New Mexico Dahl Sheep

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By Donald Chávez Y Gilbert

The First Domesticated Hair Sheep While there is a lack of precise certitude in the case of Churro Sheep history, where “hair” sheep are concerned there appears to be confusion around the country. One hour on the internet reading assorted hair sheep web site’ descriptions of the history of hair sheep and you will find almost as many arbitrary variations, descriptions, and histories as there are web sites. An effort to site proper authorities on hair sheep here should narrow down the parameters and lend some credence and consistency to the real true history of hair sheep.

According to Jim Morgan and Susan Shoenian writing for Virginia State University, “hair sheep numbers in the United States have increased dramatically in the past fifteen years as documented by breed registry data. Two hair sheep breeds rank among the top six breeds for numbers of sheep registered in the USA from 2002- 2004 and one since the year 2000. The increase in hair sheep registrations occurred while the vast majority of wool sheep registries experienced declines of 25 to 75% in their registration numbers from 1990 to 2004.” “Hair sheep have made significant contributions to sheep production in the U.S. over the past several years and are poised to expand their role in the future. Hair breeds successfully address several of the production constraints currently faced by the sheep industry in some regions of the U.S.”

Virginia State University has one of the more informative web sites on hair sheep in the United States. This excerpt from Virginia State University continues discussion regarding the growing number of US hair sheep.

“Accurate numbers for commercial and registered hair sheep are unavailable due to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) not differentiating between hair and wool sheep production. (Note: in 2007, the NASS census will identify hair sheep operations separate from wool sheep).

Numbers of registered sheep are an indirect measure of hair sheep numbers, but currently are the best available indication of how many hair sheep there are, their rate of increase and their distribution in the USA. Since hair sheep are less likely to be in the show ring than many wool breeds, the numbers of registered hair sheep are not being driven by markets for club or show lambs, as is suggested for wool sheep. Hair sheep breeders are localized in the Southeastern, Midwest, and Texas regions and are low in numbers in the states noted for wool sheep (ID, NV, MT, WY, UT, AZ, and NM).

This is particularly significant for the census of hair sheep numbers since much of their growth has occurred in the southeastern states that are not traditional sheep production areas and therefore, not as adequately surveyed. For example, the numbers of Suffolks registered in the USA is over three times that of the Katahdin in 2004. But in eight southeastern states, the numbers of Katahdin hair sheep registered are ten times greater than Suffolk registrations. Currently, hair sheep are being raised in areas that are not typically associated with wool sheep production. Since hair sheep in the USA are derived from genetics adapted to heat and humidity, this distribution is not surprising.”

Between six and ten thousand years BC sheep, goats, and cattle were being domesticated. Domesticated wool sheep, “woolies,” are so ubiquitous that it is probably safe to assume that most non-ranching folks are of the mind set that woolies have always been “woolies.” As a matter of clarification, I should begin this section by stating that it is not natural for sheep to have a heavy fleece all year round. Wild sheep were repeatedly selectively bred for more wool until they lost their shedding gene.

The history of hair sheep: The first sheep domesticated by our ancestors were wild hair sheep. Hair sheep to varying degrees, depending on climate naturally grow warm insulating wool as well as hair (like that of a goat) during the cold months of the year. As the weather warms, the wool fleece sheds leaving only the hair behind. This is a practical adaptation. Over the past eight thousand years, mankind has selectively bred sheep more for its’ ability to produce wool and less for its hardiness. That is why the Churra sheep imported from the Iberian Peninsula which still carries some of these attributes of more primitive sheep like fecundity, hair plus wool, as well as hardiness were so successful over other strains of sheep and were a perfect strain to maintain by the first ranchers, Hispanic ranchers living through many spells of hard times. The hardiest people kept the hardiest livestock.

There are many species of these wild sheep ranging in habitats in what is referred to as the Great Arc, (like the shape of ram horns), of the Wild Sheep, beginning with Mouflon sheep in western Europe across the Boering Straits to the American Bighorns in southwestern USA. James L. Clark has published a great book on these ancient wild sheep called The Great Arc of the Wild Sheep, University of Oklahoma press, 1994. The ancient sheep domesticated by man originated globally north of the equator and have been disseminated by nomadic people all over the world. One example mentioned above sites the French who borrowed sheep from Spain when French King Louis XVI imported over three hundred Spanish Merinos for his estate at Rambouillet, France in 1786 crossing them with his native French sheep and naming them after the French community “Rambouillet.” And so went the practice of borrowing and renaming animals until there are far too many subspecies to mention.

