Josephine Roberts introduces us to the faithful companion that is the working sheep dog
Britain, for a small island, has a lot of sheep. There are more than 60 different breeds of sheep in the British Isles, but Wales is the country most associated with sheep, mainly because in these mountainous regions there is little else in the way of livestock that will thrive.
In Wales we have several sheep breeds of our own, and these are mostly small, hardy animals like the Welsh mountain sheep, which as the name suggests are bred to cope with life in the hills. Steep hillsides and rough grazing land has long made sheep farming the prime income for most farmers here. A hill farmer may own several thousand acres of land, but have little need for machinery, as much of the land is too rough or hilly to cultivate.
In that respect, hill farming has changed little over generations and many of the old traditions still continue. Farmers still gather the sheep down from the mountains for routine care such as ear-marking, shearing or to separate those to be sold. With several hundred head of sheep and five to 10 men (each with two or three working dogs), gathering days are hard work for both the men and the dogs, but they are also a time of laughter and camaraderie.
At one time there would have been many more sheep spending all year up on the mountainsides, but in recent years environmental schemes encourage farmers to either reduce the numbers of sheep on the mountains or take them off the mountain at certain times of the year.
Those hillsides that are sparsely populated with sheep can actually be more difficult to gather as there are more lone sheep to contend with. For gathering sheep from the hillsides, a good dog with plenty of stamina and lots of common sense is essential. A dog that waits for its handler to tell it what to do every minute won’t get far on a hillside, as very often the handler is out of sight of the dog. The dog must have a good idea what is needed of it and it must have a strong instinct to keep the sheep moving forward in the right direction.
In Britain we have what are loosely referred to as “sheep dogs.” This blanket term describes several breeds of dog used to herd sheep. Most famous of all is the border collie, which is usually black-and-white (though these dogs can also be tri-colored, brown-and-white, or grey-and-white) and can come in a variety of sizes and builds. Since border collies have been bred for their aptitude for work rather than their appearance, the breed can vary immensely from small, rough-coated dogs to large, smooth-coated animals.
The border collie is often claimed to be the most intelligent breed of dog in the world. A border collie named Chaser has reportedly learned 1,022 words, and when asked to retrieve an object she can identify it by name even though it may be placed amongst many other items.
Whilst people tend to think that an intelligent dog will make an ideal pet, border collies don’t always make the best pets because their herding instinct can appear a little obsessive in a domestic situation, and their vast amounts of energy and their natural intelligence mean that they are easily bored if they don’t have enough exercise and stimulation.
Neurotic and destructive behavior is quite common in dogs that don’t have enough to occupy their minds and bodies. These dogs are capable of covering dozens of miles in a day, so a short stroll around the block on a lead is not really going to hit the mark. Border collies are frequently used in agility competitions, as their energy and intelligence lend them easily to this kind of activity.
The herding instinct in sheep dogs is simply predatory behavior that has been modified over many generations. By selectively breeding those dogs that prefer to herd rather than to kill, humans have created a dog that has the tendency to herd, but (hopefully) without the inclination to kill. There is a fine line though, and many dogs don’t quite make the grade to be working animals. Some may have an inclination to treat the sheep as prey. Others are just not interested enough in the sheep, and some are quite simply not brave enough to stand up to the sheep. A working sheep dog must be courageous; sheep will frequently butt dogs, and not only are the sheep considerably larger than the dog, they often outnumber the dog by perhaps hundreds to one.
To see sheep dogs working is a joy in itself, as it is plain to see that these dogs are absolutely obsessed with sheep and that they love nothing more than to be able to herd them. When the sheep are finally put in their pens, the working dogs can be seen pacing the pens and are clearly unable to take their eyes off the sheep.
I have owned two “failed” sheep dogs in my time, dogs that don’t quite have it in them for work, and in both cases the problem was that these dogs simply weren’t keen enough. A dog must have “the eye” or “a strong eye” for the sheep, and that means that it must be able to stare at the sheep and confront them, and they must have that instinctive keenness for the work. This is something that is either in the dog or it isn’t, and you can’t make a dog have “the eye” if it doesn’t naturally have it.
