Reskilling: Using border collie sheepdogs to herd sheep instead of quad bikes
Who needs a petrol-guzzling, soil-compacting quad bike? Rebecca Hosking explains why sheepdogs will play an invaluable roll in the future of farming...
Tucked away on the farm with our daily tasks, it's incredibly easy to forget about the big bad world out there and the global issues of peak oil and climate change. This is slightly ironic as they were our sole motivation for returning there in the first place.
Every now and then something happens that smacks those issues back into our reality. The exorbitant price at the petrol pump, a couple of months with no rain, or hearing in the news a domestic energy company is putting gas prices up by up to 18% - all of these timely reminders knock us off our laurels.
But on the other hand, whilst preoccupied with day-to-day living, it's easy to forget what new skills we've actually acquired since returning home. It's not been prescriptive learning, such as attending field courses or evening classes; rather, we've been thrown in at the deep end and learned on the job - we've got the scratches, bruises, kick marks and aching limbs to prove it.
It's only sitting down to write this piece do I realise we have had to become competent in a number of areas to get through the average day. Three years ago we had no idea how to deliver a breeched lamb, lay a hedge, use a scythe, build with cob, dag a sheep with hand shears, mend shoes or even grow vegetables.
However, a couple of years ago I purposely set myself a challenge - I took Rob Hopkins' concept of the 'Great Reskilling' at face value. It is one of those simple concepts at the heart of both the Transition movement and permaculture as a whole.
For a couple of generations in the "developed" world, we have been so richly pampered by an excess of cheap energy that many of those practical skills our grandparents took for granted have simply ceased to be needed. However, as we enter an age of energy scarcity, those old skills will once again – and I suspect fairly soon – become essential.
With this in mind, I remember thinking, what is one advanced skill I could set out to learn that will benefit the running of the farm? I settled on learning to herd with a sheepdog. However, in the interests of self-reliance, that means learning how to "bring-on" a border collie puppy and transform it into a fully working dog.
The value of the shepherd's dog
It is famously said that a trained sheepdog will do the work of three humans. This I can fully appreciate, considering the amount of time Tim and I have wasted running back and forth behind sheep and cattle to herd them from one end of the farm to the other, cursing our sluggish bi-pedal gait as we go.
I know some will say, "just grow vegetables" - no herding required and more calories produced per acre. This is a fair point in theory, but for our land, in practical terms, the benefits of livestock (particularly sheep) far outweigh the negatives. They have a magical ability to harvest low-grade biomass and turn it into wool, milk, horn, hide, tallow, lanoline and mutton. They are a source of very rich food that stores perfectly throughout winter. As good as nettle and hemp fibres may be, turning the plant into a fabric is way beyond me, whereas with a little more reskilling I could personally produce a warm, waterproof and hardwearing garment from a sheep's fleece.
They are also fantastic animals to have as part of a mixed, ecologically sustainable system. They tread lightly on the land and, when managed properly, they are great conservational browsers. But to be managed properly they need to be kept moving, hence the need for a dog.
Our blogs often have a "How to" element but not this time. In a few thousand words I can no more tell you how to work with a sheep dog than a pilot could explain how to fly a helicopter.
To be honest, after only a few years experience I don't feel I have earned that right anyway. For anyone not that interested in the actual difference between a square flank and a round flank, or how to extend an outrun, it makes for very dull reading. Instead, I'm going to concentrate on why I think learning to herd in a changing society is important.
Sheep herding in the future
So why use a herding dog when a quad-bike does the job? OK, a slightly facetious question to those who are concerned about peak oil, but one worth asking. A quad bike clearly has a lifetime need for refined petroleum products whereas a dog runs entirely on truly renewable bio-fuel (rabbits, pheasants and table scraps in our case). However, it's not a case of waiting for a fuel constrained future for the dog to come out on top – it's there right now.
Being around working dogs, you really appreciate their abilities over any machine. A dog can smell out a sheep hidden in undergrowth, they can work across wet rough ground, they never compact soil, never get bogged down or leave tire tracks.
