Dogging their heels


A new project traditionally goes through these phases.

  1. Wild enthusiasm
  1. Disillusionment
  1. Confusion
  1. Panic
  1. Search for the guilty
  1. Punishment of the innocent
  1. Promotion of non-participants

When training a young border collie, you can pass through all seven phases in as little as twenty seconds.

Still one tries.

But on Saturday I noticed that we had a gap in a hedge and a bunch of lambs had got out. Now when I say lambs I don’t want you to get to emotionally involved. It’s September. We’re not talking about anything cute and fluffy. We’re talking about a bunch of forty kilo potential trouble makers who are as cute as a collection of fairground boxers out on the beer.

So I gathered together the tools of the trade. These comprised of a post to help plug the gap, a mel to drive the post in, and Sal, our young dog.

I went into the field the lambs were supposed to be in, Sal ranging about in front of me. The lambs left in the field collected in a defensive huddle in a far corner and Sal obeyed my strict instructions to stay reasonably near me and leave them alone. So far, so good, her training is progressing; the wild enthusiasm can be contained.

Then through the gap into the other field, the situation was complicated because it contained a bunch of bulling heifers and a bull. Still, worry about details when we have to. At this point I’d put Sal on a lead. (OK a long piece of baler twine through her collar but it’s virtually the same.) I then walked towards the lambs. They saw me (and more importantly Sal) and went into a huddle.

I walked past the huddle which drifted off to one side to maintain a respectable distance between me (and of course Sal.)

At this point things were going well. Sal was obviously giving her attention to the sheep, there were signs of enthusiasm and interest but we didn’t have any mad pulling at the lead etc. The bulling heifers and Bull had noticed I was there but I wasn’t doing anything interesting so they continued to watch me.

Then I moved with Sal around the back of the bunch of lambs which drifted, nonchalantly, back towards the gap and stopped, watching us.

You could see the lambs assessing the situation.

“It’s that dog.”

“Yeah but she’s on a lead.”

“For how long?”

“She’s on a lead.”

“I can see her teeth.”

“She’s just smiling.”

“There’s an awful lot of teeth. She has them on the top and bottom of her jaw, and along the sides as well. Nobody should have that many teeth!”

At this point we move towards the lambs. Now with a trained dog there’d have been no lead and the dog would have calmly moved towards the lambs who’d have turned and scuttled through the gap.

However we have Sal. If I’d removed the lead at this point we’d probably have something which from the air would have looked more like somebody breaking up the reds at the start of a game of snooker. She’d have moved toward them at speed, the flock instinct would have collapsed and lambs would have gone in every direction.

So we keep moving towards them, with Sal on the lead moving from side to side as well as forward. The lambs continue to head nonchalantly for the gap and by the time Sal and I arrive, the last one is through and has joined the defensive huddle in the other field. It’s already practicing its innocent expression.

So I fix the gap and Sal stands, ears pricked, watching the sheep who watch her back.

Finally, job done I leave. I whistle and Sal, somewhat reluctantly, turns away from the lambs who have been careful to give her no further excuse to intervene.

I leave the field. A remarkably self confident dog ranging ahead of me, secure in the knowledge that she’s done a good job.

Now you might ask what she’d done. But actually if she hadn’t been there, the lambs would just have run round and round the field all day, secure in the knowledge that I was never going to catch them.

But place Sal in the picture and suddenly it’s no fun any more.

Border Collies seem to be of the old Granny Weatherwax  school, “If you haven’t got respect, you’ve got nothing.”

So they just half curl that lip, drop into the crouch, and suddenly the sheep remember their proper role in the performance and move as directed.


Or at least sometimes they do

As one reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”

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8 thoughts on “Dogging their heels

  1. willmacmillanjones September 15, 2014 at 10:49 am Reply

    One man and his dog beckons? (Or rather, whistles?)

    • jwebster2 September 15, 2014 at 11:22 am Reply

      No, I’d barely make fourth division

  2. M T McGuire September 15, 2014 at 8:15 pm Reply

    Brilliant. I love it.

  3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt April 13, 2016 at 3:11 pm Reply

    So visual – I was there. I can hear the brain waves from the sheep. And training the young dog – you can virtually hear Sal thinking, ‘If he just lets me off this lead, I can do my job faster and more efficiently.’

    • jwebster2 April 13, 2016 at 9:58 pm Reply

      In the same way the white on a snooker table reckons it can move the balls when you break at the start of the game 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt April 13, 2016 at 11:57 pm

        You calculate just the right angles and speeds and forces with many years of experience – and that random little bit of luck.

        It’s a wonder you don’t hate sheep, but it’s hard to blame animals for being what they are.

        My book on exotic animals at a school in California (Kicked, Bit, and Scratched) says you never blame the animal for being what it is.

        On the other hand, you choose to buy more of the things…

      • jwebster2 April 14, 2016 at 10:10 am

        I suspect it’s difficult to hate sheep. However you can undoubtedly become greatly irritated by them. Hence the phrase ‘bluidy auld witch’ 🙂

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