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pinkdot.gif (930 bytes)...........Here we tell short sheep stories with a little wit and occasional pearls of wisdom. This area will be changed on a fairly regular basis. The pictures are copyrighted, please do not use them.

pinkdot.gif (930 bytes)..........There is a link at the bottom of the page to go back to the previous tales...............Last updated March 18, 1997

#3 "A short history"

This is a short history of the Navajo-Churro sheep as I remember it (which means, don't quote me, this comes from my memory of the various articles that I have read).

This Sheep Tale is perhaps a little dry, but I need a history reference point for some of the future Tales. If as you read this you start to get bored, jump to the bottom of the page and jump to one of the first Tales.

The Navajo-Churro sheep originated in Spain as the Churra sheep, and even before their introduction into the New World, had split into two types, the Northern Churra and the Southern Churra. One was selectively bred for white fleece and the other was bred for colors. The breeds' natural tendency to occasionally produce 4 horned rams was discouraged (eat 'em, don't bred 'em) as a four horned ram was thought to be the sign of the Devil.

The Spanish explorers brought both types of the Churra to the New World to provide meat and fiber as they explored and began to settle the land. The Curra (name later corrupted to Churru and Churro) has the distinction of being the first domestic sheep breed in America.

The Navajo Indians obtained sheep from the Spanish by trade, gift, raid, and the finding of lost ones. The Navajos had the skills of spinning cotton and other vegetable fibers, and became very proficient spinners and weavers of wool rugs, blankets and other items.

The Navajo-Churro breed was forged in the crucible of a harsh and unforgiving land. With limited food available, only the hardy and efficient survived to breed the next generation. The ewes became excellent mothers, the lambs quick to rise and run. Hardy and adaptable, the Navajo-Churros became perfectly adapted to the desert environment, and because the Indians needed a fleece that could be spun easily by hand, (they did not have spinning wheels!!) they selected for a fleece that had an excellent spinning quality.

The Navajo Indians thought that the occasional 4 horned ram was a sign from a god, so they used them to breed the next generation, and thereby began reversing the Spanish Churra's horn development and in doing so opened a "Pandora's Box" of genetics.

The 4 horned ram, with two horns sticking straight up from the top the the ram's head, and the other 2 horns curling sideways to meet under the chin, became the symbol of the Navajo's sheep.

The genetic problem, as I understand it, (and again I remind you that I am not an expert, so like Ripley said "Believe it.......or not!) is that the 4 hornedness is started by an inherited birth defect that is similar to a human's birth defect of a cleft palette or hare lip, in that the embryonic tissue fails to unify. In a Ram, the birth defect extends through the horn bud forward over the brow and ends at the eye-lash edge of the upper eye lid.

In the best of all possible situations, (for the animal), the horn bud is split, causing two horns from each bud, the skull bone is unaffected, and the eye-lash edge of the upper eye lid is unaffected.

In the worst case, the horns are split into two, there is a flaw in the skull bone on each side of the head, and the upper eye lid is deeply notched or completely cleft. The major problem that occurs is that the eye lashes grow out of the edges of the notch or cleft, and scratch and scar the eye to the degree that the rams often go blind.

The lambs (both ewes and rams) born from these rams then carry the bad eye lid problem (to varying degrees) forward with that tendency for having 4 horns.

The Navajo-Churro at this time was a fine boned, small to medium framed animal with clean (unwooled) face and legs, possessing a long, soft, dry (very little lanolin- grease) fleece, generally double coated (soft under coat and long straight outer coat) and a fleece that is classified as "hair" rather than "wool" because it has no "crimp" (wool crimp looks like a microscopic version of a zig-zaged fiber).

And then disaster strikes.

During the wars between the White Man and the Navajo Indians, the huge flocks of sheep were often killed by the soldiers as retribution and as a "scorched earth policy". At one time, after the Indians had been "subdued" they were given back "one sheep for each man, woman, and child".

Under the "expert guidance" (sarcasm) of the Government, the Indians were "encouraged" to use rams of several other breeds to "improve" these "scuzzy desert sheep". Some of the rams were to increase the size of the sheep, other breeds were intended to add crimp to the wool to make it more marketable as a cash crop when sold for clothing wool. When asked, the Navajo weavers said that they wanted the old type Churro wool for their spinning and weaving, but their advice fell on deaf ears. The Navajo-Churro breed became a mixture of breeds.

As the wool markets of the turn of the century turned to the super fine fiber of the Merino and Rambouillet type sheep, the "coarse" fleece of the Navajo-Churro became worth less than the cost to shear the animal and the breed began to disappear being replaced by some of the meatier and woollier breeds.

At one time the total number of Navajo-Churros in the United States was estimated to be less than 800 or 900.

The Navajo-Churros have enjoyed a resurgence as many have come to appreciate their many valuable traits, however, the quest to "re-create" the original animals is filled with many problems.

We were told once about a museum, that 15 or 20 years ago, needed to restore a hole in a 100 year old blanket but could not find any of the old style soft Navajo-Churro fleece to match the original yarns.

Today those fleeces are again available.

However, the modern Navajo-Churro often exhibits many of the subtle traits that were mixed into the blood lines. Many of the fleeces are way too greasy, crimped fibers from the "fine wooled" rams occasionally show up, the larger bodies and big frames have created an almost second type of Navajo-Churros, fuzzy faces and very un-Churro looking sheep can result from pure bred mating.

When a Navajo-Churro is offered for Registry, one prominent question is as to the degree of eye lid "notch", as both rams and ewes can be affected

And the poor rams...... can have...... no horns, two little "C" shaped ewe horns, two horns that look like the perfect curl of a wild Rocky Mountain Sheep, two horns that spiral straight out to the side like two corkscrews, something that looks like 4 horns but is really 2 horns that have split, 4 horns that are like the original Navajo ideal (2 up and 2 curving around the side, like the modern Jacobs type sheep), some have horns that grow so poorly that they must be occasionally cut back to prevent them from growing around and back into the eye, or up into the bottom of the chin, and last, but I fear the worst, you can find rams with 6 or 7 horns that have been created by selective breeding just for the novelty of an animal with lots of horns.

Most of the pictures of a typical Navajo-Churro will show you a ewe (female), occasionally one with little "ewe" horns, but because of the other breeds that have gotten mixed into the blood lines, there are many typical types of Navajo-Churro ram.

Un-named Ram showing profile and full face
Un-named Navajo Churro Ram, profile and full face view

Nicolo and Ben, Pure bred Navajo-Churros
Nicolo and Ben, purebred Navajo-Churro Rams

We do not raise 4 horned Navajo-Churro sheep.

Other information on the Navajo-Churro sheep http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/sheep/navajo/

You can click on these numbers to continue, or use the pink buttons at the top of the page, or the *Jump links* that are below, to go somewhere else.

#1."Me-sis" #2. "Gem" #3. Short History #4. Stupid? #5. Rule #1 #6. Chris #7. Leonard #8 Lamb Wave #9. You know...when, #10. "Wimps" #11. "Fidget" #12. Invisible sheep #13. "Fraidy" #14. Words

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