New Tutorial: Sheep – Essential Facts for Beginners

The title image for our sheepdog training tutorial. Showing seven sheep in a line near a hedge.

Understanding sheep and their behaviour makes training your dog far easier

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the release of our double DVD set “First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training“, we’re busy updating it in anticipation of releasing a second, even more comprehensive version in the near future.

A useful spinoff of this is that as each “First Steps” chapter is somewhere near completion, we can add it to our Sheepdog Training Tutorials Library so that our full members can benefit from the advice.

First steps in border collie sheepdog training dvd

Full members will know that we’ve already uploaded “Sheepdog Selection and Preparation” and “The Sheepdog Whistle” and now we’re pleased to be able to tell you the chapter “Sheep – Essential Facts for Beginners” is available in the Tutorials Library.

As the title suggests, Sheep – Essential Facts for Beginners is packed with useful information which is not often available to those training a sheepdog for the first time.

As well as showing what sort of sheep are best for training, and which to definitely avoid, there’s advice on the legal side of sheep keeping, and how you might find a training ground if you don’t already have one.

There’s advice on the behaviour of sheep, too – it’s extremely useful to know when sheep are likely to stay in a neat bunch and when they’re probably going to make a run for it at high speed!

Whether you already have sheep but perhaps don’t understand why they behave the way they do, or you’re thinking about training a dog and simply wondering how to go about it, you’ll find some essential information in this “new” video tutorial.

Watch the video below for more information on our sheepdog training tutorials.

How you can save a sheep’s life

Photo of a sheep lying on its side and unable to right itself

…it’s important to raise the BAA!

Sheep don’t sleep or even lie comfortably on their backs, so if you happen to see one in this position you can be sure it’s close to death. If you know what to do, however, you might save its life. WATCH THE VIDEO!

Free Video &nbsp-&nbsp
DVDs &nbsp-&nbsp
Books &nbsp-&nbsp

When you’re training a sheepdog you can sometimes be surprised by a sheep’s agility, but they aren’t designed to lie on their backs, and they’re not good at righting themselves.

A sheep with a heavy, possibly wet, fleece, or that is heavily pregnant or fat (resulting in a broad, flat back) is most at risk of becoming stuck if it rolls over.

It may have been resting, or it may have tried to scratch an itch, but it certainly won’t have got itself into that position on purpose.

A sheep stuck on its back is vulnerable for a variety of reasons: not only is it easy prey for crows or badgers, but its own biology is against it.

In order to digest grass, sheep (and cows) have a four-chambered stomach. The largest chamber is the rumen, where the fibrous food ferments. Fermentation produces gas, and when the sheep is the wrong way up the gas can’t escape.

The gas builds up, and causes pressure on the sheep’s lungs until it simply can’t breathe anymore. A horrible way to die.

The scenario of a combination of suffocation and predator attack is pretty grim, but it’s easy to avoid. Keep aware for an upturned sheep when you’re out and about, and act quickly if you see one. DO leave your dog at a distance from the sheep if you possibly can, and DON’T worry about taking hold of a good handful of fleece to get the sheep turned over. Whatever evolutionary advantages sheep might have, they don’t have convenient handles!

Watch the video above, to find out how easy it is to rescue a sheep which is stranded on its back, then share this page so that others will see how to do it too.

Between a Flock and a Barred-Place!

This sheep has got herself trapped. It looks as though the bars of the fence go through the sheep, but they're only squeezing the wool

LOOK BACK” at our favourite posts! (No 1 – 23 Feb 2014)

They say sheep spend their entire lives thinking of ways to die – this one gets full marks for ingenuity!

a sheep which has become trapped between a fence and a hedge

When Gill and I were putting the dogs away after their run this morning, we heard a sheep calling. It sounded as though she was unusually close (normally the sheep give the dogs a wide berth) so I glanced out through the hedge, but there was no sign of any sheep, so I assumed she’d gone back to the others at the far corner of the field.

A few moments later however, we heard another call from precisely the same direction, so I went out into the field to investigate and was amazed to see the poor woolly creature very firmly trapped between the bars of an old iron fence and the hedge. It looks as though the bars of the fence go right through her, but they are only squeezing her hard.

