With their sweet teddy bear faces and wooly charm, babydoll sheep attract people looking for gentle pets or adorable lawnmowers.
Officially known as babydoll Southdown sheep, members of this ancient breed are the diminutive version of the Southdown breed of sheep, which originated in the South "Downs" of Sussex County, England. There, they were known for their hardiness, fine fleece and their tender meat. The breed made its way to the United States around 1803, according to the Olde English Babydoll Southdown Sheep Registry.
People often choose to keep babydoll sheep because of their gentle, yet distinctive personalities, says Rosemary Weathers Burnham, who breeds the tiny sheep at her Beacon House Farm in Union, Kentucky.
"They are very gentle and they aren’t real big so they're easy to manage," Burnham tells MNN. "I love seeing the different personalities."
She mentions Nona, who is so outgoing she will come right up to you and would happily live in the house with you. Then there's Harmony, the rather bossy leader of the flock, who's always out in front of everyone else. And Iris, who is sweet and shy and such a good mother.
Babydoll sheep are most often white, but can also be black, which is a recessive gene.
As they are out in the sun a lot, the wool on black sheep lightens and can look brown. As they age, their coats can turn a kind of grayish-brown.
Their fleece, which is sheared each spring, is springy and soft. In textile terms, it runs in the 19 to 22 micron range, which means it's similar to cashmere and can be worn next to the skin without being itchy and uncomfortable.
Babydolls are only about 18 to 24 inches tall when they're fully grown. Because of their small size, they're easy to handle and popular for 4-H projects. They can be easily contained with small, low fences. The larger danger isn't that these lovely creatures will escape; it's that predators can get to them.
Both babydoll ewes and rams are naturally polled, meaning they're born without horns. They are non-aggressive by nature and can be wary in new situations. Breeders say the sheep are curious and trusting with the people they know and are especially fond of routine.
Babydolls are easy keepers and don't need much acreage.
"They're not hard on the land. The only thing they do is eat the grass," says Burnham.
You need a shelter where they can cool off in the summer and get out of the rain. "But in general they like to be outdoors because they always have that wool sweater on. They just don't like to get wet."
Babydoll sheep are popular as "organic weeders." They are often used in vineyards as well as orchards because they don't hurt the fruit, tree trunks or shrubs and they fertilize the soil while they graze.
Babydoll ewes are good mothers, according to breeders, and often have twins and occasionally even triplets. They like to stay together and don't typically wander off and get lost.
"The special thing about these sheep is they have a strong flocking instinct. They tend to stick together," says Burnham. "Every night they come back to the paddock and spend the night. They have this instinctive thing to come back home every night."