Gathering sheep in the mist is atmospheric - if only you can find them!
I'm not a great sleeper, so it's hardly surprising that this morning I found myself wide awake at four-thirty even though I wasn't due to meet John for another two hours. Undaunted, I filled in the time by doing some maintenance on the website and, as night turned into day, I noticed it was misty outside.
My concern was focussed on driving to Dean Farm for the sheep gather, but I needn't have worried. A mile or two from home the mist was thinner, and driving no more of a problem than usual - but it thickened again as we got closer to Droitwich.
John pulled up at the gate with the truck and trailer and, after opening the gate, volunteered to go ahead to prepare the sorting pens while I gathered the sheep. I agreed, but as I looked over the first field I realised it might be easier said than done.
There's a small patch of land, to the right of the drive, that's very popular with the sheep. When we arrive there's usually a handful there who obligingly head for the railway bridge as John's vehicle moves up the drive. I looked across, to make sure they were on their way as usual, but, to be honest, I could only see one sheep. It appeared to be wandering in the right direction though, so I headed to the wider space on the left, as usual, but making a mental note to come back later and check that the sheep had all vacated the favoured patch.
Now this may seem a painfully obvious statement, but try to bear with me. To be sure you haven't left any sheep behind, you need to be able to see all the ground between yourself and the hedges. With considerably reduced visibility I found I needed to drive much closer to the hedges than usual to be able to see them. Given the size of the fields I wasn't able to see the centre ground from the hedge, so I found myself weaving back and forth across the field, peering this way and that, to find the sheep.
I can almost hear you shouting "You've got two skilled sheepdogs in the back of that motor - use them!" But, as anyone who's been in this situation will know, it's not that easy. Quite simply, since I've been helping John to gather the sheep I've always done most of the first gather by driving round with the car. I did it from day one because the sheep were already accustomed to moving away from a vehicle; they see the vehicle, and head for the bridge. Simple. Then, when I reached the second field, the real fun would begin, and I'd send a dog off to gather it and to bring the whole bunch to the bridge.
Today my corner cutting caught me out - as it inevitably will! The dogs had never gathered this first field so they didn't know it. If I'd sent one or both of them off into the mist, I'd have lost sight of them very quickly and been unable to guide them towards sheep I couldn't see. If I'd only taken those few extra minutes to use the dogs properly (as I had with all the other fields) over the past weeks, the dogs would have learned the routine and the lie of the land, and have made a far more efficient job of gathering the first phase than we actually did.
As it was, I wasted time and fuel going back over ground I'd just covered. My frustration was complete when I went back to find the small patch next to the drive heavily populated with sheep! Kay was driving her flock towards the bridge; I redirected her, and she was delighted to oblige so we had the whole bunch over the bridge and down to the farm in no time.
The sheep were no problem to push into the pens and through the race, so I kept Kay with me to build up her confidence. The sheep have accepted that the race is the way out of the building, so now they're happy to go into it. John drafted the lambs and, after we'd tagged their ears, I used Carew (she's more powerful than Kay) to load the youngsters onto the trailer - a big load - top deck first.
With John safely on his way to market, the un-ready lambs were returned to the first field. By now the sun was beating down and had dissipated the mist in good time for the final task - to bring in all the ewes for John to look over when he returned. This was my opportunity to put Carew's "Look back" to the test. I'd been disappointed with Kay last week, (Click here to read about last week's sheep gather) so I was hoping Carew would make a better job of it.
The theory is that the sheep are distributed between two fields, but when I arrived at the first field I could see that three had escaped into a further, third, field.
Frustratingly, Carew didn't see the sheep we needed to gather. They were straight in front of us, in much the same place they'd been last week, but, for some reason, Carew was convinced her target was to our right. I set her up on my left as I faced the sheep, to show her that I wanted her to go to her left, but she more or less ignored me. So I insisted she stand on my left and gave her a loud and firm "Come bye" command. It worked. She sped off in the correct direction, but she was clearly intending to cross over. I was ready for her, and gave a sharp "Come bye" whistle to reinforce the voice command. This redirected her further to the left and she finally spotted the sheep.
So far so good, but when Carew began to come in behind the first bunch and I stopped her, she was every bit as difficult to turn back as Kay had been the previous week. By the time she turned back, the second group of sheep had made their way into the farthest, darkest corner of the field.
As Carew pushes the last of the flock into the sorting pen, she commands much more respect from the sheep than she previously did
Carew did a fine job of bringing the sheep into the first field to re-unite them with the other bunch, but then I had to send her into the third field to gather the three opportunist escapees. That went well, and when a train sped by as she drove the sheep up the field I felt quite proud of Carew. I wonder how many passengers (if any) spotted the sheepdog only a few yards away!
I was very pleased that Carew totally ignored the noisy train - that's good, and sheepdogs shouldn't be distracted by loud vehicles, sudden noises or aircraft when they're working with sheep. However, so many collies are noise sensitive that it's important to look out for it in the early training, and give your dog as noisy a life as you can make it.