A sheep farmer’s best friend

Craven Herald: Sheepdogs play an important role in farming Sheepdogs play an important role in farming

Sheepdogs have played an important role in the countryside for many years, and top dogs sell for thousands of pounds. Dr Bill Mitchell considers the relationship between the farmer and his sheepdog, and its place in the Dales landscape

A Craven sheep farmer has six legs – two of his own and four on his faithful dog. The two work together. A farmer, out on the hills, gathering sheep, tends to regard his dog as a servant, not his slave. A collie dog was described by one farmer as an “artful dodger of the skyline.” In my pre-car days, as a reporter for the Craven Herald, I caught a bus from Skipton into Littondale. The first stage of my return home was on foot to the bus station at Grassington. It was a chilly day.

A lorry was drawn up beside me and I was invited to “have a lift”. In the cab were three men – and a sheepdog. The back of the lorry held some steaming manure so I stood, chilled, on the running board, under the steady gaze of the dog, which had a cosy situation.

Sheepdogs are obedient. Each farmer has his subtle variations on whistles, canine commands: Go right, go left, go on, stop. I enjoy watching the best of the breed in action at Craven shows. Trial dogs must not bark, yet in some parts of the country, where there are rocks and bracken, a barking dog could be useful in rousing the sheep.

Sheepdog-type whistling has not been restricted to the open air. I met Sam Dyson, a remarkable old man in the Bronte Country, who regularly visited a large – and usually crowded – supermarket with his wife. When he tired of waiting for her, he began to whistle dog-like commands which rose above the crowd of shoppers and the hub-bub of sound. The whistles brought his wife, collie-like, to heel!

I much enjoyed the chats I had with Sam Dyson. It was Sam who had fostered the sheepdog interest of Adrian Bancroft, who became another of my good friends. Adrian competed with distinction of the trials field. He was not one of those who bought dogs that had been broken in for work, rearing and training his own dogs from the time when they were between eight and nine months old and were showing interest in gathering sheep.

Some dogs are natural. They do not crowd the sheep, taking a fairly wide run. Others have to be made. Initially, they have little idea of the finesse of sheep-gathering and may even attempt to run down the centre of a flock. Working dogs by remote control (which is in effect what the shepherd does as he stands and whistles at a dog that may be moving a mile away) is a tense business.

I gathered from Adrian that the successful man is not an impassive man, suppressing all emotion. “I think you must get excited a little – you must have a bit of nerve about you and put a little tension on the dog.”

The average trial lasts from eight to nine minutes. “And you can take more out of a dog in that short time than if you had been working it on the fells for several hours.”

One of the finest exponents of the art of handling a sheepdog was Mark Hayton, of Moor Side. Ilkley. He had been President, on several occasions, of the English Section of the International Sheepdog Society. He and his dogs bobbed up in various parts of the land. Mark affirmed that the great qualities and powers of the sheepdog had been taught by dogs to shepherds, not the other way round!

Twenty years ago I had a clear picture of a shepherd’s life on Grassington Moor from Thomas Joy. He was 75 years of age and had kept himself robustly busy since leaving school at the age of 13. He showed me a photograph taken when he was sitting on the Moor with no less than three sheepdogs for company.

Thomas – and the dogs – worked more by the calendar than a watch. There were regular annual jobs. On the Pennines, the weather ruled, usually giving a chilly spring, a cloudy summer and a long winter with snow and jangling ice. Collies kept the sheep bunched in May when a beck was dammed with stones and sods to create a sizeable pool in which a host of sheep – sometimes up to 1,000 – were gathered and washed.

A farmer usually had some affection for his sheepdogs.

One of them told me: “If I have an old ‘un that has worked well, then I retire it and let it lie about in the sun till its time comes.”

A Dales farmer whom I wished to photograph was standing by a drystone wall on which, I hoped, his dog would repose. He whistled. The dog obliged. It was a pictorial record of an old-time partnership.

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