Churras, Carea Leonés and Other Herding Breeds From a Common Root Contributed to the Australian Shepherd Dog

CONTINUING “AUSSIE HISTORY REVISITED,” CHAPTER 3

“When Spain colonized America, they introduced two kinds of sheep — Churras (Churros) and Merinos (known for their exceptionally fine wool and fleece). Spaniards brought Churras in large numbers to provide food and fiber. The flocks not only survived in their new environment, but they flourished and multiplied. The dogs, too, were hardy individuals, toughened by exposure, and they proved to be capable of withstanding many hardships in the rough, dangerous, and uncharted lands of the Southwest.

The Spanish Churra is an ancient indigenous breed raised throughout the plateaus and sierras of Castile and LeoÏn. This region in northwestern Spain is also where the enormous flocks of Merino sheep were trailed each spring to graze in the mountains during summer since the Middle Ages. In the autumn, around October—the shepherds began their trek back to their winter pastures in the south on the plains of Estremadura and Andalusia. It is estimated that thousands of dogs accompanied them, the smaller ones for tending the flock (Carea) and the larger for guarding (MastiÏn).

Each massive flock or cabaña numbered around 50,000 sheep would be divided into smaller bands averaging 1,000 head. The droves of sheep were tended by shepherds and their dogs. Traditionally, two herders, four dogs and a packhorse or mule were employed for every 1,000 sheep. The mules were used to pack salt for the sheep, cooking utensils, food for the shepherds and dogs, and any lamb born during the journey that was too young to endure the hardships of migration.

For hundreds of years, the quick and agile Carea LeonÈs has been used to tend flocks in the mountains of LeoÏn and bordering provinces. They were developed during the centuries old, cañadas (sheep walks to and from seasonal pastures) known in Spain as the trashumancia. They worked in alongside the Spanish Mastiff who protected the flocks against wolves and other predators. They also traveled the world with the Spanish sheep. However, as the immense flocks diminished with the decline of the trashumance on foot, so did large numbers of these dogs—many of them, including the Leon Shepherd Dog, becoming a rarity.

Recognizing they could be replaced or absorbed by other breeds and lost forever—the University of Leon in cooperation with the Leonese Canine Society put a recovery program in place. The Carea Leonés is making a comeback.

Careas are reserved with strangers. They are hardy, tough and versatile working dogs with strong herding and guardian instincts (a characteristic still seen in Australian Shepherds today). They are highly capable of handling sheep or cattle and are sought after by herdsmen. Their working style is based on the type of work needed when grazing livestock in cultivated areas, unlike when flocks and herds are allowed to graze freely on mountain zones. Careas help keep the animals in check in the same way shepherds in other parts of Europe do as they lead their flocks out to graze.

The Carea Leonés is approximately 18 inches (48cm) to 22 inches (55cm) tall. Their coat is either solid black, liver red or merle (arlequinados or “pintos”) with or without white and or tan trim (shepherds spots) and is moderate in length. The Spanish herding dogs in California and the Southwest have always been known and used by early Australian Shepherd breeders. For example, Maryland Little’s Honey Bun was considered “the Spanish type.” She was from the Graatz ranch in Colton, California, with several recorded generations preceding her. Maryland based her breeding program on both Basque and Spanish dogs.

While the Spanish Merino was developed in Spain—Saxony Merinos—the Ramboullet is a strain that originated from Merino sheep taken from Spain in the 1700s across the Pyrenees Mountains to Germany and then later on to Australia with German settlers.

Eliza Forlonge, who is considered to be the mother of the Australian Fine Wool Industry, made several walking journeys (averaging 10 to 12 miles a day) throughout Germany and one to the top Merino breeding farm in Rambouillet, France. On her journeys she purchased the finest sheep she could find. Later, she retraced her journey, collected the sheep and drove them to be shipped to New South Wales Australia.

In 1796, John and Elizabeth Macarthur, pioneers and founders of the Australian Wool Industry imported their first flock of Spanish Merino sheep.  The Merinos thrived in Australia because the dry, hot climate was very comparable to Spain’s. Records indicate in 1825, Elizabeth transported Joseph Pabts, a German, to New South Wales to care for her flocks. It has also been suggested that when he arrived he brought German herding dogs with him, very possibly a strain of Old German Shepherds (Altdeutscher Schaferhund) known as Tigers.

Tigers are primarily found in southern Germany and look like old foundation working Aussies. The shepherds (stockmen) referred to them simply as sheepdogs (no different than ranchers here who call their stock dogs either “cowdogs” or “sheepdogs.” regardless of the breed. Arbeitsgemeinschaft zur Zucht Altdeutsche Hutehunde (A-A-H) was developed by a group of shepherds for the preservation and registration of the old German herding strains that were in danger of extinction. And, yes, some of these dogs accompanied boatloads of sheep from Australia to America, hence the name by which we know the breed—Australian Shepherd.

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