There are a lot of beautiful sheep on Lopez, but David and Susan Corbin’s Navajo-Churro sheep are not only beautiful but also unique among Lopez flocks. I talked with the Corbins the other day at their One Clay Hill Farm on Davis Bay Road and learned why they raise this heritage breed native to the American Southwest.
As I listened to them, I sensed both their passion for preserving this heritage breed and their practicality. “Our goal is to maintain the breed standards in terms of how the animal looks and to develop the diversity of colors with a good spinning fleece,” Susan explained. Then she and David added, “We also need to make the flock self-supporting. We can’t afford to support them!”
From their kitchen window, we watched the flock move across the field and they helped me see the distinguishing features of Navajo-Churro sheep. First are the face and legs: both should be free of wool. Next are the horns: the rams have two, three or four horns, often curled or tilted, and the ewes sometimes have two. As they pointed out examples of horns, David and Susan added that horns were “a desired trait among the Navajo” and are one of the breed standards.
Then there’s the wool. Susan showed me a chart of fifteen named shades that identify the fleece color of each ewe or ram, and she and David pointed out sheep that matched these colors. There was a white, a descendant of their first ram, a blue from one of their first ewes, some grays, some brown and tan and some browns.
For an even closer look, Susan brought over a tanned fleece so I could see and feel the long, straight wool and admire the shade of white. Then she took a lock of wool from a bag of brown fleece to show me the two coats typical of Navajo-Churro: a coarser outer, or guard coat, and a softer undercoat. “I love to sit in front of the fire and spin,” she said. “It’s so relaxing. But I do it primarily to evaluate the quality of the wool and help us to decide whom to keep so we can to maintain breed standards.”
“Our breeding is more complicated than commercial breeding where you need only one or two rams,” they explained, adding: “We have a lot of rams and keep track of which ram is bred to which ewes, grouping particular rams and ewes to get certain traits. Sometimes, interbreeding from the past shows up and we get a ram or ewe that surprises us.” Laughing, they concluded: “spring is so much fun. They are getting more interesting all the time.”
And is the flock self-supporting? “Originally we intended to sell breeding stock and wool and we do that, but we realized that we needed to do more.” Luckily, “the “Slow Food movement adopted our animal for the Slow Food Ark and it became obvious that we could sell as meat all the lambs that we don’t sell for breeding stock.”
Now the flock is self-supporting and those of us who eat lamb can enjoy the mild, sweet meat characteristic of Navajo-Churro sheep and all of us can admire this heritage sheep that some have called “oldest North American farm animal breed.”
To learn more about Navajo-Churro sheep, visit these websites:
Corbin’s website for photos of their sheep: www.oneclayhillfarm.com
Navajo-Churro Sheep Association: http://www.navajo-churrosheep.com/index.html
Navajo Sheep Project: http://recursos.org/sheepislife/dine.html#Project
Slow Food Ark of Taste: http://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark/sheep_presidia.html
First published in the Islands’ Weekly, November 13, 2007