Blog #28 – The Giants of Portugal

I am extremely proud to come from a such an amazing country like Portugal. That is full of history and culture and where so many great things have happened and been created. I would say that where I am from in the centre of Portugal, it’s the beating heart of the country and where so many great National things come from. The Portuguese people have been blessed not with one or two but four fantastic livestock guardian breeds. Which up to now have relatively been untouched by the show world despite all of them having being shown at dog shows already.

If we start from the north of the country and work our way down. We first have the Castro Laboreiro which is named after the small sleepy hollow village it descends from in northern Portugal. It’s considered to be an extremely old breed and it’s believed to descend from a very old livestock guardian type that existed in Northern Portugal and Spain. However, the earliest mention of the Castro was in the 1800’s and there is no mention of the breed by its current name before that. The breed comes in a variety of dark and brindle colours and It’s believed to have been a key component in the creation of the Labrador. The Castro is very similar in type and function to the rare Perro Majorero in the Canary Islands which was used in the foundation of the well known Presa Canario. I’m happy to say that despite the Castro Laboreiro numbers being low they are on the increase and the breed is slowly gaining momentum not only in its homeland but also worldwide. A good working Castro will not be any taller that 25 inches tts and weigh more than 90lbs. These dogs are quick and agile livestock guardians and extremely fierce in battle against any predator.

There is a second Portuguese livestock guardian in northern Portugal, it’s the Cao de Gado Transmontano which is the biggest of the Portuguese livestock guardian breeds. The breeds name literally means the livestock dog from Tras os Montes which is in the North East of Portugal. The Transmontano can measure 33 inches tts and weigh as much as 160lbs. They are considered to be an old type that has existed in the area for many centuries and heavily connected to the other livestock guardian breeds in the Iberian Peninsula. The breed is still worked today and is growing in numbers with each year. A group of fanciers joined together a few years ago to help preserve the breed, promote it and provide farmers with free puppies. This was a really interesting programme as it provided farmers with free dogs that they could use for their original purpose but also provide them with a small future income from any litters they bred.

As we travel south we reach Serra da Estrela which is the highest mountain range in continental Portugal. The livestock guardian breed here is named after the local mountain range and is closely related to the other Portuguese livestock breeds. This is an extremely harsh and cold area of Portugal and therefore it required a dog that was extremely durable and tough to handle the weather and hard terrain. The Serra da Estrela dog like the Castro Laboreiro and Cao de Gado Transmontano was created in extremely remote areas and therefore they were able to develop without very little outside influences. The Serra da Estrela has had many ups and downs over the last 120 years as the breed has been close to extinction more times than I could count but it has a strong following today not only in Portugal but all over the world. The Serra is the only Portuguese livestock guardian that comes in two coat types, short hair and long hair. It weighs between 70 and 110 lbs and measures between 24 and 28 inches tts.

If we travel further south we reach the beautiful Alentejo, the beating heart of Portugal and where I’m from. This area is rich in many products and produces some of the best that Portugal has to offer, olives, olive oil, cork, wine, dogs, black pigs and of course the famous Lusitano horses. The livestock guardians here are called Rafeiro do Alentejo which literally means the mongrel of Alentejo. I know this breed extremely well and have great memories of being around them growing up. They are a gentle giant, they have a really loving and caring nature towards their owner but will fight to the death protecting their owner and their owners livestock. The Rafeiro has had less ups and downs compared to the other three breeds as their numbers have always remained relatively consistent among shepherds and farmers. It’s important to remember that Alentejo is a much larger region when compared to the locations where the other Portuguese livestock breeds come from which are all a lot more secluded. The Rafeiro is the second largest of the Portuguese livestock breeds and can weigh between 80 and 130 lbs and measure between 25 and 29 inches tts.

All of these breeds have been through a lot and have their own story to tell. There is very little written information about these breeds before the 1800’s but we know these types existed and were there from old paintings. When dog shows started becoming popular in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, wealthy Portuguese dog fanciers were much more interested in owning, promoting and breeding fancy foreign breeds instead of the national breeds. This had a huge detrimental effect on all of the Portuguese dog breeds.

As I have said in a previous blog the livestock guardian breeds in Portugal were all trusted to fend for themselves whilst out looking after the livestock but when the females came into season some of the males and females would wonder away from the livestock in the hope of finding a mate to breed with. This caused a lot of farmers and shepherds to castrate the male dogs and this also contributed to the low numbers of all four breeds over the years.

It’s very sad to say but there was very little interest in national products and breeds until the Portuguese revolution on the 25th April 1974. The renewed interest since has helped to save and preserve the Portuguese breeds that we have today. I am confident that the ups and downs of these four fantastic and very rustic working Portuguese Livestock breeds is well and truly over as they are going from strength to strength. The only threat that they face now is dog shows and show breeders breeding for looks instead of their working ability and original function. I hope that what ever happens that the majority of these breeds remain where they belong, in fields living and working among livestock like they have been for many centuries.

3 thoughts on “Blog #28 – The Giants of Portugal”

  1. Ola bom dia,
    Queria sou dizer que gostei muito do teu artigo e queria te agradecer por promoveres as raças portuguesa, e um trabalho important.

  2. U of Portugal has done extensive DNA analysis of many European breeds, as they currently exist (unfortunately not historical, especially with the modern European Labrador which is no longer the same breed that originated from the Castro — tho we still have that in America). Turns out there is only ONE allele difference between Castros and Estrelas — Estrelas have the longhair gene, and Castros do not. Of course, type diverges with selection, but interesting how close they were genetically.

    Also, turns out the Castro is the genetic ancestor of most breeds of that general type. My own theory is that they are a relict population of the St.Hubert’s Hound of the middle ages.

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