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Basque Latxa sheep. Photo by Iñaki LLM, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We received an interesting question recently asking if there were any native Basque breeds of sheep and pigs in the US, and that got us thinking at the Center. It strikes me that, in the great Basque-American narrative of the sheepherders who developed the American West, very little, to my knowledge at least, has ever been written about the animals themselves: in other words, what breeds were favored, and why.

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A red-headed Latxa ram. Photo by Markel Olano, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So I turned first, and most obviously, to Amerikanuak by Bill Douglass and Jon Bilbao, the magnum opus of Basque-Americana. They reveal (p. 219) that, in the  1850s, “the degenerate quality of California sheep strains (the result of years of neglect during and after the secularization of the missions) supported the notion that California was not sheep country.” And although “California sheep were famed for their fecundity,” by the late 1850s, “sheep flocks were improved through importation of Australian stock and merino rams from Europe and the eastern United States. Once the breeds began to improve, it became obvious that in normal years sheep thrived in the California climate.”

It seems, then, that Merino sheep became an important part of the stock in the American West. As regards the Merino breed, though, this is not native to the Basque Country. Merinos most likely originated in North Africa before being introduced into the Iberian Peninsula in the 14th century, thereafter becoming the principal breed of Spain’s central meseta and, in time, being exported throughout Europe and beyond, including to Australia and the Americas.

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Churra ewes and lambs in the Spanish province of Segovia. Photo by Fernando García, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But could that original stock mentioned in Amerikanuak, which had so “degenerated” by the 1850s, have descended from the original Churra/Churro sheep introduced alongside Spanish imperial expansion?  Like the Merino, the Churra were associated with the dry central plains of Iberia, but in regard to the original question, they were and still are also herded in the Cuadrilla de Añana (Añanako kuadrilla in Basque), a district in southwestern Araba. We do know that these sheep were first imported into North America, via the aforementioned colonial expansion, in the 16th century. And that, through trade, they subsequently became an important part of the Navajo economy and culture. By the 20th century, however, Churra sheep felt out of favor–one presumes due to the preference for Merinos–and they all but died out in the US, except for recent efforts on the part of the Navajo to preserve the breed.

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Black-headed Manex sheep in Mendibe/Mendive, Lower Navarre. Photo by Harrieta171, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Otherwise, when it comes to other Basque breeds of sheep, I have been able to find no evidence of a US presence. The traditional sheepherding areas of the Far West, of course, are found in a landscape that lends itself more to Churra or Merino varieties, whereas the classic Basque sheep tend to be more mountain-dwelling breeds accustomed to wet, mild oceanic climates. These classic breeds include the Latxa/Lacha in Hegoalde or the Southern Basque Country and the Manex/Manech in Iparralde or the Northern Basque Country, both of which have black-headed and red-headed varieties. A slightly smaller relation of these breeds is the red-headed Sasi/Xaxi sheep (also known as “little” Manex or just “redhead”), which is able to survive in even harsher climes than its more well-known relatives.

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A Basco-béarnaise. Photo by Roland Darré, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If these are the so-called classic Basque breeds, there are others, which for want of a better expression we could term “borderland” breeds. These include the aforementioned Churra, which really originated much farther south than the Basque Country, but also the Basco-béarnaise in Iparralde and its relative, the Karrantza/Carranza breed (also found in black- and red-headed varieties), in Hegoalde.

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The Basque pig. Photo by Eponimm, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When it comes to all things porcine, there is a Basque breed par excellence, the Basque pig. In fact, in a previous post, we discussed how this breed had achieved the lofty AOC status in France. In researching for this post, I also came across a great article on the Baztan pig from Navarre, which unfortunately seems to have become extinct through crossbreeding with other varieties. For more detailed information on programs to preserve the Basque pig, download an article by M. Gómez Fernández on the breed here.

It goes without saying that if anyone out there does have more information on whether any Basque stock is being bred in the US, we’d love to hear from you.

And be sure to check out tomorrow’s post, on the Bilbao Mendi Film Festival, which will include among other things some beautiful images from a new documentary charting an attempt to recreate sheep transhumance in the Basque Country.

Note: Be sure to check out, too, the list of Basque breeds and cultivars here at Wikipedia. On a personal note, while my own outlook is admittedly quite ovine, our Basque Books Editor is a bovine enthusiast through and through. Not wanting to recreate the clashes between sheepherders and cattlemen of yesteryear, we coincide in a mutual admiration for goats; and I’d remind him that I did post on the native Basque cow, the Betizu, in a previous post here, as well as on Basque cattlemen here. I’m sure he remembers!

Note: Your Basque Books Editor does remember, of course, but he has spent way too much time on a horse behind a herd of fly ridden, stubborn, and dusty cattle to call himself a bovine “enthusiast”! Goats on the other hand …