Dorset down sheep are unusual in Australia: there are only 6 registered breeders and a small additional number of purebred but unregistered flocks. None of the registered flocks are in Tasmania, South Australia or Western Australia. The sheep are, however, highly competitive as production animals, with progeny tests several years ago using Dorset Down rams over cross-bred ewes producing some of the best prime lambs in situations where many other popular meat breed sires were used. In addition, lambs born of Corriedale ewes mated to Dorset Down rams regularly fetch top prices at the sale yards.
Dorset Down sheep originated in the early 1800s from a cross of Southdown rams over Wiltshire, Berkshire and Hampshire ewes during a period of significant sheep improvement in England. They are not related to the white faced Dorset Horn sheep nor to the very popular Poll Dorset sheep in Australia but are distantly related to Suffolk sheep which originated as a cross between Southdown rams and Norfolk Horned ewes
Exports of Dorset Down sheep from the UK to North and South America, to Australia and to New Zealand took place in the early to mid-1900s: in Australia the sheep are considered a rare or minority breed – a heritage breed - whilst in New Zealand the Dorset Down sheep are reasonably plentiful and are popular as a meat breed with similar qualities for early maturing export lamb as the Poll Dorset and Suffolk.
Dorset Down sheep are robust and have dark points but their skin is pink. They do not have horns. Ewes and rams have docile temperaments and readily adapt to a wide range of climatic conditions. Lambs are usually of moderate size at birth – which limits problems during the lambing season – but grow rapidly to reach live weights in the vicinity of 40 Kg by 12-16 weeks of age, depending on pasture conditions.
The sheep have a typical “downs fleece” which is usually 50-80 mm long, 26-29 microns in diameter, and 2 – 3 Kg in weight. The small amount of black wool cut from their faces and legs at shearing time is easily separated from the white downs wool. Downs wool is used for felting and blending with other types for hosiery and fine knitting yarns.
Australia’s strict quarantine rules make it near impossible to import any of the heritage breeds, including the Dorset Down, both now or in the future, from countries other than New Zealand. This has greatly encouraged the small number of registered Dorset Down sheep breeders in Australia to maintain small flocks, often in conjunction with one or more other breeds of sheep and other farm enterprises, to ensure that there is genetic diversity in Australia’s national flock: sheep with historic
blood lines may not be highly sought-after at present but could be important for the production of new and improved sheep and sheep products in the future.