Since the decline of the wool industry in the twentieth century, domesticated hair sheep, also referred to as meat sheep have become more popular for a number of reasons. They are great sheep for the beginner or hobbyist. As mentioned above, hair sheep are more resistant to disease, parasites, and climate changes. They are less expensive and easier to keep because they need no shearing, are hardy, prolific, and more forgiving than woolies. Finally, their meat lacks that mutton taste some people find distasteful.

The first reference to hair sheep appears in Spanish journals, references to their discoveries in West Africa and the Canary Islands. The best reference to the origins of hair sheep comes from translated archives. This is a direct verbatim quote, (albeit a bit awkward), from Spanish to English by A. Rodero, J.V. Delgado and E. Rodero - El Ganado Andaluz Primitivo Y Sus Implicaciones En El Descubrimiento De America. “It is clear, because of in the archipelago there did not exist cattle, horses, asses or camels before the (Spanish) conquest and the pre-Hispanic canary sheep had special characteristics (they present hair, not wool), not mentioned in America’s farming at this time.” Although these hair sheep are not described any further to give us a clue as to whether they were related to modern St. Croix sheep, Blackbellys (AKA Barbados), Wiltshire Horn or any other of the known older hair sheep species, these are the hair sheep the Spanish shipped to the Americas. He continues…“The Spaniards found the Canaries inhabited by a mythic people called the Guanches, coming from the vicinal Africa as was shown by their racial characteristic (Mediterranean) and their language (similar to the Berberlanguage), at though with the precedence of other ethnic groups in a lesser degree (Nordics, Negroids and Cro-Magnon), all of them with a difficultly explicable origin. The Guanches were principally farmers, and the waitings there mentioned the presence of goats, pigs, sheep, and a high abundance of dogs, (canines); the last probably gave the name to these Islands: Canarias, from the Latin Canis. The characteristics of these livestock showed a clear African roots.

The location of the archipelago as a crossroad between continents and the demand of products from the new colonies brought good commercial profits to the Islands, after the Discovery of America.” “The Canary Islands were a necessary stop on the way to America. In 1404 Castilla occupied it permanently. It was the beginning of their colonization and europeatization.”

When Spanish livestock arrived on the other side of the Atlantic in the Americas they referred to them as Criollo, a wide all encompassing term applied to all species such as cattle and sheep, and horses, e.g., Cuban Criollo horse, Mexican corriente cattle, and Navajo churro sheep. As time progressed some species took on the names of their specially bred characteristics and others kept the Criollo name. According to I.L. Mason’s World Dictionary of Livestock Breeds, Third Edition. C.A.B. International, Criolo is also known as: “Creole, Chilludo, Pampa, Colombian, Lucero, Tarhumara, Uruguayan, Venezuelan. The Criollo breed developed in the highlands of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela over hundreds of years. The ancestors of the present day Criollo is believed to be the Spanish Churro, which was brought to this area in the mid-1500. The present day breed has a coarse fleece of carpet wool type. They are typically white, black or pied.

There are a number of species of hair sheep around the world, both tropical and temperate subspecies. As they specialize, registries are being established and standards set as guideposts for differentiating one from another. For our purposes here I will concentrate on breeds popular to the United States of America, with particular emphasis on the Mouflon, Barbados Blackbelly, and Rambouillet, (French for Spanish Merino), which are the foundation stock of the vast majority of our horned American Hair Sheep breeds; Corsican, Black Hawaiian, Painted Desert, and, Texas Dall to name a few sheep. The Katahdin, Dorper, and St. Croix, which are also hair sheep but, are polled, (hornless), are considered exclusively meat sheep. The New Mexican Dahl is uniquely bred to appeal to both meat and trophy hunt customers with large muscular bodies sporting massive horns.

St. Croix sheep are like the Barbados an old breed brought to the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese merchants and explorers. Katahdin sheep date back to the late 1950's with the importation of St. Croix sheep from the Caribbean by Michael Piel, to Maine, U.S.A. His goal was to combine the shedding coat, prolificacy and the hardiness of the Virgin Island sheep, with the meat, conformation and rate of growth of the wooled breeds. He experimented with crosses between the hair sheep and various British breeds, especially the Suffolk. Later, he collected a flock of Wiltshire Horned Sheep in the mid 1970's, from England incorporated them into the flock in order to add size, and improve carcass quality even further. He named his sheep "Katahdin" after Mount Katahdin in Maine.

