southdown sheep 2

Southdown sheep have been grazing on the Sussex downland for many centuries, some would claim that they have been there since Neolithic times. Today’s modern breed is small, stocky and hornless, an ‘easy-care’ animal that is hardy, fast maturing, even on a spartan diet, combined with great character and docile nature. Famously known as having woolly, ‘teddy bear’ faces and ‘a leg at each corner.’ The mouse-coloured fleece is short, fine and compact; the meat of excellent flavour, helped, it is said, by the sheep eating wild thyme and aromatic herbs growing in the downland’s 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 author Gilbert White mentioned in his book ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne,’ that animals on the hills to the west of the river Adur were ‘horned, with smooth white faces and white legs,’ but to the east, towards Eastbourne, the sheep were polled (hornless) with ‘black speckled faces and legs.’ The white faced sheep have long since disappeared from these dry, chalky uplands, but the latter variety formed the basis of the Southdown breed.

 southdown sheep 7

 It was Sussex farmer John Ellman (1753-1832) of Place Farm, Glynde, who 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. Here he grew up to be an astute and enlightened farmer and once commented, “I have spent more time between the plough handles than in a grammar school.” Long before Mendel made known his proven theories of inherited characteristics, Ellman had recognised that a number of hereditary features were dominant and fixed. He found the local Southdown sheep to be a breed of great antiquity and rare promise, but ‘the method of breeding was casual and conservative.’ So he set about improving them by careful stock selection, saying “I wanted to obtain a well-balanced animal suited to downland conditions which would rapidly and thriftily produce a good leg of mutton.” He paid great attention to skeletal and physical points, and systematically weighed the fleece of his rams, using only those that gave the heaviest return. He liked to see a Southdown sheep with plenty of wool on its head that included a “forehead tuft to serve as protection against the fly.” In his contribution to Baxter’s ‘Library’ under ‘Sheep’ he listed the following main qualities 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.

3/ The proper portions of parts or the make of the sheep indicate a good disposition.

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


Within ten years, Ellman’s Southdowns were producing top quality wool, improved, he believed, by the practice of shearing lambs. Although tightly stocked and thriftily kept, the meat was constantly highly rated. In 1802 the Duke of Bedford paid a record price of 300 guineas to hire his best ram for two seasons, and King George III, after showing Ellman around his model farm at Kew, was instrumental in helping the sale of Southdown sheep to the Emperor of Russia. Such were the improvements Ellman made to this local sheep breed that stock was in demand all over the world, especially Canada, the USA and was instrumental in establishing the New Zealand lamb industry. There were even claims that Southdown sheep could be found on the snow-capped Andes mountains in Peru.

 southdown sheep 6

By 1803 Ellman owned some 1,708 sheep; his shepherd was awarded a prize for rearing 799 lambs from 600 ewes, to which agricultural writer Reverend Arthur Young praised Ellman’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.’

Ellman retired in 1829 and moved to Albion Street, Lewes, Sussex. By then he was the possessor of many trophies including a silver tureen surmounted with the figure of a Southdown ram, which was presented to him by twenty-seven Sussex nobility and landowners in recognition of his industrious work to improve the breed. The Earl of Egremont said of him, “I consider you as the fountain of all the improvement which has already and will take place in the stock of the whole county of Sussex.” John Ellman died in 1832 and his family continued farming Southdown sheep until 1876.


Another devotee of this breed was Jonas Webb (1796-1862) of Streetly Hall, West Wickham. His father had also experimented with various breeds of sheep and Jonas had always favoured Southdowns, not least 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 spines of the Norfolk Horns.” In an 1845 issue of the ‘Farmers’ Magazine’ he wrote, ‘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.’  


In 1798 writer Edmund Scott said that on the Downs between Eastbourne and Shoreham ‘there were some 150,000 ewes kept, from which 100,000 lambs were annually reared. Sheep markets were held all over Sussex and the county town of Lewes held an annual wool fair. On the 26th July 1813 writer Arthur Young reported to have seen 20,000 to 30,000 Southdowns collected on Race Hill behind the town’s prison. An ever larger and more supported Southdown sheep fair in Sussex was held annually at Nepcote Green, Findon, near Worthing, which dates back to medieval times. Writer E. Walford-Lloyd wrote in a 1932 issue of ‘Sussex County Magazine’ that ‘There were rows and rows of neat, cunningly woven hazel hurdles placed in alley-ways, and men in bowler hats, caps or broad-brimmed felts were rushing everywhere.’ He stated that ‘The pens were filled with sheep of all kinds, [including] neat, compact mouse-brown-faced little Southdowns reared on these ‘whale-backed downs.’ And as the sale progressed ‘In come big double-decked lorries, or small trailers attached to the ordinary motor car, and into these vehicles the sheep are hurried and conveyed to pastures new and fresh owners. Some go away in little flocks or bunches, stopping to graze as they go, and behind them walks a shepherd, crook in hand and dog at heel.’


In their heyday, Southdown flocks were kept on most hill farms; they played an important role in improving the maintenance of soil fertility. By day the sheep roamed the hillsides, their hard treading produced a wonderful springy turf, whilst close grazing resulted in the suppression of brambles, gorse and coarse grasses. At night the sheep were gathered together and contained in a ‘close fold.’ The chalky soil of the downland then benefitted from the manure that had been intensively trodden into the ground. Wheat, turnips and swedes could be grown in these areas the following year. In 1911 it was recorded that there were 359 registered flocks containing 114,495 breeding ewes in the South East.

 southdown sheep 3

 But by the First World War, Southdowns rapidly started to fall out of favour when quantity became more important than quality as consumers demanded the larger meat cuts that were available from heavier breeds. Also many of the shepherds and farm workers went off to fight leaving few knowledgeable men behind to tend the animals.  By WW2, numbers were down to 200 registered flocks, when much of their grazing land was taken over for tank training, and farmers no longer considered the breed suitable for the mass market, opting for more prolific crosses producing less fat. By 1987 there were less than 1,500 animals left. In spite of continuing popularity abroad, they were then declared a rare breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.


In 2004 the Sussex Wildlife Trust began introducing ‘flying flocks’ of some 750 specialist sheep, including Southdowns, back onto the downs, so they would help restore the overgrown chalk grasslands to its 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 and thousands of sheep and there would not have been any scrub. The Downs would have been like a bowling green. If we can get a few hundred sheep grazing on a hillside, they will be nibbling on the hawthorn.” He added that grazing was crucial and the most sustainable way to preserve grassland, plants and animals. Thus the Southdown sheep story has turned full circle; the breed can again be seen on the land of its ancestors.  

 southdown sheep 5

Elizabeth Wright