Kay and Carew work hard, gathering sheep at Dean Farm
In recent months I've missed our trips to Dean Farm to gather the sheep. With far fewer sheep, now that he's winding down towards retirement, it seems John didn't like to trouble me, but when I spoke to him recently I assured him that experience in new circumstances and on new ground would benefit our dogs - even if there were only two or three sheep to gather.
John agreed to give me a call when he needed help, and sure enough he rang me yesterday to arrange a gather this morning.
There were a few ewes and lambs at Dean Farm that needed shearing, so we would go over there early, gather them all in, and sort the ewes out from the lambs. After this I could leave, as the sheep would be eager enough to get back to their field.
My first impression, when I arrived, was the height of the grass. We've had a very wet, mild spring, and the grass has taken full advantage of it. Tall grass makes it harder to find the sheep (especially if they're lying down) and almost impossible to see the dog if it's more than a few yards away from you.
Undeterred, I followed the routine I'd used in the autumn when we gathered much greater numbers. I took the car around the outside of the first field to be absolutely sure there were no sheep hiding under trees and in corners. Our dogs are discouraged from following hedges because we use them for sheepdog trials, where "hedge runners" can lose points. However, dogs that are doing regular farm work will quickly learn where the sheep are likely to be hiding and will look in those places as a matter of course.
When they last worked at Dean Farm, Kay and Carew had no hesitation in shaping their outrun to take in all the hedges, gaps and corners.
When we reached the far end of the field I sent Kay off to push all the sheep into a bunch and take them towards the bridge that crosses the railway line.
Poor little Kay had no idea where the sheep were because they were hidden in the long grass. I had to redirect her several times, but Kay coped pretty well until they got nearer to the bridge.
At the bridge, a black-faced ewe with two lambs decided she wasn't going to cooperate. She turned defiantly on Kay and stood her ground. Kay tried hard to move her but, eventually, I had to send Carew to help her out. Neither dog made much progress, however, until I walked up closer to them and then the ewe turned and re-joined the flock.
I was a little concerned that Carew seemed to have lost some of the steely nerve she displayed last year when these same sheep challenged her. I needn't have worried. I think she was just out of practice because she became more bold as time went on.
Carew and Kay pushed the sheep across the bridge and onto the driveway to the farm. While they wandered towards the farm buildings the next, rather more difficult, gather started.
There was a handful of sheep in two very large fields with even taller grass so, once again, I drove the 4x4 down the field and sent Carew to gather them. Once I'd directed her to them they came without a problem, but getting them out through the gate and onto the drive was complicated by around twenty inquisitive young heifers and bullocks.
The cattle chased and leapt about excitedly while poor Carew tried to weave her reluctant sheep through them towards the open gate. Carew's not over-happy about working cattle; she'll do it if I ask, but she'd prefer not to. I had to work hard to keep Carew's attention on the sheep to prevent her from going wide to keep away from the cattle. I can see her point; one of them ran full tilt after her at one stage, and I wouldn't have blamed her if she'd run off!
Carew stuck to her guns though, and I was full of admiration for her as she pushed the sheep successfully through the gate and onto the drive. Then I was told that we were short of four ewes and their lambs.
John thought the missing sheep would probably be lying under the hedge, alongside the railway, so I sent Carew back down the field in the hope that she'd bring them. After a couple of (long) minutes there was no sign of either sheep or dog, so I drove down the field again.
I drove cautiously because Carew doesn't have much experience of working around a vehicle and (not being able to see much because of the long grass) I was concerned that I could run over her. I was calling at the same time, but Carew didn't appear.
I began to worry. What if she'd strayed onto the busy railway line? I hadn't been in the field for some months and, although the fence looked very good last time I was here, it was now more overgrown. What if she'd found a hole in the fence and gone through it, to go out wider on her outrun?
I stopped the car and got out to call and whistle until, eventually, I noticed a movement in the grass about eighty yards away.
Sure enough, the waving grass was approaching rapidly and it proved to be Carew. She must have been confused and ran all the way back to where she last saw me, up by the gate. Then she had to run all the way back again.
I didn't want Carew to be over-tired because I knew she had plenty of work to do in the buildings, so I put her back in the car and used Kay to take the sheep up the field. Once again though, one of the ewes proved too much for Kay and I had to send Carew to help her again.
Poor Kay. She's been a fantastic worker, but at seven years of age I get the feeling she's not as keen as she was. When she was younger she'd never back down to a sheep, but she's rather softer now.
There was no point in asking Kay to drive the sheep past the cattle. She's most definitely not a cattle dog, and unlikely to change now, so once again it was Carew who took control of the errant sheep. She did it with much more confidence this second time, dodging the cattle's attentions and concentrating fully on her sheep.
Then Carew went a stage further. Some of the cattle had escaped through the gateway and onto the drive, and mixed themselves in with the sheep. Again, Carew winkled the sheep away from the cattle and pushed them clear, then she "looked back" and brought the errant bovines back into their field as though she's been working cattle for years. I was so proud!
Carew was clearly tired now, but she pushed the sheep into the buildings and then through the sorting race like a true professional. She calmly but firmly stood no nonsense, despite being challenged several times. The biggest problem for John and me was the young lambs - they don't know the routine, and scampered hither and thither at every opportunity.
Before long all were sorted, with everything in place when the shearers arrived. I'm looking forward to our next opportunity to gather sheep at Dean Farm - or anywhere else, for that matter!