History of Barbados Blackbelly Sheep According to R.I. Rastogi, H.E. Williams, and F.C. Youssef in their Origin and History of the Barbados Blackbelly, “in tropical America there are two quite different types of sheep. In the highlands there is a wooled sheep, called Criollo, which originated from the coarse-wooled Churro imported from Spain during the period 1548 to 1812. It is a small to medium-sized animal producing a small quantity of coarse wool which is important for the cottage wool industry. The males have horns. Colour is often white but coloured and pied animals are common.

This is the principal breed in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. There are also small populations in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The second type of sheep is a woolless or hair sheep whose colour is commonly tan (red-brown), white, or patterns involving tan. Males lack horns but are characterized by a shoulder and throat ruff of long hair. This hair sheep is found in many Caribbean islands and in mainland countries along the north coast of South America. Populations will be described from Barbados, Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Colombia and Brazil. The hair sheep is of African origin but, in countries where wooled Criollo sheep do not occur (e.g. Cuba); it may be termed “Criollo” which tends to be confusing.”

Rodero’s citation of Spanish discovery of hair sheep as being of African origin and “the location of the archipelago as a crossroad between continents and the demand of products from the new colonies brought good commercial profits to the Islands, after the Discovery of America,” makes it reasonably clear that these sheep were exported and marketed in the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese merchants, beginning with the Carrabean Islands chain between Antigua to Barbados, and St. Croix.

R. Lydekker in The Sheep and its Cousins, London: George Allen Press wrote about the Guinea long-legged sheep: “Early in the seventeenth century these sheep were carried by the Portuguese to the northern districts of Brazil, while about the same time, or perhaps still earlier, they were introduced by the Spaniards into the West Indies and Guiana….”

Notwithstanding the obvious connection with the Spanish, R.K. Rastogi, H.E. Williams and F.C. Youssef do not credit the Spanish or the Portuguese with the introduction of hair sheep to the Island of Barbados. They do state, however, that, “it is generally agreed that these hair sheep were introduced into Barbados from West Africa. They have existed in Barbados for well over three hundred years.” Another well known African hair sheep introduced in the 1500’s by Iberian explorers is the St. Croix sheep. Instead of crediting the Spanish or Portuguese predecessors they cite Ligon who guesses that the Blackbelly hair sheep “must have been introduced between 1624 and 1657.” That is the time when British explorer Sir William Curteens during a storm accidentally blew onto on the Isle of Barbados after the Portuguese and Spanish had come and gone.

R.K. Rastogi, H.E. Williams and F.C. Youssef go on to quote Ligon, “we have here, but very few [sheepe]; and these do not like well the pasture, being very unfit for them; a soure tough and saplesse grasse, and some poisonous plant they find, which breeds diseases amongst them, and so they dye away, they never are fat, and we thought a while the reason had been, their too much heate with their wool, and so got them often shorne; but that would not cure them, yet the Ewes bear always two Lambs, their flesh when we tried any of them had a very faint taste, so that I do not think they are fit to be bred or kept in that Country: other sheep we have there, which are brought from Guinny and Binny, and those have haire growing on them instead of wool; and are liker Goates than Sheep, yet their flesh is tasted more like mutton than the other”.

“Guinny” is clearly Guinea, the Gulf rather than the present country of that name. “Binny” may be-Benin, or Benny on the Niger Delta.

…It is clear that wool sheep did not thrive; nothing is said about the thrift of the hair sheep. The curious thing is that the high fertility is attributed to the wool sheep whereas it is now the hair sheep which exhibit this characteristic. Could this have been a result of crossbreeding combined with selection? A hundred years later the wool sheep had apparently died out since Hughes (1750) wrote: “The Sheep that are natural to this climate and are chiefly bred here, are hairy like Goats. To be covered with Wool, would be as prejudicial to them in these hot Climates as it is useful in Winter Countries for Shelter and Warmth”.

At present the Ministry of Agriculture estimates that there are something over 30,000 sheep in Barbados; about one-third are purebred Blackbelly …, another one-third are grade Blackbelly (off-type in colour or with white spots) and the remaining are “others” (see Frontispiece). The last category includes hair sheep of other colours such as, white, tan, black or pied, and crosses with Blackhead Persian and wool sheep (mainly Wiltshire Horn). In fact in or around 1950, simultaneous importations of Wiltshire Horn sheep from the U.K. occurred in Barbados (Patterson, 1976), Tobago (Trinidad and Tobago, 1953) and Guyana (Devendra, 1975) with the objective of improving the quality of local sheep by crossbreeding. It has been estimated in Barbados that about 10 percent of the lambs born from woolless sheep at present are more or less woolly and these are not kept for breeding.

