Farm work broadens the dog's experience and tests the handler's skill
Whenever possible, we like to take our dogs out to other farms to work on different sheep, in unfamiliar fields. It's excellent for broadening a sheepdog's mind, so when our landlord asked for help with his sizeable flock recently, I jumped at the chance.
At 6am this morning, I arrived at the neighbouring farm with Carew and Kay, two of our most trusted sheepdogs, with me in the car and we followed John's pickup and trailer to Dean Farm, where most of his sheep are. Our task was to gather sheep from four fields and bring them into a building where the lambs would be drafted out before going to market.
I'm familiar with three of the fields, having gathered them before, so I was expecting the sheep to be evenly distributed between all of them. I knew from experience that when you gather the sheep from one pasture, they grasp any opportunity to shoot through the gateways (no gates) into at least one, or preferably two other fields. Having two dogs at the ready this time, I felt I had the measure of them.
The fourth field had the luxury of a gate, so John suggested I evict the sheep from it first, and unite them with the main flock before closing the gate to narrow their escape options. Once this was done I gathered the middle field, and then rejoiced at the site of Carew going off "Away" to gather the field on the left, while Kay went off in a huge "Come bye" outrun to gather the right-hand field.
Both dogs returned with their flocks and the sheep were plainly dismayed when they dashed to the middle field gateway, only to find me blocking their path. There's nothing quite like the feeling you get when your dogs have cleanly gathered around three hundred sheep between them, but my joy was short-lived.
While Kay and Carew drove the sheep off towards the farm I went back to check there were no sheep left, feeling sure it was only a formality. To my surprise, above the long grass at the far end of the right-hand field, I saw first one pair of white ears, and then several pairs more!
I called Carew back and sent her to gather the stray sheep but, as she approached, the ears all disappeared! I realised there must be a hole in the hedge and set off to investigate. It's just as well I checked, because around thirty sheep had dodged back into the fourth field.
It just goes to show how important it is to double-check that the dogs have collected all the sheep, especially if you're not familiar with the ground (and the hedges) but the dogs had a wonderful morning. As they lie stretched out, sleeping it off, I can reflect on a great experience for them - and for me.
I was surprised how difficult a relatively simple gather can be when the grass is really long, as it is at Dean Farm now. Both Kay and Carew disappeared from sight completely on several occasions, making it difficult to put them precisely where I thought I wanted them. I quickly realised I had to concentrate on the sheep and judge where the dogs were, and what to tell them, by what the sheep were doing (or not, of course).
If the grass is so long that the dogs disappear, imagine how difficult it is for the dogs themselves to do a clean gather when they can't actually see the sheep! It's an important lesson that if a dog, who's usually meticulous about collecting all its sheep, should leave some behind then there's probably a very good reason for it.