Rear view of the trapped sheep, showing how she found her way between fence and hedge

In its search for fresh food, the sheep had pushed herself between the hedge and the fence, and because bars of the iron fence are so rigid, she was unable to reverse back out again.

Fortunately, these young Welsh Mules are not very heavy, because she was stuck so fast, the only way I could get her out without assistance was to lift her vertically over the fence. She wasn’t in the least bit grateful and struggled like mad, but I insisted on checking her over before I released her. There was no sign of physical harm done so I released her and I wouldn’t have thought it possible but as she wandered back to the flock she looked decidedly embarrassed!

The sheep was physically unharmed and recovered fully from her ordeal but I wonder how long the poor girl had been there – it could have been all night! First posted 23 Feb 2014

Bronwen’s baptism of fire

When challenged, Bronwen reacted quickly and decisively. Here she bites the nose of a challenging ewe

As we announce our latest sheepdog training tutorial, Bronwen faces a stiff challenge in the shearing pens

Yesterday, we released our latest sheepdog training tutorial, Bronwen and Scylla, Part 6. As the title suggests, this is the sixth instalment in our fascinating series of videos comparing the training of litter sisters Bronwen and Scylla.

Herding sheepdog tutorial comparing the training of litter sisters, Bronwen and Scylla

While Scylla’s still untrustworthy around sheep, Bronwen’s quickly becoming our “go to” sheepdog for everyday work

The inevitable time lag between a training session being filmed and then appearing in the Tutorials Library means you won’t see any video of Bronwen gathering sheep at Dean Farm for some weeks, but in real time, while Scylla’s still untrustworthy around sheep (but improving) her sister’s fast becoming our “go to” sheepdog for everyday work.

Little Kay, who’s been a gallant little worker for us ever since she earned herself a starring role on our sheepdog training DVD First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training isn’t quite as gallant as she was when she was younger.

She’s still a great little sheepdog, but unless she’s close to me, these days she doesn’t want to take any risks, especially with aggressive sheep, and who can blame her? Kay’s still feeding a litter of puppies!

The Jacob ewe prances in anger alongside its lamb while Kay follows on behind
The Jacob ewe pranced furiously off in the wrong direction but eventually, Kay was able to turn her back towards her missing lamb

When we gathered sheep for shearing at Dean Farm yesterday, a Jacob sheep and her two lambs managed to separate themselves from the rest of the mob so I sent Kay to bring them back.

Unfortunately, as Kay approached, one of the lambs struggled through a wire fence and ran away. This dramatically increased the frustration of the mother who showed her anger by stamping and threatening to charge at Kay, before running off, taking the remaining lamb with her, but in the opposite direction to the missing lamb. Kay set off in pursuit and eventually managed to turn the little ewe back towards her lamb.

Herding sheepdog Kay turning away from the Jacob ewe and its lambs
Once Kay had the ewe reunited with her lambs, the Jacob mum placed herself in front of them and threatened poor Kay, who meekly turned away

The Jacob mum eventually spotted her errant lamb and ran to it, firmly placing herself between her babies and Kay. It was not a challenge that Kay felt able to take on, so to ease the situation, I walked right up to the sheep while Kay walked close behind me.

Meanwhile, the rest of the flock had grown bored with the novelty grazing they’d been enjoying on either side of the farm drive and were walking back over the railway bridge, into their field. Their timing was perfect because the Jacob ewe spotted them and hastily took her family to join them.

Herding sheepdog Kay looks back at Andy. The dog looking back at the handler is usually a sign of the dog's lack of confidence in its work
When the dog looks back at the handler it’s a sign that the dog’s confidence (or enthusiasm) is low

The flock was heading the wrong way though, so I sent Kay to push the sheep back over the bridge and down the farm drive but she was very reluctant and frequently looked back at me. This is unlike the Kay that I’m used to, and although I’d like to think it’s because she’s still feeding her pups and feeling protective towards them I suspect it’s a much longer term sign of Kay’s increasing age.

We eventually brought the sheep to the farm buildings, and I put Kay back in the 4×4 because I thought Bronwen would be better for pushing the sheep into the handling pen. The youngster was over-enthusiastic and aggressive though, and quickly found herself back in the car! Having been given a second chance, Kay did a surprisingly good job by skirting around the sheep and not stopping long enough for a sheep to focus on her, let alone threaten her.

