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Navajo-Churro Sheep

Hog Island ewe and lamb - photo by Marhsall SheetzAmerica’s first domestic sheep were small, rugged Churro sheep from Spain, brought by Francisco Coronado in 1540 and Don Juan de Onate in 1598. Sheep were used as a source of meat for the explorers and for the missionaries who followed and established a chain of missions throughout the region that is now Mexico and the southwestern United States. During the "Golden Age" of the southwestern sheep industry (1788–1846), master weavers from Mexico promoted their skills, and the trade in textiles and livestock was significant. In 1807, Zebulon Pike reported that a single flock of Spanish sheep could number 20,000. Southwestern Churros went down the Chihuahua and the Santa Fe trails and eventually all the way to California. Churro sheep found their way into the hands of Native Americans who used the sheep for meat but especially came to value the wool, a wonderful new material that was quickly adopted for production of textiles. Sheep soon became the basis for subsistence and trade in Hispanic and Native American economies. During this time selection for fleece character, coupled with the natural -selection of the challenging environment of the arid Southwest, forged the Navajo-Churro breed.

In the 1860s, the Navajo-Churro sheep population was nearly destroyed as part of the United States government’s efforts to subjugate the Navajo people. Churro stock was further diluted by continuing efforts to "improve" Native American flocks through introduction of other breeds. The government’s attempts to control rangeland erosion led to further slaughter of -Native American flocks. By the mid-1930s, very few "purebred" Navajo-Churros remained, and they were scattered across the Southwest.

In 1977, Dr. Lyle McNeal and other conservationists began an effort to protect the breed from extinction. McNeal, an animal scientist at Utah State University, founded the Navajo Sheep Project to conserve the Navajo-Churro, especially among the traditional herders and weavers of the Southwest. The Navajo-Churro Sheep Association and registry were formed in 1986 and included the many groups of people who have historically been involved with the breed. The Navajo-Churro has benefited from this broad-based conservation effort, and registrations rose steadily from 1986 through 1997. The Navajo-Churro is still rare, but its survival now seems assured.

Hog Island sheep - photo by Peg ChildressThe Navajo-Churro sheep is a hardy breed, adapted to the adverse conditions found in hot, dry deserts and sub-zero climates. It has long legs, a narrow body, and light bones. Both ewes and rams may be polled or have two or four horns. Mature rams average 160–200 pounds and mature ewes about 100–120 pounds. The breed is noted for prolificacy. Lambs are easily born and vigorous, and the ewes are excellent mothers. The weaning rate is high, especially given the environment.

Navajo-Churros have a double-coated fleece that weighs four to six pounds. The fine, soft inner coat provides insulation, and the long, coarse outer coat protects the inner coat from dust and dirt while repelling rain and snow. The fleece is low in grease, which makes it easy to process. Navajo-Churro sheep are found in several colors, including white, silver, blue, brown, red, black, and spotted. Patterns such as badger face are common. This range of hues is valued by wool crafters and sheep breeders alike. The wool of the Navajo-Churro is primarily considered a carpet wool and it is often used for rug weaving.

Status: See CPL

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