Farm Ireland

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Revival of interest sees sheepdog trials bite back

Ronnie Bellew

THE AGE-OLD commands of the shepherd echoed through the fields of south Roscommon last week when visitors from as far afield as China travelled to Brideswell to watch some of the world's finest sheepdogs and their handlers in action at the Irish National Sheepdog Trials.

Sheepdog trials may seem a quirky country pursuit to the uninitiated, but for the 168 teams of handlers and dogs who competed at Barra O'Brien's farm at Lisbrock, it's as much a sporting passion as an extension of their working lives as farmers.

Last year's Irish trials winner, Toddy Lambe, from Curracloe, Co Wexford, is typical of the men who are international-class exponents of a pursuit that's experiencing a considerable revival in popularity.

Toddy was just 15 when he entered his first sheepdog trial competition in 1983.

After two decades of trial and error, he won the International Sheepdog Trials competition between Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales in 2004, and he says competitive success is down to a combination of the dog's breeding and perseverance on the part of the handler.

"It takes a lot of time and commitment to stick with it and keep going in competition," says Toddy.

"If you are serious about it you need to school your dog every day and you also have to be able to take setbacks.

"Some people tend to lose a bit of heart when it goes wrong in competition, but if you stick with it the rewards are very fulfilling."

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Ultimately, it's mostly down to the dog, though, and Toddy's current star dog Sam (a half brother to his 2004 champ Craig) showed all the hallmarks of a prodigy from an early age.

"A handler is only as good as his dog – the standard in national and international competitions is so high the dog can't have any faults," says Con McGarry, chairman of the local organising committee for last week's event in Roscommon.

"The dog has to be a top-class, purebred collie and the signs that you have a dog with the potential for trials are usually there from about a year old.


"The dog needs to be strong, quiet and peaceful in their work. The temperament has to be very good – any signs of aggression and they have to get the red card!"

Con has been competing in sheepdog trials for over 30 years and says he picked it up by going to a few trials and watching older handlers.

He said: "It's not rocket science but you need skill in looking after livestock. Also you must work the dog with respect and the dog must work the sheep with respect."

There's a mellow and almost serene quality to watching sheepdogs go about the control, gathering, penning, shedding and singling out of sheep in competition.

At its peak in the late 1970s and early '80s, the BBC's One Man and His Dog show drew an audience of over eight million viewers, many of them urban.

Now it seems sheepdog trials are making a comeback with television audiences.

The BBC cameras, as well as crews from RTE and other stations, were present in Roscommon last week and the renewed coverage has encouraged people from non-farming backgrounds to take up sheepdog trialling as a recreational pursuit.

"Sheepdog trials are getting very popular again and not just among farmers," says Con McGarry.

"In Europe you have professional people doing it for the relaxation and the contrast with their working lives.

"Groups of people share a paddock and small flock of sheep between them and work their dogs in the evenings or at the weekends."

Irish handlers and dogs are rated among the best in the world.

James McGee from Donegal won the supreme prize against competitors from as far afield as Brazil and Japan at the 2011 World Trials where the Irish handlers and their dogs also won the team event.

Irish combinations have also won three 'Home' International supreme prizes in the last decade against their English, Scottish and Welsh rivals.


That explains why Irish-bred dogs are much sought after by international handlers and breeders.

One of the most renowned breeders in the country is Antrim's Ivan Stevenson, who was a member of the 2011 World Trials-winning team.

The Ballymena man sold a 13-week-old pup called Bob to John Bell from Yorkshire last year and Bob became the most expensive working dog ever sold at an official sale when he was bought for €10,774 last May by a buyer believed to be from the USA.

The quality of the Irish handlers and their dogs saw hundreds of visitors from Great Britain, the USA, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy and China travel to Brideswell last week to watch the competitions and assess the breeding potential of the dogs in action.

At the end of the three days, which featured competitions in singles and doubles classes, a team of 15 was selected to represent Ireland at next month's International Trials in Birmingham, and an expanded team of 22 was also selected for next year's World Trials in Scotland.

Highlights from the trials will be screened on BBC, RTE and other channels in the coming months.

See for updates and http://www.isds. for more information on getting started in sheepdog trials.

Irish Independent