A sheep stamps its foot as a warning to Kay - and she keeps her distance from it
Sheep know when a dog lacks confidence. This ewe is stamping its foot as a threat to Kay

Once the sheep were inside the sorting pen, the next job was to push them through a narrow “race” which has a gate system at the end of it, allowing the operator to direct some of the sheep one way, and the rest somewhere else. In our case, the sheep for shearing were to be kept in a pen ready for the shearers, and all the lambs would be sent back to the field

Sheep in a handling yard
These sheep will be send along a race with a gate system at the end to help sort lambs from ewes

Kay, however, was anything but enthusiastic about the task. She refused to approach the sheep unless I did too. I decided to see how Bronwen would cope. She had been over-aggressive in the yard, but I hoped that inside the pen I would be close enough to control her.

Bronwen was cautiously confident and the sheep usually showed respect for her
After some initial confusion, Bronwen took her work in the yard very seriously and I was proud of her

Sheep recognise a dog which can look after itself, and they will treat that dog with great respect. A good reason to preserve the dog’s confidence

Initially, Bronwen was confused by the prospect of being “trapped” in such close proximity to the sheep, and she even barked at them a few times, but remarkably quickly, she took the work seriously and proved that she’s more than a match for the more aggressive ewes in the flock.

On several occasions, a ewe threatened to attack Bronwen, and her immediate reaction was to bite it on the nose! Not one of the ewes came back for more once she’d given them “the treatment”, and they’ll remember it next time she’s in the yard, too.

It’s worth remembering to put some sort of command on the dog defending itself by nipping the sheep in this way, so that the dog will know that it’s allowed to use force when it needs to.

We have a chapter called “Sometimes nice is not enough” which deals with this topic in our Online Sheepdog Training Tutorial Videos.

Dogs aren’t the only ones who can learn

Closeup of a group of speckle-faced sheep

Our sheep have become experts at avoiding pressure

Our sheepdog training course yesterday was a great demonstration of just how clever sheep can be. Many people think sheep are very stupid, because to us, they seem to do some really silly things, but anyone who really knows about sheep has a lot more respect for them.

Closeup of Kay concentrating hard on her sheep
Little Kay was heroic when it came to returning difficult sheep to the training ring yesterday

Certainly, sheep can be unpredictable at times and often it’s difficult to understand why they act the way they do, but the small bunch of training sheep we have at the moment have learned just how to avoid pressure from all but the smartest of dogs.

It began a few weeks ago when one of the sheep developed a knack of trotting smartly away from the remainder of the group whenever they were in a tight spot. There’s nothing unusual in that though. Watch any sheepdog trial and you’ll almost certainly see more than one errant sheep making a bid for freedom.

Usually it’s no more than a minor inconvenience for a well trained dog. The dog’s natural instinct tells it to keep the sheep together, and quite often it will bring the lone sheep back to rejoin the bunch immediately, without waiting for a command.

Our sheep have perfected an admirable new technique though. Recently, the moment one sheep (often the same one) departs in one particular direction, one or more of the remaining bunch immediately gallops off the other way!

A group of sheep splitting to avoid the dog
These sheep have learned to separate and run in opposite directions to avoid the dog

It’s so clever! Most trainee dogs are defeated by it and even Kay, our most skilled herder, is sometimes too slow to keep them together. If the sheep go in opposite directions, you have to send the dog one way or the other to gather them, so one or more of them aways gets a better chance of running back up the field towards the rest of the flock.

On yesterday’s sheepdog training course, the first dog into the ring was very bouncy and aggressive around the sheep, and it upset them. As a result, the poor sheep were extremely reluctant to go back into the ring whenever they had the opportunity to get out into the open field. Who can blame them?

Kay was nothing short of heroic when it came to returning the sheep to the fold, but eventually she became exhausted so Bronwen, who was doubling as a trainee dog, and eventually Ezra, had to deputise for poor Kay.

We’re running another course tomorrow, so the dogs are getting a good rest today, and I’ve arranged some sheep hurdles to assist with returning our crafty sheep to the training ring.

Pic of the day – sheep by numbers

An unseasonably sunny (is it really December?) morning was the opportunity for some sheep maintenance

Carew at work with sheep

Primarily we were checking the ear tag numbers on our most recent intake of “training assistants”, but it’s important to check the sheep regularly, just to make sure they’re all the right way up.

