By: Robert H. McKowen  Date: 01/8/2012 Category: | Canine Issues |

In mid-September, Northern Ireland is green, cool, and damp. The round hills climbing up to the Mourne Mountains and the Slieve Croob peak are alive with blackface sheep grazing on the lush green grass.

The remains of ancient churches such as Inch Abbey at Downpatrick grace the landscape from the picturesque port city of Newcastle to the capital city of Belfast, and St. Patrick’s landing site and church burial place hold places of honor overlooking the city and the surrounding countryside.

The setting is perfect for an event that celebrates an ancient partnership between dog and man – that of the working sheepdog and his shepherd master.

For three days, 60 of the finest Border Collies in the world competed for the honor of their countries on the beautiful Forde Estate at Seaforde, grounds made available through the generosity of Patrick and Lady Anthea Forde. The dogs were the top qualifiers in national championships in England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland – 15 dogs from each country from a beginning field of 600 dogs. Following two days of qualifying rounds, the best 15 dogs competed in the Supreme Championship to cap the 2002 International Sheepdog Trial.

The weather can be capricious in Ireland at this time of year, but after a few sprinkles on opening day, it smiled on this event with cool, bright days throughout. People from all over the world gathered at this lovely site to watch spectacular performances by spectacular dogs. They came from New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Holland, Germany, the US, and of course the British Isles.

The Trip

My wife Lee and I began our trip at the Newark Airport in New Jersey and arrived in Dublin early in the morning. We rented a car and made the 100-mile drive to our bed-and-breakfast at Bushymeade just south of Ballynahinch and just up the road from Seaforde. Other guests had already arrived on ferry boats from Scotland.

Driving in Ireland is not for the timid. Foreigners have to get used to driving on the left side of the road behind a steering wheel on the right side of the car. The roads are narrow and are lined at the edges with a four- or five-inch stone curb. I drove in England two years ago and was somewhat prepared, but it’s hard to see the curb when a truck coming the ‘wrong’ way is up against the center line.

We had just navigated a farm town on the top of a hill – tractors and trucks choking the right-of-way – when we felt a bump: sure enough, in the middle of nowhere, we had a flat tire. Fortunately, there was a place to pull off the road in front of an old barn just below a stone church and parish house. The housekeeper let us phone for assistance. An hour later, a service truck arrived from Newcastle and a personable young man set about finding a spare hidden under the trunk (which I could not find) and he had us on our way in no time.

We followed the young man to the road that led to our lodgings and things looked bright again. We drove through Seaforde, site of the international competition, for about seven miles to the Bushymeade sign above the high hedge. Our home for five days, Bushymeade is a three-story stone home built more than 100 years ago by the ancestors of the Murphy family and has remained in the family. Today’s Murphys are Sally, the mother; Philip, Andrew, and Timothy, the three sons; and the father who works in Dublin.

The Murphys are dog people. Sally shows Bernese Mountain Dogs and Samoyeds and Andrew has a new Flat-Coated Retriever puppy. All family members helped with the full Irish breakfast each morning.

The Trials

The next morning, we took off down the wrong side of the road to Seaforde and the finest sheepdogs in the world. The stage was set with two portable enclosed grandstands erected in front of the hillside where the trials would take place. Behind the grandstand were many food tents, crafts, and other stands that provided a country-fair atmosphere.

Each dog’s run began with the shepherd standing in front of a post with his back to the spectators. From this position, the shepherd directed his dog until it was time for the dog to “shed” a particular sheep from a circle and drive five sheep into a pen. After the penning, the shepherd closed the gate.

In the qualifying rounds, five sheep were held at a distance of 400 yards in front of the shepherd and his dog. The shepherd sent the dog to gather the sheep with one of two commands as ordered by the judge: “away,” which sent the dog to the right to come in behind the sheep, or “come by,” which sent the dog to the left to do the job.

The dog ran with great speed and concentration to come in behind the sheep and “lift” them to begin the “fetch” towards the shepherd, moving the sheep through a seven-yards-wide gate about halfway back to the shepherd. He then brought the sheep around behind the shepherd, who sent them about 200 yards on to a gate to the left. Once through this gate, the dog drove the sheep to the right another 200 yards to and through another gate.

After the gate maneuvers, the dog turned the sheep towards the handler and held them in a 40-yard circle. Two of the five sheep wore collars. The shepherd designated two sheep that were not wearing collars and commanded the dog to separate them from the others while keeping the remaining three sheep in the circle.

Next the sheep were reunited and moved together from the circle to a pen. The shepherd held the gate open with a six-foot rope while the dog worked the sheep into the pen.

The final move came after the penning when the sheep were moved back to the shedding circle and one of the two collared sheep was shed off to complete the run.

The trial was judged on several factors, including time, objectives, and the teamwork between the dog and the handler. Dogs have 15 minutes to complete a run. A dog that gives a good performance without making time can actually beat a dog that completes the run but is judged lower in overall performance.

