Loyal and Hard-Working Sheep Dogs

Josephine Roberts introduces us to the faithful companion that is the working sheep dog

| June 2012

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.

Good instincts essential in sheep dogs

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.

The famed border collie

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.