On most farms life has changed almost beyond recognition in the last century. However, hill farms are not so very different from what they were 100 years back. Sturdy boots are still the main form of transport and a couple of good sheep dogs are the most important tools a sheep farmer can have. Anyone who has ever tried to herd sheep into a pen without a dog will know that it is nigh on impossible, and without a couple of good dogs you simply cannot run a sheep farm. Probably the biggest changes that sheep farmers have seen in recent years are the four-wheeled farm bike and the mobile phone. The bike certainly saves hours of walking, and it often spares the dogs too, whilst the phone means that farmers working alone in remote areas can remain in contact with others.
Andrew Roberts of Llanrwst, North Wales, trains sheep dogs to sell to farmers. He also uses his dogs to manage his own flock and go out shepherding at larger farms where extra men and dogs are needed at certain times of the year. When I say that Andrew “trains” sheep dogs, he does, but he also readily admits that training is only part of the story because to start with, the dog has to want to work.
“You can’t make a dog work,” he explains, “and you can’t explain to it that you want it to go around the sheep for you. You have to rely on its instinct to want to do that.” Dogs that have an eye for the sheep can usually be trained to respond to commands from the handler, but that requires an enormous amount of patience from a handler as of course there is little in life that’s more annoying than a dog that won’t listen.
Andrew has four working dogs of his own and he usually has one or two that he’s in the process of bringing on ready for sale. Gathering days on hillsides can provide a great “shop window” for Andrew’s young dogs. Other farmers and handlers can see a dog in action and get the measure of it. However, as with any job that involves working with animals, it can all go badly wrong too, and if the dog isn’t working as it should be, then half of the neighborhood has seen it at its worst.
In recent years farmers have brought in dogs from Australia, namely the kelpie, and also the huntaway from New Zealand. Andrew owns a couple of kelpies and a kelpie-collie cross. He finds that kelpies seem to have slightly more stamina than border collies, and they also have a tendency to bark, which the collies don’t. Barking can be handy on the vast hillsides, as not only does it get the sheep moving but it also lets the handler know exactly where the dog is.
Usually when a handler is working with two dogs he or she will call out the dog’s name before giving the command, so that the dog knows who the command is meant for. The commands used to direct dogs vary slightly from one region to another, but “Come bye” usually tells the dog to go in a clockwise direction around the sheep, and “Away” or “Away to me” moves the dog in a counter-clockwise direction. “Lie down” means slow down or stop, depending on the tone of voice used, and “That’ll do” tells the dog to stop what it is doing and to return to the handler.
Some handlers use word commands, but others prefer whistles. A whistle can vary in length, tone and pitch, and in that way whistles can be used to replace words. A different tone whistle can be used to direct different dogs, so that each one knows which the whistle command applies to, but techniques like that are usually only seen at the higher-level sheep dog trials.
The benefit of whistles over words is that a whistle can be heard over a much longer distance than a shout, making the whistling especially useful when working a dog over a vast area like a mountainside. What’s more, a handler would lose his voice if he spent all day shouting, whereas the voice doesn’t tire from whistling.
Directing more than one dog can be complicated, as of course the handler must think quickly, and not only that, he has to remember to think of what is left or right to the dog, rather than his own left and right. This is impossible on a hillside where the handler might be unable to see either the dog or the sheep, which is why a dog that understands the job, and understands the direction in which he must move the sheep, is essential. Whilst you can teach obedience to a dog, you can’t teach it common sense: That is a matter of breeding, and of luck, to a certain extent.
Sheep dogs are usually given short names that can be called quickly and that are easily distinguished from the handler’s other dogs. For instance, a handler wouldn’t call one dog “Bill” and another dog “Jill” as the names sound far too similar. Popular names vary slightly from region to region. “Lass” and “Glen” are commonplace in Scotland, whereas “Nel,” “Fly” and “Moss” are popular in Wales. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at email@example.com.
Read more about Hard Working Farm Dogs.