Their acute hearing makes for an excellent early warning system; if the sheep have broken through a hedge and start bleating half a mile away it's our young dog, Wilf, who is the first to raise the alarm.
The pressure they place on a flock is enough to move the sheep but not to scare them, so while the dog is herding you can stand back and easily identify any animals who are under the weather and may need medical intervention.
Unlike a quad-bike, a dog can single out and 'hold a single sheep' (transfix a sheep with its stare), enabling you to crook the ewe and carry out a health check without the need to round up the entire flock.
A working dog finally slam-dunks a quad-bike by doubling up as a guard dog. In these days of ever increasing farm thefts and the return of old-fashioned rustling I have to admit young Wilf's vigilance and acute hearing is indeed a comfort at night, alerting us to anything unfamiliar. I can testify from personal experience from visiting our neighbours there is something quite terrifying about a snarling, tooth-baring collie hurtling full pelt down the farm drive towards you.
With all the talk of practicalities we should also never underestimate the sense of camaraderie that comes with a working dog because at times, farming can be a very lonely business. One memorable saying I've heard on this matter is, "you can kick a quad bike but you can talk to a dog."
Sheepdogs and sheep
Using a dog to herd sheep is tapping into a natural relationship older than humanity. Stating the obvious, from an ecological perspective, dogs are predators and sheep are prey. Predators clearly benefit from eating prey, but what is less well known is how much prey benefit from predators.
Although the average shepherding exercise is a carefully managed and hugely controlled version of the wild, those mutual benefits of co-evolution are still readily apparent. One of the main services the predator offers the prey is to perpetually move them on to fresh grass. It is paramount that we as "managers" replicate this on the farm or the build up of parasites and pathogens in the flock can be dramatic. Without resorting to an arsenal of chemical wormers, insecticides and antibiotics, the only option is to move the flock onto fresh pasture every day, which is easy with a dog and difficult without.
The other thing to realise is that sheep aren't that different to us; in that exercise is good for them, but they are not inclined to do any unless they have to. A flock moved on by a dog behaves with more urgency than if pursued by a rambling farmer with a big stick. This both keeps them fit and helps to keep their hooves in good condition. We've noticed a huge difference in fitness level and muscle tone with the packet of sheep I've been practising on with the dog, compared to the overall health level of our main flock.
One area that really isn't discussed in a post-peak oil world is the off farm movement of livestock for sale. Societal changes and heavy-handed legislation have forced livestock farmers to rely on lorries and stock boxes to get their animals to market. This is not only stressful to the animals but heavily dependant on fossil fuel and a well-maintained transport infrastructure.
Our little market town, like every other, was called a 'market town' for a blatantly obvious reason. In my grandfather's time, droving livestock the couple of miles down into the town to be sold at market was a monthly occurrence the whole community would come out to witness.
My father and uncle have but vague memories of this as boys because, as with so many places, it was stopped in the 50s as the number of cars increased and the street markets were seen as disrupting traffic.
So the markets moved to larger towns but the numbers of animals combined with a new post-war era of cleanliness and hygiene meant the markets moved further away again, out of the town centres to the outskirts of larger conurbations. Today our nearest regular livestock market is a 70 mile round trip and our nearest abattoir is 30 miles away.
With today's petrol prices we can easily take £50.00 out of the price of any animals we sell before we even arrive at the market unloading bays.
On border collies...
But what of the future? Will it go back to the past? Not exactly, things never fully revert back, but I can see droving with dogs coming back into use out of pure necessity - only a dog has the speed and agility to stop a flock disappearing down every side road and track on the way into town.
If this is the case then a working dog will be worth its weight in gold and learning the art of 'bringing a pup on' to it's full working potential will be an invaluable skill.
But here's massive word of caution before anyone runs off to buy a border collie.... I am going to be quite firm in my advice because sadly, this breed is one of the most common to end up abandoned in rescue shelters. Border collies are the most intelligent of dog breeds, they have the IQ of a three and a half year-old child. Anyone reading this who owns one will know they need a huge amount of both physical and mental exercise or they can become very destructive and/or can quickly develop very upsetting behavioral disorders. Border collies from working/herding lines are particular rascals and without a lot of mental stimulation and discipline in training can be a total nightmare. I guess in short what I'm trying to say is, if you want a pet then get a Labrador or even a gold fish. High maintenance collies don't fit into most modern lifestyles.
