SEEKING an enterprise to complement their certified organic olive grove has put Dee Nolan and John Southgate, Gum Park, Hynam, at the forefront of the resurgence of a heritage breed.
Ms Nolan, who grew up near Naracoorte before embarking on an international career as a journalist, returned to the district and bought back her childhood farm.
While searching for something to complement an olive grove they came across Southdowns.
“We had seen lots of olive groves in Europe that also grazed sheep,” she said.
They thought the two operations could work together, so a family member of Ms Nolan’s tracked down some first-cross ewes.
“I’d lost my eye for Australian sheep, I’d been away for so long, but these sheep were huge,” she said.
“I hadn’t realised how big sheep had become in the past 25 years and they were eating way too much of our young olive trees.”
Growing up, Ms Nolan’s family had used Southdowns as a terminal sire.
“They were really ‘the’ terminal sire,” she said. “Australian lambs were exported to the United Kingdom and they loved the Southdown.
“They did extremely well in carcase competitions, as they are a marbled meat.”
Ms Nolan went searching for Southdowns and realised, while they had also gotten bigger, they were not the size of some other British breeds.
Ms Nolan and Mr Southgate began with a small flock of 22 ewes and two rams in 2007.
Since then they have seen the Southdowns regain some of their earlier popularity, leading to an increase in demand.
Ms Nolan said the Southdown’s smaller size was a big part of their advantage, particularly due to their ease of lambing.
“In the past decade, Southdowns have made a comeback as a terminal sire,” she said.
“A lot of people are mating ewe lambs and looking for sires that will deliver easy lambing.
“They are buying them for their maiden ewes as well.
“(Southdowns) have a small head and narrow shoulders, so they have a high survival rate as lambs and then mature quickly.”
Ms Nolan said the size made them easier for her to handle when working alone.
Ms Nolan and Mr Southgate have also built up a small herd of ‘Babydoll’ Southdowns, a flock more like the original Southdowns of the 1950s and 1960s, before they were “upsized”.
Ms Nolan said the Southdowns had a great history, and were influential in the formation of other sheep breeds.
“It’s really important to keep hold of these genetics as the diversity is going out of livestock,” she said.
But she says the demand for the Southdown breed is not just due to nostalgia.
A lot of people are mating ewe lambs and looking for sires that will deliver easy lambing.
“All farmers want live, healthy lambs. Southdowns are increasingly being used on larger farms and these guys can’t afford sentimentality,” she said.
Ms Nolan said the olives and the sheep remained a good partnership.
“We have nitrogen-fixing clover in mid rows to fix N for the trees,” she said.
“It would be silly if nothing was eating it, then the sheep are fertilising the olive grove as well.”
Their decision to breed stud Southdowns was almost a happy accident, driven by scarcity and biosecurity laws.
When searching for Southdown genetics, Ms Nolan found there were few about, particularly within SA.
They initially bought 22 ewes and two rams during a 2007 dispersal sale of Vic stud Fincham Burando.
“Another driver in us getting the top bloodlines was that we could only use the top ovine Johnes disease-accredited studs,” she said.
They were restricted by recently-removed OJD guidelines that meant they had to select from studs with low prevalence of OJD.
As Southdown popularity grew, they decided to register South Glynde Southdowns as a stud in 2014, with this the first year they had rams available to buy.