As Donald Chavez approached the pole-fence corral, the four white sheep – a ram, two ewes and a lamb – moved off toward the center of the enclosure.
“You get just close enough to talk to them, and they walk off,” he said.
From a distance, the sheep watched their visitors as intently as the visitors looked at them. They are beautiful animals. The ram sports majestic, curved horns. The ewes have horns, too, but short ones. And the lamb, like most lambs, is super cute.
These are New Mexico Dahl Sheep, sheep Chavez believes are descended from the animals Francisco Vásquez de Coronado brought into New Mexico in 1540 during his futile search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. If they are aware of their lineage, they don’t flaunt it. Nothing pompous about them. They are shy, gentle animals.
“They make great beginner projects for 4H and FFA because they are very easy to keep and care for,” Chavez said.
The corral is on the grounds of the Gutierrez-Hubbell House History and Cultural Center in the South Valley community of Pajarito. The sheep are the center’s newest, permanent exhibit. It opened officially during a ceremony on Saturday.
They come from a herd of about three dozen owned by Chavez and kept by him on his Belen farm. He has loaned these four to the Gutierrez-Hubbell House, 6029 Isleta SW, so they can serve as a living-history exhibit and also in the hope that other people will become interested in prolonging a breed that was on the brink of extinction.
Chavez has sold some of the sheep to others who are working to continue the breed, but he said that only about 100 New Mexico Dahl Sheep are living in domesticity.
“I have no idea how many are still living wild on the old, Spanish land grants,” Chavez said.
Coronado brought large herds of cattle and sheep with him on his expedition into New Mexico and other parts of what is now the American Southwest. These animal were walking sources of food. The Dahl sheep are hair sheep, not wool sheep. Hair sheep are not sheared for wool; they are butchered for their meat.
And Chavez said hair sheep are hardier than their woolen cousins.
“They could go where cattle and woolen sheep could not,” he said. “They could cross rivers. They could run if there were attacks by hostile tribes.”
Hundreds of Coronado’s cattle and sheep ran off and went wild. Chavez said today’s New Mexico Dahl Sheep is a product of breeding between Coronado’s sheep and wild bighorn breeds. The sheep in the Gutierrez-Hubbell House exhibit may carry the blood of Coronado’s sheep, but they don’t look like the ones the conquistador brought with him.
“Coronado writes about the sheep, but he doesn’t say what kind they were,” Chavez said. “They were probably a polled (hornless) breed.”
New Mexico Dahl Sheep owe their horns to their wild bighorn ancestors. Chavez said they also share the breeding cycles of wild sheep. Domestic sheep produce young throughout the year. But New Mexico Dahls, like wild sheep, breed in the fall and lamb in the spring. The Dahl lamb at the Gutierrez-Hubbell House exhibit was born March 11.
New Mexico Dahl Sheep come in colors other than white. Some are gray, or brown or speckled. The rams grow to between 200 and 275 pounds and have long horns with massive bases.
Chavez, 66, learned about the New Mexico Dahls from an old cowboy in Los Lunas. The old man told Chavez how these sheep would get caught up in New Mexico high-country cattle roundups and be sold off by ranchers. Chavez bought a few from the cowboy in the late 1970s and began hunting sale barns for others. From the men selling these distinctive sheep at the barns, Chavez learned that these animals had been living wild on big ranches for generations.
His extensive research into Spanish archives and old family journals convinced him they were a product of crossbreeding between Coronado’s AWOL sheep and wild breeds. He said he has been looking for someone in the scientific community to do a DNA survey to confirm his ideas.
Chavez started a breeding program designed to get the sheep as close as possible to their Spanish origins. He decided to name the breed the New Mexico Dahl Sheep (Ovis dalli Novo mexicanus), a tip of the horn to the Dall sheep of northwest North America, which the New Mexico sheep resemble. He spelled “dahl” differently to distinguish the New Mexico sheep from other breeds. In January 2013, the United Horned Hair Sheep Association recognized the New Mexico Dahl Sheep as a distinct breed.
Bernalillo County, which has owned the Gutierrez-Hubbell House property since 2000, was eager to welcome the sheep exhibit. The house, built by James Lawrence Hubbell, a young American soldier, and his wife, Juliana Gutierrez, the member of a prominent Hispanic family, dates to the middle of the 19th century. The house and the property have deep agricultural roots, a fact celebrated in exhibits, lectures and programs such as the Gutierrez-Hubbell center’s backyard farming series.
“Historically sheep belong here,” said Larry Gallegos, deputy county manager for community services. “This was an old farm originally. Sheep were a big part of the Hubbell family business.”
Sheep are prominent in Bernalillo County history and culture as well. The county seal is emblazoned with eight sheep, representing the eight Spanish land grants in the county and the importance of sheep to the economy of early New Mexico. According to William W. Dunmire’s 2013 book “New Mexico’s Spanish Livestock Heritage,” University of New Mexico Press, about 3.5 million sheep were in New Mexico in 1890 and 800,000 of those were in Bernalillo County.
BernCo Bernie, the Bernalillo County mascot, is a sheep.
Gallegos said there will be a contest to name the exhibit’s lamb and that eventually a system will be installed that will allow visitors to feed the sheep by dropping cracked corn down a tube.
“You have to be careful feeding sheep,” Gallegos said. “They might bite.”
Chavez is at the Gutierrez-Hubbell House most days, feeding the sheep and looking after them. He’s proud and happy to have these historic sheep at this historic site.
“After 476 years, these sheep are getting their due,” he said.