Amidst last weekend’s muggy heat, which was almost approaching Thai sweatiness levels (or has my tolerance just plummeted back to the very British inability to cope with anything too far from ‘mild’?), I found myself standing in a field with probably the entire population of the tiny hamlet of Chadshunt, in Warwickshire. My friend and I were due a catch-up, and she had spied a hand-painted sign for sheepdog trials at the end of her road, and we thought we’d give it a go.
It turned out to be brilliant for a number of reasons. Firstly, some of the shepherds appeared to be rather bad at their job, and the resultant chaos of sheep running amok through the parked cars was hilarious. Secondly, whenever a decent shepherd took to the field (at one stage we were honoured to behold the Isle of Wight champion, a veritable pin-up of the working sheepdog world), the insane skill of man and dog working together and communicating so effectively was mind-boggling. Our attempts to decipher the whistles and shouted commands were futile, although every time we heard the phrase, ‘Come bye’, we couldn’t help dissolving into immature giggles. It was a delight to hear such an archetypally bumpkin phrase uttered into this fast-paced world of corporatese.
The Isle of Wight champ flexes his crook.
On the chase – this was taken during the trickiest part of the sequence, whereby the shepherd and dog have to work together to ‘shed’ the sheep (i.e. split them into two even groups), and we all know that sheep are famous for sticking together like, well, sheep…
Afterwards I did a little bit of research into the command language, and discovered that collies really are rather clever. Each spoken command has a corresponding whistle sound (they all sounded more-or-less the same to my human ears), and each one indicates that the dog should perform a specific action.
For example, ‘Come bye’ corresponds to ‘Wheet-weeeo’ on the whistle, and instructs the dog to run round the sheep in a clockwise direction. ‘Away to me’, on the other hand, corresponds to ‘Whee-who’ on the whistle, which means the dog should do the same but in an anticlockwise direction – bonkers. Even more impressive is that some commands have multiple meanings, and the dog interprets the desired action through tone of voice alone. I already had a lot of respect for collies, but now I seriously think they could possess at least the same IQ as certainly some members of the human race. Amazing.
Perhaps the most gratifying thing about the whole experience, however, was the realisation that this traditional technique still thrives in rural communities. A method of working which relies on the special bond between man and dog, a lot of patience and a lot of time outside is such a joyous rarity in our modern, fast-paced, office-imprisoned world. This is made all the better by the fact that it has stood the test of time as the best way of doing things – as far as I know, there is no mechanical replacement for the working sheepdog. Collies one-machines nil -awesome. Plus, the relaxed pace of the proceedings, set against the peaceful backdrop of a mellow August afternoon in the English countryside, was a tonic for the soul. Next time I visit my parents and their collie, Ben, I might be taking a whistle with me…
One (surprisingly young) man and his dog.