Country: The original shaggy dog story

Long before the days of Dulux, old English sheepdogs had an important role to play in looking after livestock. But then the flocks turned nasty ...
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS during the height of the Elizabethan wool trade that dogs were first used to herd sheep in this country. In those days, it has been estimated that the ovine population of England exceeded the current human population. The vast, heavily fleeced flocks were patrolled and cajoled by a breed of dog called bobtails, forebears of the old English sheepdog. Nowadays, you never see an old English sheepdog working a herd. For good reason. And it is not just that the pay in advertising is better.

A few weeks ago, I was standing with a friend of mine, who farms in North Yorkshire, watching one of his border collies trying to herd a trio of Swaledale cross-breds. The dog was young and had the over-effusive manner of a package tour rep. He was called Jet. All working collies seem to have monosyllabic names - Bud, Jess, Fly. Later, I asked my friend's wife if she had ever come across any with longer monikers. "Aye," she said, "there was a fella over by Pickering. Very fond of beer, he was. He got a new dog once and christened it Firkin." There was a pause. "Well, he did until he'd shouted, "Firkin, get here!" a few times. I think it's called Rab now."

Jet lolloped around the field desperately trying to jolly the sheep along. While two were content to play along, the other one just stood and stared at him. The dog backed off and regrouped. He lowered his body, pulled back his ears and narrowed his eyes. It was a pose that should have conjured up images of the hunting wolf, but in Jet's case, it put me more in mind of that chinless young master in the Molesworth books who tells the rioting boys, "You may think I'm soft, but I'm hard, damned hard."

The recalcitrant sheep didn't buy the new performance either. She watched Jet advance towards her and, when the dog was no more than three yards away, she dropped her head and began nonchalantly munching the grass. It was an unmistakable gesture of contempt.

Beside me, my friend exhaled loudly. "Bloody useless," he hissed. I asked why. "He's weak and they can sense it," my friend said. To prove his point, he called Jet back and set his older dog, Dan, away. Dan advanced on the rebellious ovine in much the same low-bellied way as Jet had. It was plain, however, that in his case, it was no act. His eyes burned with something ancient and malignant. The sheep took one look at Dan and ran for it.

It was partly because of dogs like Dan that the old English sheepdog lost its position as a farmworker. Mainly, though, it was because of sheep like the one which had rebuffed Jet.

When the bobtail began its working life, most English flocks were made up of large, docile downland sheep. Hardier upland breeds, such as the Swaledales that had thwarted Jet, or the ubiquitous Scottish blackface, retain some of the agile, independent attitude of their wild ancestors. The black, four-horned Hebridean sheep, one of the oldest domesticated breeds, is notoriously hard to herd. So much so, in fact, that at one time in the western isles, dogs were trained not to chivvy the sheep but to chase after them, pull them to the ground and then sit on them until the shepherd arrived and took over.

Mind you, the Hebridean sheep had more reason to run than most. Up until the 19th century, the islands' farmers refused to use shears. Instead, their flocks were plucked. The collie, originally brought to England by Scottish drovers (the name comes from the Gaelic coallean, "little dog") had been bred to deal with such sheep. Sometimes he did so so fiercely that early shepherds thought it wise to remove the dogs' canine teeth and subjected the rest to regular filing. Capable of mastering any flock, they quickly superseded the bumbling bobtail. The collie was tough and elemental, and remains so to this day. Or, at least, in most cases he does.

When I left my friend's house later that day, Jet was out in the yard. He'd corralled half-a-dozen bantams into a corner and was watching them diligently. Every time one tried to peel away, he cut it off and drove it back to the flock. "He seems to be able to handle them all right," I said. "Oh aye," my friend replied with a rueful grin, "next time I have to bring 500 chickens down off the moor top for shearing, he's going to come in very handy."