5:45am is a great time to start a day's work on a July morning!
Using our dogs to gather sheep for our landlord has become a regular activity recently. We jump at the chance of improving their sheepdog training by giving them new experiences, particularly with different sheep in new locations, so I was happy to take Kay and Carew to work several hundred sheep again yesterday morning.
We started a little earlier this time, but I'm an early riser anyway so quarter to six is not a problem, and the dogs certainly don't mind.
This being the third time we've worked the ground where the sheep graze I was given free rein to gather the sheep by myself, while the John went ahead to make sure the sorting pens were ready, and to block off any openings where we didn't want the sheep to go.
I drove a little way into the first field to give myself a better viewpoint, I wanted to be certain we didn't leave any sheep behind, but when I sent Kay off she went really wide - I needn't have worried.
With this particular mob of sheep it's not really a question of herding them - as soon as they see the dog, they start to move in the direction of the farm - all Kay needed to do was quietly remind any stragglers to keep going. In no time at all I could hear the wonderful sound of around two hundred and fifty sheep travelling over the railway bridge and down the farm drive, with mothers and lambs bleating whenever they became temporarily separated.
Kay's a quick learner. I was impressed with the way she held back to give the sheep time to go into the sorting pens, yet she was very quick to act if one or more sheep tried to escape. When most of the sheep were inside she calmly asserted her authority over a stubborn ewe that had hung back and was refusing to go inside the building. Kay wasn't aggressive with her, just persistent.
Once the sheep were safely inside, the hard work of sorting lambs for market began. After a lifetime of working with sheep, John's skilled eye can spot a suitable animal from several yards. We put a marker tag in its ear, and then it's down to me to get the lamb into the trailer. This may sound simple but, in a tightly-packed pen of sheep, a large lamb can prove a real handful if it begins to struggle so it's important to handle them carefully. Even so, I found myself on the floor, hanging on to a lamb like a rugby player who's just performed a tackle, rather more often than I care to think about.
The first time I tried to get lambs into the trailer carrying them seemed like a good idea, but in practice it proved exhausting very quickly. By this third attempt I'd perfected a way of holding the large lamb between my knees, with my hand holding its neck just under the head. For some reason the lamb rarely struggles when held this way, and I discovered I could "walk" it to the trailer without a problem: in fact, I don't think I lost one lamb using this technique.
Dignity could be an issue though. I wouldn't care to perform this routine in front of a group of friends - if you imagine walking with something clamped between your knees (especially a sheep) you'll know what I mean. Never mind, John was kind enough not to laugh and the sheep were successfully transferred to the trailer without incident.
Gathering the second mob was a much bigger task. As I mentioned in last week's blog, the sheep are spread out across four fields, three of which have no gates, so the sheep have learned to dodge from one field to the other to avoid capture. Nevertheless, I was confident that Kay could manage on her own so, with saving time in mind, I decided not to go back to the car to collect Carew...
Kay was magnificent! Despite being virtually invisible (the movement of the long grass and / or the sheep were the only indications I had of her whereabouts when she was working more than a few yards away) she rarely missed any sheep and, when she did, I was able to guide her back to them with relative ease (whenever I could tell where she was).
Unfortunately, just when we had the sheep neatly gathered together in a large bunch, I noticed a lamb with its head stuck in the fence on the far side of the field. It took a couple of minutes to reach it on foot, and as I approached the lamb struggled free. When I turned my attention back to the flock I realised that about half of them were heading back to the first field we'd gathered.
It only took a couple of "look back" commands for Kay to realise what had happened and she quickly brought the errant sheep back into line with the others, but I was annoyed with myself. If I'd taken Carew, the two dogs would easily have held the flock while I attended to the trapped lamb - but never mind, it's all good experience. I wonder what will happen next week!