2010 Four Nations Sheepdog Youth Handler International Trials, Rosshire, Scotland
While it's early spring 2012 and I am deeply nestled on a London sofa in front of a cozy fire, I have been tv time-surfed to a sunny 2011 September day in Scotland. Collies and their handlers are competing in the International Sheepdog Trials held at Tain, Ross-shire north of Aberdeen, which happens to also be the home of the Glenmorangie Distillery, provider of velvety Highland single malts. Currently up is the Youth Handler's Division. The best of the best from Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales are competing for the right to represent the UK in the 2011 World Sheepdog Trials in Cumbria.
The set-up is this: dog-youth-sheep (and whistle). The challenge? Dog and youth must communicate via word and whistle to herd 5 unruly sheep through long grassy runs via gates and maze to the pen. Words, whistle, words. Some dogs understand 100 commands. I understand four. Lie down. Coom (come) by. Good lad.
If you think communicating with one dog is a challenge-try it with two. The Brace Competition is 2 dogs and 1 handler who wields two whistles so the dogs don't get confused. Each dog gets its own score. Two dogs approach ten sheep and guide them through the fence, through two sets of drive gates and into the shedding ring, then into two lots of five sheep and one lot out. The remaining are moved into another shedding pen. Each move yields points (you start with ten and are deducted for bloopers). The current competitor (Welsh) says he has never been near a city and has one -man dogs who will run, run and keep running.
The competition we are watching with the rest of the 4 Nations is commentated much like match play at Wimbledon with a little reality tv thrown in for good measure. Interviews with the handlers back at their home farms are poignant and lovely. The 17 year old who helps his Mum save the family farm by raising and training sheepdogs after his father's early demise, the high Wolds (Yorkshire) farmer who has just these two workdogs who shadow his every move and the Irish lad who is amazed to be here are compelling and we root for them all. As the Queen is Patron to the Sheepdog Society she is represented by a very keen Princess Anne whose signature bouffant upsweep incredibly survives perfectly intact despite the wind.
We hold our breath. The sheep need to move to the center of each gate and stay bunched. Sheep are ornery critters and frequently yield a loner. The collie's job is to herd but not excite. They are judged on their steady progress wthout a lot of stop and go. Their handler uses well-judged angles to guide their dogs (and sheep) through the first and second drive gates. Scotland is up. One ewe (girl sheep) objects. She stands boldly out from her flock and requires a singular effort by both dogs. Tess, ("she certainly knows her job," say the commentators) the lead dog has her standoff with the ewe and finally chases her in. Wales leads by half a point. The commentator tells us we must wait for the tense outcome--tomorrow. I do not (tempting as it is) Google the foregone result.
While sheepdog trials do not hold quite the appeal for Tom and I as, say, horse races, it's hard not to stop and partake if one happens to be in the neighborhood. We do just that the day after we arrive in a gale that weakens to a midge frenzy
in Gairloch, Wester Ross, Scotland a few years ago. Joining flatcapped farmers at the tea tent for a sandwich, we are well fed, warmly welcomed and shown the silver trophies which are later awarded the champions. When asked about our interest and do we have a collie back in America, we think sadly about our kind but dim, ancient golden retriever who has at age 13 just recently learned to sit on command, and say no. We cheer for the winners and groan for those whose dogs are "off" and disqualified.
- Rule #1, do not bite the sheep.
- Rule #2, do not run after the sheep, find something more tantalizing to chase and disappear over the hillside
- Rule #3 if your collie screws up, curse quietly as the trials are filmed.
By the time the competition ends we are hooked. We think about getting a collie of our own and eye some clever puppies in a large litter mothered by a champion but collies, we understand, need sheep. If they can't get a sheep to herd, they chase cats, cars, chickens and sometimes humans. We don't actually have a sheep back home so resign ourselves to working intensively with the golden retriever and perhaps adding Coom By to her repetoire.
Back to 2011. The next nail-biting, on edge, could go in any direction day--Wales takes both top places. England finishes well out of the running. Spot, Greg, Spot and Cap do
their owners proud. Eiran Morgan from Aberystwyth and his dog Spot (clearly a popular collie name for obvious black and white reasons) become the new International Supreme Winners and win a bid to the World competition against dog and human teams from 14 sheep nations including Japan, which must field a team much the way Jamaica does bobsledding.
When the finals are over, the Champion of the World is Becca, a camera-shy veteran Irish collie whose owner James McGee says he is happy to win, but happier still for Becca.
On to 2012.
19th - 21st July
2nd - 4th August
Over Kellet, Carnforth, Lancashire
9th - 11th August
Pettigo, Co Donegal
16th - 18th August
6th - 8th September