Navajo Churro Sheep
I began raising Navajo Churro sheep for several reasons, some of them practical, and some from my heart.
Promoting diversity of domestic animal breeds is not the first thing most stockmen consider when starting or continuing their operations. High yield, both in numbers and in carcass weight (mostly if you are raising meat animals) is often a huge consideration. For wool breeds, the desirability of the wool and the market for it, often drives the farmer/rancher’s thinking.
I chose Navajo-Churro sheep to begin my farm because I could not resist the history of the breed. Being a closet anthropologist and historian, the long and fascinating story of Churro sheep was irresistible. But I also very much wanted to help preserve a breed whose numbers had dwindled so drastically over the centuries. Of course it helped that the wool was marketable to rug weavers and knitters of outer garments, and the inner, soft coat was suitable for many uses. The natural color range of the wool is attractive to many fiber artists.
The Churros are easily kept on pasture and/or hay, and don’t require the grain and supplements that many commercial sheep do. They lamb with no difficulty, and protect and feed their babies admirably. And — they sure are beautiful to look at as they run across my pasture in the spring, their lambs jumping with the joy of life.
In all the years I have been raising Churros, I never once thought about changing to another breed.
A sheep entwined in Navajo culture and beliefs, the Navajo-Churro epitomizes a way of life that developed with the introduction of the Churro to the Navajo people in the 17th century and has since been almost exterminated.
Navajo-Churros are a hardy breed, resistant to many sheep diseases. With their two layers of coat, a long top coat with a soft, shorter undercoat they can withstand extreme climates. Navajo-Churro rams are very distinctive, some with up to four fully developed horns. Twins and triplets are not uncommon and the ewes are very protective of their young lambs.
Navajo-Churro fleece is a distinctive long-haired pelt with two lengths of fibers from the long topcoat and shorter undercoat, which is highly valued for many uses. When spun, the wool, which is more like hair, is extremely strong and durable, making it excellent for Navajo rugs and is highly prized by spinners. Navajo-Churro wool comes in natural colors, including black, grey, brown, beige and white. Weavings from their wool are not only beautiful, high quality and long-lasting, but also preserve the traditional Navajo ties between sheep, wool, land and weaving. The texture, quality and durability of weavings created from Navajo-Churro wool are highly regarded by informed collectors who admire their silky luster and wide variety of natural colors.
Descended from the Churra, an ancient breed from Iberia, the Navajo-Churro were introduced to North America by the Spanish in the 16th century to provide food and clothing for their invading armies and settlers. Through time the name "Churra" was changed to "Churro" by American frontiersmen. The Churro were the first domesticated sheep in the New World, and being a hardy breed, thrived in what is now northern Mexico and the southwest of the United States.
Spanish settlers in the 17th century living along the upper Rio Grande Valley depended on the Churro to support their way of life. The Navajo acquired their initial flocks of Churro from these settlers either by trade or raid. Over the next hundred years, the Navajo way of life changed as they incorporated the Churro into their lifestyle becoming herders and skilled weavers, and the number of Churro increased tremendously. The early Rio Grande, Pueblo, and Navajo textiles were all woven from Churro wool. In the late 1700's, the export of ewes from New Mexico for breeding stock was controlled by the Spanish.
An Endangered Breed - The Fall and Rise of the Navajo-Churro
The mid 1800's saw the peak of the California Gold Rush and thousands of Churro were taken to California to feed the increasing numbers of prospectors. About the same time, the Civil War and increasing population caused most of the remaining Churros to be crossed with fine wool rams to supply the escalating demand for clothing. Then, in 1863, the U.S. Army slaughtered most of the Navajo flocks in reprisal for their ongoing attacks. In the early 1900's, the federal government through its agencies imposed massive stock reductions on the Navajo flocks to "improve the quality of the breed", the resulting slaughter destroyed most of the original Navajo-Churros. Only a few hundred of the Navajo-Churros survived and cross-breeding with Merinos, Shropshires, Rambouillets and others began. These breeds were not hardy enough to survive in the severe conditions of the southwest, nor was the quality of their wool good enough for Navajo rug weaving. A few small flocks of the remaining pure Navajo-Churros survived in isolated villages in New Mexico and remote canyons on the Navajo Reservation.
Concerned individuals in the 1970's realized that the Navajo-Churro was close to extinction and that an vital part of Navajo culture and heritage could be lost. In 1977, Dr. Lyle McNeal of the Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Science at Utah State University in Logan, Utah and his wife, started the Navajo Sheep Project in an effort to protect and conserve the Navajo-Churro. They searched for the remaining pure bred sheep and were successful in acquiring enough sheep to begin breeding near Bloomfield, New Mexico, and continue to supplement the Navajo and Hispanic flocks. The Navajo Sheep Project has also introduced cooperative breeding programs between some of the Navajo and Hispanic flocks.
In addition, a Colorado State University project grazed a flock of Navajo-Churro on an area overgrown with oak brush and the sheep have grazed the brush enough to allow the grasses to grow again.
The Navajo Sheep Project, continues to work toward the goal of helping the Navajo keep their values and culture, and has become a three state project: Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.
The Navajo-Churro are still on the endangered list and their recovery has a long way to go. They are listed on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Priority List, classified as Threatened, i.e. "Fewer than 1,000 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 5,000.