Farm Ireland

Sunday 19 November 2017

A loyal, hard-working sheepdog can make all the difference on your farm

John Shirley

A Wicklow sheep farmer recently lost a sheepdog that had given him a decade of excellent service. He now had a new one. His companion at the bar asked: "What's your new dog like?"

"Useless, but the sheep don't know that yet," was the reply.

Certainly, if sheep or cattle think that they can escape from you, or from a bad dog, they will do so. We have all seen how a flock of ewes will career off in several directions or how a rogue ewe will make a break if she thinks she can get away with it. A good dog puts a stop to such messing and will teach sheep good manners. A good dog makes you the boss on a livestock farm.

Breeders of sheepdogs tell me that demand for their animals has slowed. Partly this is because there are fewer sheep flocks in the country. But the quadbikes are also replacing dogs on farms, especially on cattle farms.

"A quadbike might be able to round up sheep or cattle to bring them in from the field but it will not hold up a ewe against a fence so that you can catch her to treat maggots," pointed out Eamonn Egan from Teagasc. Eamonn gives courses on handling sheepdogs on behalf of Teagasc.

Equally, the quadbike will not be able to match the work of a dog when it comes to collecting sheep off a mountain. Indeed, the quadbike has recently been banned from some mountains.

Of course, not all dogs are obedient and good around farm animals. You may be better off with no dog than with a bad one. Intelligence and good training are vital in your canine assistant.

My impression is that good trainers and handlers of sheepdogs are getting scarcer. You can obtain DVDs on training sheep dogs (I've tried putting the dog in front of the telly and showing it the training DVD. It didn't work).

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Eamonn is a drystock adviser based in Teagasc Roscommon. He always had a yen for good sheepdogs and he identified a need among sheep farmers for dog-handling skills. Ready trained sheepdogs can be purchased at big money (€1,500-3,000), but Eamonn reckons that training up your own sheepdog is a better approach. He operates sheepdog training courses at venues around the country. Currently he is running two courses, one in Co Meath and the other in Mayo. Courses involve six sessions over a period of 10 weeks. Each learner brings a dog (or dogs). Eamonn will assess the dog and give each learner a 30-minute training session. The learner goes home for two weeks and practises the lessons from the course. Eamonn likes to start with a dog of about 12 months of age.

To become an effective worker a dog has to have natural intelligence and an appetite for work, stressed Eamonn. There are also a few ground rules which must be kept.

"You may need to let a dog run off excess energy before training proper begins. The secret in training is to be in a position to enforce your commands," he says.

"Keep the dog within your zone of control. As the training progresses you can increase the zone of control distance from you.

"Another basic task in training is that you keep the dog at the far side of the sheep so that it drives the sheep towards you," Eamonn advises.

Not all dogs in a litter will be top notch. When seeking a good one, Eamonn prefers to follow the female bloodline. The dominant breed, and the breed favoured by sheep farmers, is the Border Collie. If you want a dog which has more "power" than the Border Collie you should go for a Kelpie or the more traditional common sheepdog that has long been around Irish farmyards.

There is a wider interest in admiring the skills of sheepdogs and their handlers. Look at the success of the BBC TV series One Man and his Dog. This series has an urban as well as a rural audience. Two enterprising hill sheep farmers, one in Kerry and the other in Clonbur, Co Mayo, are laying on sheepdog handling demos for bus loads of tourists. This has proven a big hit with the tourists who love to get out onto a mountain, meet a real farmer and see the dog at work.

American-style sheepdog trials are increasingly popular at shows such as the recent Tullamore Show. These take up less ground area than ordinary trials. Also, this is a speed competition which brings more action for the spectators.

A dog can also be most useful around a cattle farm, but not with suckler cows and their calves. The younger the calf beside a cow, the more dangerous it is to have a dog on the scene at all. Even the smell of a dog on a herdsman's clothes can lead to an attack from a freshly calved cow.

Dogs can also offer added security around a rural dwelling. Their barking will warn of the presence of both invited and uninvited guests. It is well established that burglars and robbers prefer to operate in homes where there are no dogs.

When it is not working, the well-trained sheepdog should be confined either by chain or in a roomy cage or wired run. Otherwise the dog may go off after stock on its own, such is their anxiety to work. By law, you must keep a dog under control and confined during the hours of darkness.

A dog should always be kept where it can see what is going on. Some dogs will settle around the home without rambling. Some become car chasers. This annoying habit is picked up by younger dogs from their older mates, and should be discouraged from the start. I once saw a pet lamb that had been reared with the house dogs chase cars alongside the dogs.

Lots of people will keep a dog as a pet for sheer companionship. This pet may have no use other than its loyalty.

So, if the livestock farmer gets a working dog, security alarm, and loyal company all rolled into one, he/she is onto a good thing. Man's best friend indeed.

Irish Independent