PETER Congdon had a problem.
He had purchased a small boutique winery on the Bellarine Peninsula, but didn’t want all the inter-row mowing required to keep 3000 grape-vines in check.
His answer was as adorable as it was practical – a self-replacing herd of Southdown sheep.
Southdowns are credited as being the first recognised breed of British sheep to be introduced into Australia in 1800.
Known for their meat properties and small stature, the Southdown remained Australia’s premier terminal sire from colonisation through to the 1950s.
Today, the Southdowns have been split into two categories – the modern Southdowns are a commercial based breed with a strong focus on the domestic market trade weight lambs, with mature rams topping out at between 120 – 150kg.
The traditional Southdowns are often referred to as Old English Babydoll Southdowns, and are shorter in the leg with thickset bodies and a woollier face.
Babydoll Southdowns are bred for a niche market of producers – people like Mr Congdon.
“I was raised in regional Victoria, and attended the Dookie Ag College after school,” he said.
“Back then, the campus ran a few Southdown sheep – that’s how I knew about the breed.”
Babydoll Southdowns provided the answer to Mr Congdon’s vineyard problem.
“The short stature of Southdowns makes them outstanding weeders between the vines,” he said.
“At only 50cm tall, they can’t reach the grapes, but they remove the unwanted shoots from the vine trunks, plus do all my mowing and their relatively light weight doesn’t impact the soil – it’s a complimenting system.”
Having purchased Ponda Estate Vineyard in 2009, Mr Congdon – and his partner Tracey – approach the farm ecosystem as a whole.
“I graduated with a science degree from Dookie, and wanted to put some of my theories to the test,” Mr Congdon said.
“The Southdowns are more than just a mower – we took soil tests before we bought the herd in, and again a few years later.
“The vines look healthier, they seem more resistant to disease and cope pretty well when it gets dry.
“What we have seen is an improvement in the soil structure and nutrient levels – we attribute all that directly to the Southdowns’ grazing habits.”
Of course, running a heritage breed does not come without problems.
Sourcing the majority of his ewes from the Bellarine Peninsula and central Victoria, Mr Congdon has run into two problems: assisted birthing, and limited genetics.
“A lot of the ewes we bought needed help at lambing – it seemed to have been bred into them, and was just a given that they would not be able to go it alone,” Mr Congdon said.
“That was one of the things I wanted to change.
“We now manage the ewes to have good chance of twins – and we have been selecting for a wide pelvis for ease of lambing.”
The problem of limited genetics is one Mr Congdon is tackling with a long-term approach.
“We started with a Poll Dorset ewe and crossed her with a Southdown ram,” he said.
“We have been doing the same with their progeny for three generations now – and when we get to five or six generations crossed back to the Southdown ram, we will look at adding those genes into the purebred flock.”
Like many farmers, the Congdons have had issues with foxes – one that they have solved by using guardian Maremmas.
“We now have the dogs to look after the sheep, and the sheep to look after the vines – it’s a good system and part of the whole farm approach we were trying to implement – good if you are a lazy farmer,” he said.
It has been six years since the Congdons first brought Southdown sheep to Ponda Estate Vineyard.
In that time, they have enjoyed success not just in the paddock, but also on the table – Ponda Estate has won a number of awards, including trophies for Best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Geelong and Ballarat regions.
“The Southdown sheep have made a real difference to the way we run the vineyard,” Mr Congdon said.
“They have not only eased our workload, they have improved the vineyard and provided a small additional income stream in lamb sales – as a farming offshoot, it’s a pretty good result.”
If you would like more information, you can contact Mr Congdon via his website at www.pondaestate.com.au.