The Scottish Highlander Festival held in June at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Richmond, RI had a rainy start, but that didn’t thwart Sylvia Murray or her Border Collies, Fern and Tessie. They were as eager to demonstrate the art of sheepherding as if the sun had been shining brightly.
A regular fixture at the Festival, Sylvia provides information about Border Collie temperament, sheepherding history and sheep psychology. Her two dogs are ideal candidates for demonstrations because they behave very differently and show two distinct methods of working sheep.
Fern is a red and white Border Collie with a pricked ear. She is a “driven” dog, a quality evident even when she’s tethered on the sideline. “Perpetual motion” would be one way to describe her. She works the sheep aggressively, obeying commands with vigor. She descends from animals bred to work Angus cattle, which may help explain her approach.
Tessie is a tri-color Border Collie descended from Scottish International Champions. She has a much calmer, quieter approach to the sheep.
Different breeds of dogs have been bred to serve different purposes with livestock. Border Collies are predominantly “gatherers.” Gathering has three parts: The “outrun” in which the dog goes to the flock, often out of sight or sound of their handler; the “lift” where they collect the sheep into a manageable unit and establish control over the flock; and the “fetch” in which the dog brings the flock home to the handler.
Guardian dogs, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with protecting their charges. These breeds do not interact with the sheep as much as run interference for them, chasing, attacking and even killing predators.
Finally there are driving dogs, that specialize in keeping flocks on a set path. This skill is used frequently when getting sheep to markets or moving them from one place to another. While driving is necessary in many instances, skilled gatherers do not always like to drive, as it is contrary to their nature.
Sylvia notes that she evaluates her sheepdogs as puppies, watching them in the litter as they play with their siblings. First she looks for the gathering instinct. When the puppies scatter in play, she’s interested in the one who runs out and tries to herd them all back together. The second trait she wants is “biddability,” or the desire to do what people ask. She sees that in the puppy, who comes when it’s called or who naturally comes to inspect new people. The puppy with both qualities is a candidate for sheepherding.
Before introducing a dog to sheep, Sylvia makes sure they know the basic commands “come”, “sit” and “lie down.” Equally important, she wants the flock to be dog broke. A young dog will have a hard time mastering his job if the flock does not respond appropriately to his actions. Experienced dogs can effectively train sheep and even other dogs, however.
Although Sylvia’s demonstrations draw many attendees who are fascinated with the dogs, the sheep are more than mere window-dressing. Sylvia’s farm, Alder Brook Farm in Norwich, CT, specializes in registered white and natural-colored Romney sheep. They sell the animals, their fleeces, yarn and roving. Only a handful of the Romneys are used in demonstrations.
The Scottish Highland Festival was a special day for one of the participating sheep: It was Tutti’s first demonstration. Tutti is a special sheep. She was born with weak leg muscles and had to be bottle-fed. Her first week of life was spent in Sylvia’s house where she wore a diaper and was treated much as one would a newborn baby. The special attention paid off: She is now healthy and vibrant.
Tutti’s conformation is not up to show standards, so it is a little unusual for Sylvia to keep her. She has a nice fleece and a good temperament, though, so she has earned herself a place in the demonstration flock. It will take her some time to make friends with the other ewes, as they are older than she, but over time she should fit in nicely.
In the meantime, Tessie and Fern will make sure that everybody does what they’re supposed to do and that they look good doing it.