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Benefit from herding with a difference

The following is taken from an article recently published in the Wall Street Journal. It was sent to me by a friend now living in California, who suggested that Irish sheep farmers could be missing out on a great money-making enterprise.

Once upon a time, Americans got dogs to herd their sheep. Now it seems they get sheep for their dogs.

Border collies are very popular in the US as pets and Sue Foster decided she needed to do something drastic when her collie, Taff, was expelled from puppy school for herding the black Labradors into a corner.

Being resourceful she decided to rent some sheep and some grazing land. She then bought another border collie and rented some more land. Then she bought a third border collie.

Now, like the old lady who swallowed the fly, she keeps a llama to chase off the coyotes that threaten the lambs that go to market to finance the sheep that entertain her dogs. Collies are compulsive herders, with instincts so intense they sometimes search for livestock behind the television when sheep appear on screen. According to Geri Byrne, who owns the Border Collie Training Center, in Tulelake, California, if left unoccupied, they'll dig up the garden, chew up the doggie bed or persecute the cat.

Herding experts -- yes, there is such a thing -- say it's more common for people who get border collies as pets to wind up renting or buying sheep just to keep their dogs busy.

"It's something that's snowballing all the time," said Jack Knox, a Scottish-born shepherd who travels the US giving herding clinics.

Each day, an average of 18 dogs visit Fido's Farm outside Olympia, Washington, their owners paying $15 per dog to practise on the farm's 200hd flock of sheep. According to owner Ms Chris Soderstrom, herding revenue is up 60pc over the past five years.

"We get a lot of people sent down here from the dog park in Seattle," she said. "They just need to get their dog a job."

Newcomers get a 30-minute herding evaluation, to weed out the untrained biters and others that might endanger the sheep. One crucial test is whether the dog instinctively knows to circle the sheep and not charge into the centre of the flock.

Ms Soderstrom runs her sheep-rental operation on the honour system. Owners sign in, writing down how many dogs they had brought along. A map on the wall of a shed shows where flocks can be found.

Sue Foster is sold on the idea, saying that she doesn't have to give the dogs treats during training as their reward is working with sheep. When Dot, her youngest dog, misbehaves by running into the flock, Ms Foster penalises her by standing between dog and sheep.

"They're my sheep, not hers," she said.

Ms Foster and her friend, Karen Combs, now own 48 sheep. They pay $500 a year to rent seven acres of grazing land, selling a few lambs to help defray the cost of feed and rent.

Ms Combs owns a border collie-Australian shepherd mix and five border collies, one of which suffered a nervous breakdown at six months of age. He was being drilled on challenging manoeuvres and simply shut down, refusing to leave his handler's side.

"He lost his confidence and it took months for him to recover his will to herd" she said.

More common, apparently, are physical injuries, from unseen holes in the ground or collisions with sheep.

Lisa Piccioni, an Oregon veterinarian certified in animal chiropractic, travels to sheepdog trials and clinics, adjusting canine spines as she goes.

"They're going to blow through the pain and not stop for it," she said.

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Border collies appear willing to herd until they drop. In fact, they never appear to grow bored of organising sheep. If they do, for an extra $5 dogs at Fido's Farm they can also herd ducks.

Now doesn't all of that seem like a great idea to boost farm tourism and farm guesthouse income?

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