The Blackbelly was the most common breed on the estates surveyed by Patterson and Nurse (1974). Sixty-three percent had only this breed and on the others the dominant type was Blackbelly crossbred. A few farms kept Wiltshires. The Blackbelly was the dominant breed on all the small farms in the survey; Blackbelly crosses were next in importance and Wiltshires were present on only 12 of the 97 farms surveyed.”

North American Hair Sheep History Finding evidence of any particular subspecies of sheep let alone hair sheep in the literature is a rare and lonely experience because so little history was reduced to writing and so much history was passed on in the form of oral history that more specific details tend to become lost from one telling to the next. Evidently, hair sheep flocks have quietly maintained their existence tucked away behind the scenes in distant pastures on remote wild New Mexico mountain ranges and ranches/farms like so many other livestock pursuits in the isolated state of New Mexico, a saving grace as it turns out in the preservation of many aspects of cowboy/ranching history. Family journals, when they can be found are a rich source of history and should be preserved and published at any cost.

The first mention of hair sheep I found was in the family journals (provided in 1998 by the Mascareñas family of Belen, NM) of some of the founding families of New Mexico. Specifically, the family of Juan Lopez Holguin, born in Extremadura, Spain, 1560 who traveled to Mexico City where he married Catalina de Villanueva. Their daughter, Ana Maria Ortiz, born circa 1570, wife of Cristobal Baca, born 1567 in Mexico City refers to one of the few most portable animals salvaged during one of the many Indian raids and massacres as they fled the Santa Fe area. She makes a point of identifying los “Chamorro borregos pelados,” as the ones selected to make the trip, as opposed to the slower unshorn “borregos de lana,” woolies, abandoned in Santa Fe. In another later passage, in the early 1700s there is mentioned by Maria Hurtado, wife of Manuel Baca, born in Santa Fe a list of animals brought with them from Bernalillo, NM to the new town of Alburquerque, NM which included, “una media docena de vacas, e once borregos pelados.” These are the only references to hair sheep specifically which I find documenting the importation of hair sheep in North America other than St. Croix and Barbados.

The wool sheep industry has so dominated sheep ranching in America that there is hardly any mention of hair sheep in historical accounts. An effort to revive the New Mexican Hair sheep breed is being made at Terra Patre Farm, Belen, NM since the 1980s. Over the past thirty years observing many sheep going through the livestock auction houses in New Mexico and other parts of the country I noticed some distinctive sheep only in New Mexico bearing a similarity to the sheep described in Rodero’s, archival research which makes the connection between the Chamorro and Churro. These sheep were generally being brought to auction during dry years from the more remote ranches, suggesting there are still foundation flocks in existence. In his dissertation identifying sheep which evolved in isolation in the Iberian Peninsula Rodero describes the Merino sheep, (coming from the north (Castilla and León) of the provinces of Córdoba and Jaén), and another sheep genus which sounds like a lost link between the first wild caught then domesticated sheep, and what, through specific breeding practices began to evolve into the Iberian Chamorro sheep, (“livestock bought in Andalusia famous for their meat but not their wool”), eventually called Spanish Churro sheep. By the time Churro sheep reached the Americas under the more generalized term “Criollo” sheep, they had also earned a reputation for being good wool bearers and dairy animals.

One significant missing piece of this evolutionary chain exits between the rugged wild wool-shedding domesticated Mouflon type sheep referred to in Spanish archives as Chamorros and the Churro sheep which were different insofar as they maintained their hardiness and adaptability to harsh conditions, but at least partially evolved into woolies producing far more wool than the annually shedding “Hair” sheep we are familiar with today. Complicating this puzzle was the introduction of the true hair sheep the Spanish discovered on the Canary Islands. Both of these hardy sheep were exported to the Americas and no doubt out crossed on their journeys, then back crossed after arriving on the North American continent. There is an abundance of evidence that the Churro sheep arrived in large numbers to the US through New Mexico. The few remaining Chamorro borregos de pelo hair sheep referred to in New Mexico family journals are virtually undocumented but still occasionally seen on remote ranches or brought in for auction have all but disappeared. A concerted effort has been made over the years with those last remnant Chamorro hair sheep to purchase and preserve them as much as practicable, notwithstanding their having been crossbred almost to extinction with various woolen breeds. Having lost much of their distinctive look, Terra Patre farm, in an effort to revive this old breed has taken steps to breed out the wool and restore the hair sheep qualities which more typified this ancient breed by backcrossing other hair sheep breeds such as the Iberian hair sheep borrowed by the Romans, the Wiltshire Horn sheep. To this reinvented Chamorro sheep we have given a more modern name after the Ovis Dali Dali sheep of Alaska and common Texas Dall; we christen the Ovis Dali Novo Mexicanis or New Mexico Dahl hair sheep.

