(Dear friends of grammar,
Please forgive constantly changing tenses in the forthcoming post. Still haven’t decided if I’m writing in the past, present, or future perfect. Sometimes I switch right in the middle and don’t even realize it. But because I’m technically on vacation, I don’t much care to correct it all.
Your friend and sometimes grammar-correcting associate,
I wish, wish, WISH that I had pictures or video to show you how we moved sheep from their pastures down onto the holding pen. I am struck by the vital role each participant plays in making it all work: humans, dogs, sheep.
Humans have the big picture. They direct and keep time, location and end goal in mind. The border collies bring their energy, smarts, desire to please their master(s) and inherent love for work to the process. The sheep, well… They just want to be left alone in peace so they can chew on grass. But when disturbed, they behave in very predictable ways. They move to the center of the herd for safety. They will do something just because all the other sheep are doing it. (Yes, the exact opposite of what your parents said you should do, all those years ago.) And they will happily follow the animal right in front of them. But sheep are timid, flighty creatures. Come at them directly and they’ll bugger off** in every direction except the one you wanted! Instead , you have to create a place for them to move toward, and then provide encouragement from behind — clapping your hands, waving your arms if you are a person and barking and lunging if you are a dog. So Charlie and Millie, by understanding sheep behavior and utilizing their dogs, can maintain a farm of over 600 sheep, just the two of them.
It’s quite amazing to watch. Or to be part of. I got to help a few times. And though I don’t have visuals for you, I will try to describe what happens so you can see it in your mind’s eye.
To start, the three of us, along with Meg, the most senior working dog, and Mist, the second-in-command, head up to one of the big pastures. There might be a hundred sheep scattered across a hilly area the size of a football field. We’ve probably driven up on the four wheeler, dogs running behind. We open the gate and Charlie heads on through with Meg and Mist bounding alongside the four wheeler. I position myself at the gate. Millie walks up the road and waits at another particular place in the road. (Bringing in the sheep from this particular, far field requires three people.) We are going to bring them out of their field, walk them along the main road for about a quarter mile, then will turn them into the “driveway” to Castle Creavie for another (perhaps) two mile walk up to the main buildings.
Even though I can’t see him at the moment, I know this is what Charlie is doing: He will drive along the outer edge of the pasture, encouraging the sheep to move towards each other and towards a central area. He will simultaneously send the dogs out to do the same on the opposite side of the field (“Come by, Meg!”). He will then intermittently drive the four wheeler up onto high ground, continuing to gather the sheep gradually and checking the valleys, bushy areas and remote parts of the field for strays. If he sees any, or if any of the flock begin to break away, he sends one of the dogs out after them. Slowly, slowly, Charlie and the dogs bring the sheep together and edge them toward the gated side of the fence. If the dogs are moving the sheep faster than he is moving with the four wheeler, he directs them to back off a bit. If he needs them to keep moving as they are doing or to resume after a pause, he will encourage the dogs with “Walk on!” Occasionally, Mist gets overzealous in her efforts. She has to be called off with a sharp”Lie down!” command — to which she responds by ceasing whatever she is doing and dropping onto her belly. She will stay there and in that position until redirected by one of her humans. Generally Charlie works with Meg and Millie works with Mist, but both dogs will take direction from either one. Millie spends years training each dog before it is entrusted with true work. Meg and Mist can be relied upon to respond to commands despite distractions, their own excitement and even occasionally their own instincts. One time, when I was gathering sheep with Charlie, he had to repeatedly send Meg out for a wider circling of the sheep. She’s so experienced, she knows what needs to be done and how things should go and as mentioned earlier, could probably run the whole farm by herself. So when he would send her out, I swear she’d look up at him each time as if to say “Really? Uh, okay… Don’t know why you’d want me to do such a thing, but I’ll certainly do it if you want me to.” I think it was when there were a couple of sheep still in another part of the field. She went until he stopped telling her to go. That’s the nature of the job. And I think if you asked Meg, she’d say “I love my job! Can we do more tomorrow?!?!”
Millie doesn’t even use the four wheeler most of the time. She’d rather walk. She just heads out with a dog and a shepherd’s crook. (Yes, they really use those sticks with the curve at the end.) A little while later, here come the sheep, heading down the road in all their wooly, bleating, nose-to-the-butt-of-the-sheep-in-front-of-them glory.
After all their years of working with dogs and sheep, I’m sure the Wannops think of this sheep moving as “no big deal”. But to me, and probably to any other visitor, it’s like watching a beautifully choreographed dance performance. Entertaining, wondrous to behold, and in its best moments, gives you a tingle of pure delight.
But back to the gathering in progress…
So Charlie, Meg, and Mist have gathered the herd and are bringing them down toward the open stock gate. When I see them coming, I back away. I have to carefully determine my position in order to encourage the sheep to move through the gate but then head up the road and not down it. Too close and they won’t go through the gate. Too far back on the road and I won’t be able to redirect them if they head down the road. It’s as if there were an invisible force field around the flock of sheep. You’re not quite sure where it is, but you know it exists. Bump up against it and you repel the flock in the opposite direction. Allow space just ahead of it, and the flock will keep moving by the force of its own momentum. So, I have to choose my position carefully and move, when I can move, just as carefully. I was proud that Charlie and Millie trusted me enough to leave me there by myself. No dogs, no experienced buddy, just me.
As desired, the sheep funneled through the gate and up the road. (Yay, me!) Soon they would encounter Millie, positioned to turn them onto the Castle Creavie road. When I saw Charlie and the dogs pass through the gate, I doubled back, shut it after them, and hopped onto the four wheeler. Then we caught up with Millie, sheep ahead of us. For the rest of the walk in, the sheep moved forward in a great wooly, noisy clump. They filled the road from side to side and as far forward as I could see at any given time. Behind them, the dogs paced backwards and forwards, nudging them along and making sure none decided to head up the hill or off into a side gate or pullout. Behind the dogs, Millie and I walked, occasionally shouting encouragement and clapping our hands to keep up the herd’s pace. And behind us came Charlie on the four wheeler, puttering along at what must be an annoyingly slow pace. Down the final hill, round the corner, and into the holding pen — wisely propped open and with alternate routes barred in readiness for the walking herd. Dogs get called back out. Final gate is closed. Done! Sheep are moved off their pasture, are close to the barn and will be sheared the following day. Hurrahs all around! Next we head to the kitchen for a cup of tea and a biscuit. Relax for a few minutes, maybe make a quick trip to the loo. Then we do it all once or twice more. A good morning’s work here at Castle Creavie!
** I don’t know what the words “bugger off” mean, exactly. But I like how it sounds. And it describes the panicked, willy-nilly movement of the sheep when they are startled. Just hoping I’m not swearing in Brit-speak. Not that you all would know …