The 100-point scale is as follows: outrun, 20 points; lift, 10 points; fetch, 20 points; drive, 30 points; shed, 10 points; and pen, 10 points. Four judges evaluate each performance. Along with the basic 100 points, each has an additional 10 points to allot for overall performance. Aggregate point total is 440 points.

On Thursday morning, the mist was still climbing out of the valley when Sweep, the first dog in the qualifying rounds, came to the post with shepherd J. McCaffrey of County Donegal, Ireland. Sweep had difficulty getting the sheep through the gates and came up short on time for a score of 181, which finished him for the trial.

Rob and his shepherd W.S. Elliott of Roxburgshire, Scotland, finished the course with an excellent performance that earned a score of 361, good enough for fourth place among the 60 dogs that ran in qualifiers on both days.

The 13th dog to go to the post was Dunedin Gem, a five-year-old male owned and handled by J.J. Brennan of Tipperary, Ireland. He performed brilliantly to earn a score of 376, second highest in the qualifying rounds.

Kenny Brehmar of Sutherland, Scotland, ran 34th with four-year-old Dave and finished third in the preliminaries with an excellent score of 368 although he did not complete the penning exercise.

High score for the qualifiers went to Michael Shearer of Caithness, Scotland, and four-year-old Tib. This team worked in perfect harmony to earn 379 points and set the standard.

The Supreme Championship

Scotland, which hosted the first international trials in 1906, had six of the top 15 scorers, the strongest contingent returning for the Supreme Championship. England and Wales had four teams each, and Ireland had one.

The 800-yard course for the Supreme Championship was twice as long as the qualifying course. The course included two outruns and lifts and involved 20 sheep. Each judge could award 170 points for an aggregate of 680. Dogs had 30 minutes to complete the course.

The judge directed the shepherd to send his dog on the initial outrun to collect 10 sheep at the top of the hill. The dog was to lift the sheep and fetch them through a center gate to a post 20 yards away from the gate. The dog would then leave those sheep to graze while he gathered 10 additional sheep and brought them through the gate to join the others.

When the sheep were all together, the dog would drive them to the shepherd, who would then direct the dog to move the sheep to a gate 600 yards to the left. The dog would then drive the sheep through that gate, then cross-drive them through another gate and on to the shedding circle. The dog would cut 15 sheep from the circle and then drive the remaining five sheep into the pen. The shepherd would hold the gate open until the sheep were inside, then close the pen and loop the rope over a post.

McCullough Brothers of Douglin, Ireland, provided the wild and independent sheep, which were chosen to test the dogs to the highest extreme.

Bob, the winner of the 2000 competition with his handler Aled Owen of Wales started badly with a split on the center gate on the opening fetch; he ended up with a score of 311 and failed to qualify.

Julie Simpson of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, is the only woman to win a Supreme Championship. She handled three-year-old Tess to a score of 295 after some problems with the gates and the shedding and didn’t make the cut.

Those of us who stayed at the same bed and breakfast as Bill Elliott were up bright and early Saturday morning to watch him handle Rob for the first run of the day. However, it was not their day: they missed the first gate and seemed to lose control of the sheep, then missed the left gate with the 20 sheep and running out of time. They finished 14th for the competition.

Things got serious when Ireland’s John Brennan came to the post with Gem in the third run. They turned in an excellent performance that was hampered by difficult sheep that refused to shed, and they ran out of time. Nonetheless, their overall score put them in third place.

Bobby Dalziel of Scotland, a two-time winner, was a heavy favorite to win with Jack. The dog shed all but two of his sheep and ran out of time, but the team had an overall score of 447 for second place for an otherwise almost flawless performance.

The 14th (and next to last) run of the day featured Stuart Davidson of Agryll, Scotland, the winner in 1995, and eight-year-old Star. This team put on a spectacular performance for a high score of 493 to become the 2002 Supreme Champions. Star was near-perfect in all phases of the work except for failure to pen when the time ran out. Spectators held their breaths as the sheep would almost pen; then one would jump away and Star would have to round them up again. Star could not be faulted; the sheep would simply not pen no matter how excellently the dog worked them.

John Brennan’s Gem, who had the second highest score in the preliminary rounds, finished third as time ran out in the shedding ring at the conclusion of a fine performance. Brennan, who has been trialing for 22 years, retired from teaching a few years ago to become a full-time farmer.

“The dog must know it has control and the sheep must know the dog has control. Some dogs don’t have control,” Brennan said.

Nigel Watkins of Wales and Peg finished fourth. Peg penned all but two sheep in the last run of the trial. Derrick Scrimgeour from England and Ben were fifth; Ben failed to pen his sheep but scored well enough to place in the top third. Michael Shearer and Tib, high scorers in the qualifying rounds, placed eighth.

After three days of trials, we left with the conclusion that no breed does its job better than the Border Collie and that the international competition helps keep the breed at its peak. The large and important sheep industry of the British Isles could not function without this invaluable dog.

The international competition is held under the jurisdiction of the International Sheepdog Society. The 2004 trials will take place in western Scotland.

About The Author

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Robert H. McKowen -

Member/Volunteer/Partner/Article Writer of the National Animal Interest Alliance.

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