Navajo Churro Sheep

Navajo-Churro Sheep

We no longer breed Navajo-Churro sheep, and have only one left, but we still have deep respect for these sheep and for the folks who work hard to preserve and promote them.

Navajo-Churro sheep are the oldest breed of domestic sheep in the United States. The ancestors of these sheep, the Spanish coarse-wooled Churra, were introduced to the North American continent in the 1500’s by Spanish explorers and missionaries, primarily for meat. As some of the sheep escaped, or were traded or raided from, the Spanish ranches, Native Americans (the Dine’, aka Navajo) adopted and bred them, using them for meat but especially valuing their unique wool, which was spun and used to weave beautiful tapestries in traditional patterns. Where the Dine’ went, the sheep went.

In the late 1800’s, the U.S. Army deployed troops, led by Kit Carson, to subjugate the Dine’. Flocks of sheep were slaughtered and peach orchards and other crops were destroyed. Subsequently, at various periods in the 1900’s, he U.S. government carried out policies of introducing various European breeds of sheep to the Dine’ for “flock improvement.” Because of this, there is a lot of diversity within the breed; however, the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association maintains standards for registering the sheep.

In the 1930’s, again the U.S. government slaughtered thousands of sheep to control “overgrazing” of drought stricken rangelands in the southwest. In the 1970’s, the estimated population of the Navajo-Churro sheep was about 450 individuals. By 2005, the population was more than 5,000, thanks to the hard work of Dr. Lyle McNeal and others in the Navajo Sheep Project.

Navajo-Churro sheep come in every imaginable sheep color from white to black, shades of gray and brown, and spotted. Like their ancestors, the Churra, Navajo-Churro sheep have a double coat, actually consisting of three types of fiber: the inner coat which is fine and soft (compared to the outer coat) but not crimped (waviness is OK), the outer coat which is longer, coarser, and straight or wavy, and kemp which is considered undesirable, consisting of short, straight, stiff fibers, usually white. The inner and outer coats can be any sheep color or spotted. The faces and legs should be free of wool. The wool is low in lanolin and this, along with the lack of crimp, makes the wool pretty easy to clean. We no longer breed Navajo-Churro sheep, but there are many breeders now in the U.S. and they offer great breeding stock. The Livestock Conservancy classifies Navajo-Churro sheep as “Threatened.” If you are looking for this breed of sheep, contact the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association.