Earth Notes: Navajo Churro Sheep

Jan 15, 2020

The Navajo Churro sheep was originally brought to the New World as a food source, but it turned out to be highly valued for its excellent wool weaving properties, as well.

Navajo Churro sheep at a northern New Mexico farm.
Credit Stonefield Sheep

About 10,000 years ago in Persia and Europe, sheep were first domesticated for their meat, milk and skins. Much later, the Spanish bred Merino sheep for their fine wool which became a major source of wealth, financing voyages of conquistadors to the New World.

The first recorded overseas shipment of Churro sheep to North America was in 1493. Prior to the advent of wool, cotton, rabbit skins and turkey feathers provided warmth and clothing in the American Southwest.

Today’s much-coveted Navajo-Churro breed is the result of this early introduction. For centuries, these hardy sheep thrived in the rugged terrain and harsh weather of the Colorado Plateau, providing food and wool for some of the finest artistic weaving in the world.

However, overgrazing, drought and a decrease in spring water resulted in the eventual collapse of many herds. Misguided attempts to improve both wool and mutton production by introducing foreign rams only served to degrade the Native American sheep industry.

The good news is that today, many herds are being carefully tended, and rather recently, genetic relatives of the original Churro sheep have been re-discovered and bred successfully. The animals are once again a sustainable and valuable resource for tribal communities.