Professor Lemuel Goode at North Carolina University experimented with crossbreeding Mouflon, Rambouillet (Merino), and Barbados Blackbelly sheep in 1971. The cross resulted in a subspecies which is generally referred to as the Corsican sheep. It has a wide variety of colors and color patterns ranging from pure black, pure white and spotted combinations. The state of Texas enjoying a healthy hunt industry has also bred these variations in turn into more subspecies with larger more impressive horns for trophy hunts. The black strain is called “Black Hawaiian,” the white, “Texas Dall,” and the spotted, “Painted Desert.” The states assigned to the names are not where these sheep originated. Each of these sheep have developed into unique breeds for multiple markets.

NEW MEXICO DAHL SHEEP In the sixteenth century in the north of New Spain and what is now the Southwest US, Spanish colonial expeditions moved at a pace slow enough for people to walk alongside carretas or in tow behind draft animals, and slowed even more to help woolen sheep breeds cross swollen rivers on (made on the scene) rafts. Expeditions took the time to navigate around large regions of rocky terrain or even hold over long enough to allow sore hooves to heal after covering rocky spans. However, exploration expeditions had different objectives and different priorities. In 1540 Francisco Vásquez de Coronado y Luján did not have the luxury of building rafts in wet months nor sheering wool in hot months, and frankly time was of the essence. These sheep had to be far hardier than the livestock brought to lush green Florida, as the desert southwest was harsh and unforgiving. Not knowing the distances they had to cover, they needed to move quickly and before their live food source (namely the sheep) was expended. They took the most expedient direct practical route. They needed the most expedient animals. NM Dahl sheep fit this ticket perfectly. What’s more, when faced with hostile Indians, speed was the key to survival and only hair sheep could have met such a challenge and kept up with horses on the run. Again, woolen breeds in hot months on a sustained run would perish from heat prostration. Nor could they, as previously established, crossed bodies of water (running arroyos & rivers) in a hurry.

New Mexico Dahl sheep appeal to both the meat and hunting industries, sporting trophy size horns on large muscular bodies. They are characterized by all the attributes outlined in the list of selling points above. These sheep are described as never shear, white in color, with both ewes and rams horned, ewes’ horns averaging length around six to nine inches. They are excellent flockers, with high lamb survivability. Majestic Rams quickly grow long beautiful horns with massive horn bases. Their average weight ranges between 190 and 275 pounds, roughly 50 to 100% increase in size over other horned hair breeds. The ewes are excellent mothers that are prolific and year-round breeders. They do well in feedlots or on the range. They are being bred selectively to include these good qualities as well as their frequency of multiple births. About one out of ten lambs from this gene pool have brown and black coloring much like the popular Corsican hair sheep. These are referred to as Oñate sheep.

In January 2013, the United Horned Hair Sheep Association, Inc., a non-profit organization representing horned hair sheep, voted to recognize and represent the New Mexico Dahl Sheep. CLICK HERE for the UHHSA website which contains breed standards and registration requirements for New Mexico Dahl Sheep.

In March 2013, the New Mexico House of Representatives in House Memorial 77, voted to recognize the New Mexico Dahl Sheep as a heritage breed. CLICK HERE for the full text of the House Memorial 77, 2013.

For producers interested in further pursuing hair sheep ranching there exist two significant hair sheep meat-marketing groups, both centered in the southeastern or south central USA, as well as the United Horned Hair Sheep Association, Inc. dedicated to high standards in the hair sheep industry as well as conservation, breed promotion and education ;

The Scott County Hair Sheep Association in southwestern Virginia with over 200 members and 7,000 ewes has signed a contract to provide lamb to the Food City Supermarket Chain.

Marketing hair sheep: the Hair Sheep Market Managing Group (HSMMG) incorporated in Arkansas and is centered in Oklahoma and Texas, but has members ranging from Texas to Nebraska to New York. As of 2006, the group has over 50 members and 10,000+ ewes. HSMMG is marketing both meat products and breeding stock and has the potential to collect 60-110 pound lambs and move them between the markets in their extensive geographic areas. A significant component of the income of both hair sheep marketing groups in 2005 is the high demand for commercial hair sheep breeding stock.

Donald A. Chavez, PO Box 1351 Belen, NM 87002 Email: 505-550-7569

new mexico dahl sheep