Every so often something happens and it reminds you of something else, and that reminds you of something else, until before you’ve finished you’re fifty years away and wondering where the time went.
Last night, just before it got dark, I thought I better water some bedding plants somebody has planted. As I stepped outside, Sal, (who currently holds the position of ‘working dog’) saw me, and sat up, the very picture of Border Collie attentiveness. There was no obvious pleading, there was just a dog portraying efficiency personified. Whatever I was about to do would obviously be done better with her assistance. So I let her out and she supervised the running of the universe whilst I got on with watering the bedding plants.
All dogs are, by definition, dogs, and that is not a dishonourable estate. Some dogs, and a lot of Border Collies, aspire to personhood. They combine being dogs and people. Sal seems to have achieved personhood.
It was her activities earlier in the day that took me back fifty years to our first dog, old Ben. Ben was technically my dog. Admittedly I was at school a lot so he would accompany my Dad. When my Dad was still working for my Grandfather, Ben did just that, he accompanied him. Once my Grandfather retired, Ben, without prompting (or more prompting that he’d had previously) threw himself into work. This means that we’re talking about the late 1960s here.
Ben wasn’t short of eccentric traits, and these entitled him to be regarded as ‘The’ dog, a person in his own right, and even, ‘a character.’ He was big for a Border Collie, and as well as working cattle, he also had oversight of tractors and suchlike machinery, feeling it was his responsibility to keep them moving.
One summer afternoon, it might even have been in the much hyped ‘summer of love’, we were making hay. One person was driving the tractor that pulled the baler; the others were loading the bales onto a trailer pulled by another tractor. And then the baler jammed. This was common enough; too much grass had gone into it and the baler couldn’t cope. Only in this case obviously there was too much strain and a shear bolt broke. So the driver would change the shear bolt and the others would drag the hay that was jamming up the works out of the baler. Now all this is caused by a shear bolt doing what it is designed to do, it’s the ‘fuse’, burning out before something more expensive does.
As an aside, there are a lot of shear bolts in agriculture, probably because so much stuff is operating in a difficult environment. Design engineers put them in to help protect the rest of the machine. It’s just that I wish they’d give some thought to just where they put them. Almost by definition, shear bolts will be replaced, comparatively regularly, by semi-skilled labour. We had one forage harvester where a shear bolt could only be changed if you lay on the floor underneath it and used spanners to tighten a bolt that was six inches in front of your face. What made this so tricky was that above the bolt was a drive train with several universal joints. Unfortunately the engineer who designed the drive didn’t realise that it was impossible to get a grease gun onto the grease nipples in these universal joints because of all the other stuff around them. So the only way we could keep it lubricated was to pour old oil along the drive train and hope it got in somewhere.
Now then add to this the fact that it’s a forage harvester and everything fills up with dry grass and dust, which is now covered in old oil. So when you lie underneath this lot to change the shear bolt, the slightest movement (such as tightening a bolt up) brings another shower of grass, dust and oil down on you.
As the one wearing glasses, I was the obvious person to do that job because less of it got in my eyes.
Anyway I’ve kept you talking and we can now go back to the baler, where my Dad has changed the shear bolt and the others have got the baler unjammed. Old Ben, as Border Collie on duty, has been sitting quietly watching the whole performance. Finally my Dad starts the tractor. As it starts to move forward, Ben runs in and nips the baler wheel to make sure it keeps going forward, and then proceeds to trot behind it to ensure it doesn’t stop again.
And yesterday I remembered this story again. It was another hot summer’s day. A hay day if ever there was one. At eight in the morning, Sal and I went out to fetch sheep in. In the interests of efficiency, I rode on the quad, and Sal didn’t.
Things were going reasonably well, we gathered the sheep up and moved them toward the gate. Finally the sheep reached the gate and at this point I stopped the quad and shouted to Sal to sit down. I wanted the ewes to see the gate and make their orderly way through it, which they can do better if they don’t feel they’re being chased.
The problem is that whilst some saw the gate and did go through, the others, deciding that they weren’t being chased, just stopped and looked about them in that somewhat supercilious manner sheep have. So I honked the horn on the quad.
To our sheep, the horn is a signal that they’re supposed to be moving. Obviously there are times when I drive through sheep in a field because I’m just going somewhere. In those cases, I don’t really want the sheep to do anything. So if I’m on the quad and do expect them to move, honking the horn occasionally is a signal to them to keep moving.
As I sat on the stationary quad, honking the horn so keep the ewes moving I heard a noise from behind me. I honked the horn again and this time saw what was going on. Knowing that the noise meant I expected stuff to move, Sal had run in behind the quad and snapped at the mudflaps to get it moving along with everybody else.
On an as another aside, there’s always ‘Sometimes I sits and thinks’ to get your teeth into
A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.