Four novices and their dogs

High up in the Welsh hills, Madeleine Kingsley joined collie owners on a sheep herding course
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The Independent Online
From the highest point on Anna-Lou Daybell's hill farm near Carmarthen, there is a spectacular sea view. Her paying guests of the week had, however, no time to stand and marvel. For a good six hours each day, they had been out in the blistering heat - four novices and their border collies striving to master the time-honoured techniques of sheep handling.

On the penultimate afternoon, the hills were alive with the calls of "Come by" (a call that instructs the dog to move clockwise) and "Away" (the anti-clockwise call) as Ms Daybell's students undertook a role- play to improve their grasp of shepherding.

Jean Smith, a secretary from Bury, Lancashire, and 23-year-old Sandra Yeomans, a turbine engine inspectorfrom Derbyshire, played the wayward sheep, while Derek Warne from the Spey Valley exhorted his "dog" (Jean's husband, Keith) to drive the female flock through a Maltese Cross.

"It's nine guineas an ounce of sweat here," groaned Mr Warne later. "Anna-Lou drives me crazy. But she's a brilliant teacher. I've seen exotic spots all over the world, but this is the finest holiday I've ever had." A former building contractor from Teeside, he now runs his own holiday cottages. His wife and daughter gave him this break as a 60th birthday present after his 30 sheep completely trounced him and his young collie, Sam: "I had to ask the farmer next door to move them from one field to the next for me. Couldn't do a thing with them. The bloke wasn't there more than five minutes. I was mortified."

Jean Smith was "slightly apprehensive" when her husband suggested Ms Daybell's course: "As we were planning our one and only holiday in years, I'd imagined foreign sea and sand. But this has been utterly relaxing in its own industrious, outdoor way."

Given the boom in home-grown holidays and the annual addition of 7,000 puppies to the International Sheep Dog Society's Stud Book, Ms Daybell may have found a winning formula. For Keith Smith, who spends 50 weeks a year driving a petrol tanker, there is a durable bonus in finding he is the undisputed shepherd of the week. He vows that as soon as he is back with his two collies on the family smallholding, he will acquire first a few ducks (almost as good as sheep for dog training) and eventually some ewes.

"Keith's a natural," confirms Ms Daybell. A qualified Agricultural Training Board instructor, she has 14 dogs of her own and does well on the local trialling circuit. This is only her second season offering residential courses for all-comers from complete beginners (she will even lend you a dog) to advanced triallers.

Guests stay in her whitewashed farmhouse. After supper they sit up late, talking of dogs and other country matters. A good handler, we learnt, needs patience, plus discipline and an innate sense of how sheep will behave.

Ms Daybell sees dog trialling as a thrilling sport that you can enjoy well into your seventies. With entry fees of only pounds 1.50 for a local trial, it is not expensive, and even a well-bred puppy need set you back no more than pounds 70 or pounds 80.

The course winds up with a beginner's dog trials. "Work your own dogs, or borrow one of mine," she invites, explaining the obstacles through which her pupils must drive and split or "shed" four sheep before penning them. Keith Smith triumphs, having chosen to work with Ms Daybell's keen young collie.

Derek Warne sighs as the sheep scatter beyond his control. But before leaving, he books in for a second course in October. One man and his doggedness are not defeated.

Five-day courses are year-round at Blandgwen Farm, Pencader, Dyfed (01559 384289) at pounds 160 per person, including full board and dog's keep. Special rates for non-participating companions.