-Secretary, West Sussex War Agricultural Executive Committee, ‘was famous throughout the sheep breeding world as the pioneer improver of the Southdown sheep, carrying out it’s improvement with such skill, to the fame of Sussex agriculture. As a purely local breed of sheep, it spread all over the world and contributed much to the great improvement that is now apparent in our imported frozen meat, of which quite seventy-five per cent has been sired by Southdown rams,’

A number of well known Sussex noblemen, together with the Earl of Egremont, helped to found the Sussex County Agricultural Society which held its inaugural show at Lewes in 1797 and this was also the first time Southdowns had been exhibited. As a result of the fine wins by Southdowns at this show, the first of the rams that were sold went to Russia and a number of sheep breeders took stock to Ireland and Scotland.

On his retirement from farming in 1829, one hundred and eighty-six Noblemen and farmers from all over the country, joined in presenting John Ellman with a massive silver tureen surmounted by the figure of a prizewinning Southdown ram. It joined the many trophies which he had won with his prize stock. And several more that had been presented to him in recognition of his service to British agriculture. The Earl of Egremont said of him:”I consider you as the fountain of all the improvement which has already been achieved and will take place in the stock of the whole county of Sussex.’ The same year the Glynde flock was dispersed. After John Ellman’s death in November 1832 his sons and relatives carried on farming Southdowns until 1876..

Another devotee of the Southdowns was Jonas Webb ( (1796-1862) of Streetly Hall, West Wickham, near Cambridge. His father had experimented with various breeds of sheep and Jonas had always favoured Southdowns because ‘as a child I had ridden on the wide backs of the rams and found them a great deal more comfortable than the bony spine of the Norfolk Horns.”

In1845 he wrote in the ‘Farmers’ magazine, ‘that more mutton and wool of the BEST QUALITY could be made per acre from Southdowns than from any other breed. I commenced by purchasing the best bred sheep that I could obtain from the chief breeders in Sussex, regardless of expense, and I have never made a cross from any other breed on any occasion since.’

Many of Webb’s Southdowns won prizes at shows and were the centre of attention at the Paris Exhibition of 1855. He made a present of a prize ram to Emperor Napoleon LLL and soon found his sheep were much in demand not only in France but all over the civilised world.

On his retirement in 1861 Webb’s flock of 1404 Southdowns was sold for a total of nearly £16,646. 14s 6d, many going to Europe, Canada, New Zealand, South America and Australia, for cross-breeding programmes.

In 1911 there were some 114,000 ewes registered, but by 1920 the numbers had dropped down to 54,000. The demise of the Southdown was due to a number of contributing factors. Some farmers were ploughing up their land for more arable production, others were investing in dairy cattle, and the home market during the war years was clamouring for quantity not quality. Additionally during WW2 much of the breed’s home ground of the Downs was taken over for tank training. Young men had gone off to war, there were few left to shepherd the stock and artificial fertilisers were gaining ground.

In 1928 Eastbourne Corporation invested in a flock of a few hundred Southdown sheep to graze on land between Beachy Head and Jevington, because their constant nibbling suppressed the growth of brambles, gorse and coarse grasses, enabling the wonderfully dense, springy downland turf to grow abundantly.

Farmers, in response to the demands of a mass market, chose to keep and breed from more prolific sheep crosses that produced less fat. By 1987 there were only about 1,500 Southdown sheep left which were then declared an endangered breed by the Rare Breeds Survival trust.

In 2004 the Sussex Wildlife Trust began re-introducing onto the Downs ‘flying flocks’ of some 750 specialist sheep, including Southdowns, as maintenance grazers to help restore the overgrown chalk grasslands to their original ‘grass carpet’ state. Trust reserves officer Steve Tillman said at that time,” The South Downs was built on grazing. If you were around 100 years ago there would have been thousands of sheep and there would not have been any scrub. The Downs would have been like a bowling green. Grazing is crucial and this is the most sustainable way to preserve the grassland, plants and animals.”

Terry Wigmore, who ran the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre, at East Dean, kept the biggest variety of sheep in the world, 47 different breeds, including a small herd of Southdowns. After eight years of experimental cross-breeding, originally utilising St. Kilda sheep, he could claim a world first in 1988 with the unique breeding of an all-black Southdown lamb called ‘Sam.’

“The Downs are sheep,

The Weald is corn,

You’ll be glad

You are Sussex born.”



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