My Dad and I sat side by side on camping chairs, listening in on a retired farmer behind us, in a broad Staffs accent, joyfully narrating, for the benefit of two tourists from Dorset, the course of a national champion sheepdog. In front of us the agile creature wove around the sheep in the fields in front of us, alternating between running so fast he appeared to fly, and crawling commando-style through the grass. The man’s accent took us both back to Dad’s childhood home and his narration was fascinating.
The dog is the prime age he explained, they say you don’t know as puppies if they are going to be exceptional, but he reckons you do. In his 30 years farming he had five dogs, and only a couple were exceptional, and he knew they were going to be. He thinks the sheep are getting tired and hot, they’re spreading apart, this dog will have no problem though, just you watch him push them through the gate.
Before we moved to the Peak District, in the dark depths of the rollercoaster that was home buying, I immersed myself with all kinds of books about living in the country. One of my favourites was A Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks. I remember picking it up in Waterstones in Nottingham, time suddenly slowing down further in my favourite city centre oasis as I gazed at the hills and sheep on the cover. And it was utterly fascinating in ways I didn’t expect. I was hooked like a sheep in a shepherd’s crook.
Sitting in the middle of a field, a few miles from home, gazing on the beautiful hills of Ilam, in the Peak District, the most stunning rolling green hills I’ve seen anywhere, I thought back to that moment in Nottingham and how much my life has changed.
If you had asked me a year ago, I’d never have predicted finding a sport I loved spectating, and I’d never have come up with sheep dog trials. I really am quite rubbish at watching sport. The curious whistles of the shepherd or shepherdess, the incredible responsiveness of the dogs, the amazing rapport between the two and the slightly bonkers behaviour of sheep, all combine to make excellent viewing.
It took us a while to tune in, to work out the course and the challenges in each event. We arrived to drizzle and mist, but the sun soon broke through and lit up the pastures. Mr A’s comedy commentary interwoven with the official announcements and the retired farmer and made us giggle. The kids made new friends and disappeared into the woods. Five hours soon evaporated.
Dad tells me my grandparents used to love watching sheep dog trials on telly. Maybe that’s where my fascination stems from. Bring them back I say.
Shepherding is an amazing art, going back generations which deserves respect, as explained via an interview with James Rebanks in The Guardian, about his book. A Shepherd’s Life is set in the Lake District, and showcases the people and the work that goes on behind the places we romanticise as tourists. Going to the sheep dog trials was entertaining, but also a chance to appreciate the skills of the sheep farmers. ‘In the middle of the 19th century, when accurate censuses were taken for the first time, more than 20% of the workforce in England were in agriculture. That proportion fell steadily, and by 2011 it had dipped under 1%…sheep farmers are especially marginalised.’
If you go…Dovedale Sheep Dog Trials are in late August, take plenty of cash for refreshments and crafts, picnic chairs, pack for changing weather, lots of warm layers, waterproofs, boots, and sunhat and sunglasses. Maybe pack a thermos. To learn from the insiders, sit near the competitors, or befriend a retired farmer, everyone was very friendly.
The kids have wanted a sheep dog since we moved here, but I think they now fully appreciate the amount of energy and training involved. Max our retired greyhound is an incredibly lazy dog by comparison. He’d beat a sheepdog in a race, but after a couple of laps he’s done for the day, while collies keep on and on and on.