15 Years and 7832 Babydolls Later and Still Growing!
By Robert Mock
(Originally published 2006)

September 2006 celebrates the 15th Anniversary of the Babydoll Sheep Registry.  I have felt the urge to reminisce and to look forward to the future of the little sheep that changed my life and the lives of so many others.

In 1986, I became fascinated by miniature livestock.  Sheep were the only domestic breed of livestock that at that time did not have a miniature counterpart known in the general livestock population.  Months of research later, it narrowed down to the original Southdown breed, if there were any genetically pure left in the country and if they could be found.  “If” was the big word.  Imported into this country in about 1803, they had fast become the premium meat sheep, as well as producers of a fine grade of wool.  I actually saw my first little Southdown 70 years ago, although at the time I did not know what it was.  I was sitting in my mother’s lap looking out the window watching a raging blizzard when suddenly appeared this little sheep trying to jump through the snow drifts.  My father went out and picked her up and put her in the barn.  She lived in the barn till spring, wild as a deer.  When spring came, and the bands of sheep came through from southern Washington to the summer feeding grounds, she rejoined them.  Each year, bands of several hundred sheep passed by on the road in front of our farm and spent the night bedded down in a pasture on our property.  The group was always accompanied by a cook wagon pulled by two mules.  They built a campfire, and my mother baked for them and took them fresh eggs and milk, and us boys spent a delightful evening visiting with the herders.  It was one of those memories that fade as you grow older, but it suddenly came back when I saw the first little flock of babydolls in 1988.  Could that have been a prophesy?

Searching the country for them was very time consuming, expensive, and at times filled with drama.  Advertisements were run in farm papers across the country, and I talked to sheep superintendents at fairs in every state as well as county agents and veterinarians.  The first three small flocks were located within a 100 mile radius of where we lived.  The first were weeders in a five acre blueberry field.  The field looked like a park—the grass looked mowed, and every bush was free of the lower leaves.  The owner had owned them for 30 years and was retiring.  The second flock was in Eastern Washington, and I found them in response to an advertisement in a newspaper.  I called, and the man selling them had purchased them from an elderly lady who had passed away.  He was anxious to sell them because they were so small that they walked under his fences, and he did not want to re-fence.  As I remember, there were eight in that group.  The third small flock came from a lady in the southern part of the state who could no longer physically care for them.  She had owned her flock for 40 years.  There were 14 in that group.  They were extremely thin as she had not been able to buy feed for them.  I lost two, but saved the others.

The rest of the sheep were located from Midwest to east within the country.  All older folks who had owned them for years.  At one farm, I called an hour after they had been loaded on a truck and sent to auction.  They were able to call the auction and have them returned with my promise that I would pay the bills and their feed.  At that time, they were selling for $25 or less per head, and no one could afford to keep them.

As other flocks were located, the owners were convinced to keep them with the promise that a registry would be formed for them; a separate identity would be given to them (the name Babydoll); and a market niche formed for them. 

In September 1991, the Registry was put together with Jacque Rogers in Oregon and myself.  It was a simple system in the beginning.  The rules for acceptance into the registry were set.  All sheep must be two years of age or older, measured by a veterinarian, be 24” or less—front leg from the ground to top of shoulder without measuring the wool, and meet the standard of the original Southdowns being shown at the international livestock shows in the early 1950s.  Three of us viewed the photos of each sheep submitted.  We were on our way, and the original 287 head of sheep were registered during the first year of the registry.

By 1995, 983 sheep had been registered and 26 separate bloodlines were established.  In May of 1995, the Registry was brought home.  Jacque could no longer manage it.  My daughter Vicki and I spent four months redoing the Registry.  Not an easy task.  It had to be all on one sheet.  A three-copy carbonless form, one copy to the breeder, one copy for the breeder’s file to be transferred to each succeeding owner’s file, and one copy to be a numerical record of every sheep registered for the stud book.  This system would provide a numerical trail of each sheep from birth to death, from owner to owner.  The system would also immediately detect fraudulent attempts to register lambs or transfers and would set the Registry on solid rock so it could never be destroyed.  It could not be maintained with elective officers, where records were shipped from one registrar to the next, and with each new set of officers changing the policies or playing a game of politics.

The market niche had to be found, promoted, and paid for.  Obviously, there was so little income in the first five years that I spent $15,000 of my own funds to continue the Registry.  To bring the sheep back, production could not exceed demand, so embryo transplants were not permitted.  I remember one person in Missouri who in the second year purchased 200 head of grade sheep and planned to do embryo transplants.  If it had been permitted, it would have brought the market down to nothing.  If they suddenly become cyclic, and it is a breeders’ market, prices are sky high, and then one day you wake up and it is over.  This is not what I wanted for the little sheep.  Fortunately, we were able to prevent that from happening.  The Registry was closed at the end of 1992.  Without the Registry ration and its guarantee that “what you paid for was what you would get,” the sheep did not have a value.  There was no other source.  It was limited to what was here in the Registry.  In cases of disputes, the Registry was the arbitrator, and its decision final.  The Registry built a reputation of absolute honesty and trust between the Registry and the breeder and the buyer. 

The first published article on the babydolls appeared in Rare Breeds Journal in 1991, with regular news about them appearing in each issue since 1992.  With Maureen’s encouragement and guidance, I continued writing, and the newsletter has been published in every issue since with the exception of one in 1999 when I had a stroke.

In 1999, another goal of the restoration project was completed.  The little Southdowns were returned to their homeland, the Sussex Downs in England, where they had been extinct for 50 years.  They were exported from breeders in Canada, and we all celebrated the first lambs born in 50 years on the Downs.

Continued growth and stable prices are the future.  The stable demand and prices continue.  The little sheep are still the highest priced sheep and most in demand of any breed.  The demand for babydoll wool increases each year.  The wool is short stapled, but a micron count of 19 to 22 puts it in the class of cashmere.  The wool has more barbs per inch than any other wool and is perfect for blending with other fine wools and for felting.  Many hand spinners keep a flock of wethers for wool production.