The ear tags show the sheep’s individual number, and the number of the flock they belong to, and are legal requirements for all sheep in the UK.

sheepdog Carew, staring at her sheep

The ear tag number is the same as the electronic chip number, but we don’t have a reader for the few sheep we keep so we have to gather the girls into a pen, where Andy wrestles with them each in turn. He calls out the tag number, and I write it down while he brushes the mud out of his eyebrows and prepares himself for the next one.

We only had to do it a few times. The first time we found ourselves with two sheep with the same number (which is impossible) and for a while we seemed to have 13 numbers for 12 sheep, but it all came right in the end.

I’m delighted to report that we have a 666! Will she prove to be a little devil?

A clip in time

Sheep being brought into the pen for foot trimming and dagging

“A little off the back and a pedicure, please.”

I wish I thought that The Girls enjoy dagging and trimming. It would be lovely to think that when they skipped into the pen on Saturday afternoon they were fuelled by happy anticipation, rather than pursued by a wolf (well, Carew).

Dagging or trimming dirty wool from a sheep using Jakoti shears
Dagging sheep can be a mucky task, but like everything else, it’s not so daunting if you keep on top of it

With the new spring grass coming through I’m afraid our merry band of ewes are over-indulging, and who can blame them after the long, lean winter months.

Of course, compared with sheep who winter out on the hills and mountains our sheep live in the lap of sheltered luxury, but I doubt they ever feel their advantage. However, they certainly earn their keep by participating (shall we call it?) in training days and in training our own dogs, so it’s only fair that we do our bit to keep them healthy.

Sheep don’t demand much management; other than annual shearing they need regular worming, foot trimming and dagging.

Away from sheep and sheep dogs, Andy and I have a sedate hobby that’s better suited to people of A Certain Age – we collect postcards and photographs (all indoor work, with no heavy lifting). That’s how I spotted this card, which I love partly as an image of unity and teamwork.

Sheep management - a Breton couple shearing a sheep in the street
This photo asks more questions that it answers, but you have to admire the finish!

This industrious Breton couple appear to be using nail scissors, and may be a trifle over-dressed, but they’re making a very neat job of that sheep.

Before Andy’s daughter, Ruth, and her partner volunteered to do our shearing this could have been Andy and me on a summer afternoon, but I don’t think our sheep were so relaxed.

Although it seems that running the sheep regularly helps to prevent fly strike and maggots (ugh) the sheep still need dagging from time to time, and dagging doesn’t come into Ruth’s remit.

For the blissfully uninitiated dagging involves removing soiled (usually green) fleece from the back legs and tail, where it provides just the sort of warm, damp and protected environment that flies and maggots love. It’s usually necessary when the sheep take advantage of the spring grass, and the spring grass takes effect.

It’s not a particularly pleasant task, but Andy and I are a partnership so we divide the effort. I buy the shears and Andy does the dagging. It’s an arrangement that works – especially for me.

With the interests of our discerning clientele in mind, and after a recommendation, I bought a pair of Jakoti shears to see if they’d make the job any easier. What a great investment! Designed more like a pair of scissors than the traditional dagging shears they made the procedure much quicker, more precise and much tidier.

Apparently the only downside is that they’re a bit small for Andy’s hands and they pinch him. They’d be ideally suited to my smaller hands but, never mind: I’m sure Andy will get used to it.

Sheep management - Foot trimming a sheep using clippers
“No foot – no sheep” and no training either, of course

Incidentally we’re NOT sponsored by Jakoti (but if there’s anyone out there reading this…)

If sheep can’t get maggots then their next line of attack will be lameness, which means we can’t use them for dog training.

This is usually easily remedied or, better still, avoided entirely by foot trimming.

Sheep’s feet are very interesting; the horn grows down and turns under the foot so that soil and grit can get trapped against the sole. It’s very satisfying to take a lame sheep, trim away the overgrown horn (despite her protestations) and then see her trot away afterwards knowing how much better she must feel. Or so I’m told.

If you’re thinking of shearing, the British Wool Marketing Board organises shearing courses or, for an introduction, First Steps in Shearing DVD is available from the online DVD shop.