If you already have a collie then introducing it to sheep to see if it can herd is a one-way journey and one I wouldn't recommend if you don't have sheep of your own. In the few years I've been training under the guidance of an experienced handler I've seen countless people come to him with their pet collies and his advice is always the same: "once your dog gets an interest in sheep and we've lit that blue touch paper you can never go back to care-free walks in the countryside until you have a fully trained dog, which could take years."
A shepherd's whistle
If you are still interested, I'll leave you with the best bit of advice I was ever given.
Before you even think of buying a collie or learning how to herd, get yourself a cheap shepherd's whistle and learn how to use that first. That way you're starting at the beginning without messing with the lives of any animals.
Within ten minutes of blowing the thing and making no sound you will swear blind it was designed by the devil himself.
It's always wise to learn how to use the whistle before you get a dog because the sound of your practising will drive the poor animal mad. The same can also be said of the most loving family member, so practise out of ear shot - long car journeys are a commonplace recommended.
When you get to the level where you can whistle along - in tune! - with every song that comes on the radio, and if you're still interested in learning to herd - then and only then start to think about it.
Rebecca Hosking and Tim Green made the BBC2 film, 'A Farm For a Future' which explored peak oil and climate change in relation to farming. Whilst researching, they discovered permaculture and decided to return to the small mixed farm that Rebecca grew up on in Devon, help with day to day tasks and experiment with some cutting edge ideas and techniques.
So that danglling device in the picture is the shepherds whistle? And you can actualy play notes on it? I have never seen such as that and as a flautist and someone who spends a good deal of musical time out in the middle of nowhere i am most intrigued. It strikes me as something i could add to my arsenal of things to blow my brains out with, and as a metalsmith could even make myself. Does the Green Shop deal in shepherds whistles. Where are the shepherd supply shops? I will search it and many thanks for the introduction to something new.
Sad to say that where i live sheep and, more so, goats are restrained rather than herded by the rather cruel practice of tying their legs together. Dogs could be the answer if only people would wake up to the fact, but unfortunately their dogs too are more often than not also tied up. Our freddy, loveable as he is, has strong hunting instincts and rather than tie him up we have had to fence in our muscovy ducks, something we had not anticipated doing. I am quite sure he is motivated by fun rather than malice, but it would no doubt end up being a messy game if the instinct was allowed to get the better of him. Fred would surely envy Wilf his training and his job but he is a twelve year old and as the saying goes....
Thank you for the lovely comment.
Sadly I don't think the Green shop do, but the International Sheepdog Society does
The plastic ones are easier to start on then metal.
I wouldn't say they are the most tuneful of things to "blow your brains out with" they have been designed for long distance commands.
Here's a sample
But I can whistle along happily with anything from 'Windmills in my mind', to 'God save the Queen'.
Hope that helps
I have a nice image of you, wilf and the sheep standing to attention for a quick rendition of GSTQ. Do the sheep come in on the chorus?
Thank you for the link and rest assured i will not be disappointed to find i can't play mozart on the sheep whistle. Its more about bouncing sound across the valley. Our closest neigbours are a family of eagles
who comunicate with an edgy screech which my wooden flutes have a hard time matching and i think that the sheep whistle might find a tone more to their ear.
It makes one wonder why, since the the man-dog thing is so satisfying, our culture does not show more interest in communicating with other members of the natural world?
Have you read any of lyall Watson? He has a very intriguing book entitled- The Whole Hog- about the history, and potential of rich and rewarding relationship with pigs......
Here on Romney Marsh they still use sheep dogs perhaps you would enjoy the sheep dog trials :)
Farming and Shepherding? The choice is not yours but the it is nature who will determine. Sheepdogs are very much needed to make the work in rounding up the herds be easy with a few whistles from the shepherd. Sheep dogs are well trained and also equipped to follow orders and it is a great helping dog for every sheep and cattle owner.
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