And for a detailed look at the “whys, whens and hows” of foot trimming, plus some uncomfortable (but fascinating) photographs to warn you of exactly what you’re looking out for, NADIS has an excellent page Sheep foot trimming from the National Animal Disease Information Service.

Dave stands in for Carew gathering sheep

Sheepdog Kay gathering a small flock of ewes and lambs on a sunny day.

Dave learns more than how to gather a flock

Late yesterday afternoon I had a call from our landlord, John, asking me to gather the sheep for him at Dean Farm today. He wanted to check over the entire flock as he suspected some had fly strike.

A lamb hangs back as the dog gathers the sheep can mean there's something wrong with the lamb
Dave brings the errant ewes and lambs out of the field but one of the lambs is already hanging back. (Click to enlarge).

Fly strike is dreaded by sheep farmers worldwide. When conditions are right, blowflies lay eggs on the sheep and the resultant larvae can eat the poor creature alive.

If caught in time the affected sheep will only feel some discomfort so the flock must be checked regularly and treated immediately if there are signs of attack.

Untreated animals can suffer an agonising death from fly strike.

At the moment I’m resting Carew’s foot ahead of this weekend’s Evesham Sheepdog Trial, so I decided to take Dave to do the work, and give him more experience of flock work, but took Kay along too as my standby expert, just in case Dave couldn’t cope.

A lamb which has got left behind when gathering sheep.
If a lamb gets left behind when you’re gathering sheep, it can often mean there’s something wrong with it. (Click to enlarge).

As things worked out both Kay and Dave struggled at times; I really missed Carew’s skill.

A quick check when we arrived suggested the sheep had spread themselves between five fields, so I started at the far right, sending Dave to gather a small number of ewes and lambs.

He was uncertain at first, but soon realised he was expected to gather all the sheep and not just the three that were closest to us!

As Dave brought them I noticed that a lamb was hanging back, suggesting there was something wrong with it. This was the first time that I missed Carew. She can immediately detect a poorly animal, and will bring the flock at whatever speed the invalid can manage.

Lamb with a mucky rear end
The damp, mucky back-end on a lamb during warm weather is a fairly sure sign of fly-strike. (Click to enlarge).

Dave, on the other hand, appeared to lose patience with the slow lamb and decided to leave it behind. I sent him back for the lamb, but he tried to hurry it along and that just made the lamb stand its ground. Dave was completely confused!

By this time the first group had gone through the gate into the next field so I sent Dave to bring them back, in the hope that the lamb would try to rejoin them. The sheep really didn’t want to come back through the gate though, and Dave was struggling. I called him back to me and together we quietly “walked” the lamb through the gate to join the other sheep.

Dave should begin to learn from experiences like this, and in time might be more patient with sick animals.

With the sheep reunited Dave began to make better progress, moving from field to field with an ever increasing number of sheep, but he found them a handful when they tried to run in opposite directions.

As he brought back the sheep on the left, the ones on the right were running full-tilt the other way, so I got Kay out of the car to help him. Using both dogs I was able to bunch the sheep up together and, realising they’d met their match, they trotted nicely through the gate onto the farm drive. I put Dave in the car for a rest while Kay guided the sheep down towards the farm.

Trainee sheepdog Dave is unsure how to cope with a sick lamb
Dave’s unsure what to do with the sick lamb. Notice they are looking at each other. (Click to enlarge).

At this point, I glanced back to check the fields we’d gathered and was disappointed to see a small group of lambs, and one or two ewes, which must have been hiding in the woodland at the far end of our first field.

I don’t think Dave had missed them; there are holes in the thick hedge, and I know the sheep sometimes sneak through and hide in the woodland. They will have noticed the other sheep had gone, and tried to follow them.

I took Kay and Dave back across the fields but, as we approached, the sheep began to run for a gap into the next field. Just in time I sent Kay off along the hedge on my right to cut the sheep off before they reached the gap. This was a classic example of why your dog must be able to outrun both ways.

If Kay had gone to the left, the sheep would have been able to escape. I didn’t send Dave because he’s slower than Kay, and less positive. If he’d hesitated, that would have allowed the clever sheep to evade him.

I’m sure John will eventually block all the holes in the hedges and fences but, to be honest, it’s excellent experience for the dogs. With crafty sheep who know lots of ways to dodge away from sheepdogs, it’s a real test – and we thoroughly enjoy it!