Farm Ireland

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Top dogs... sheep dog trials competition hots up

Competition from unlikely quarters is snapping at the heels of Ireland's champion sheep dog trialists

One man and his dog: Former world trial winner Con McGarry with his dogs Megan and Tara.
One man and his dog: Former world trial winner Con McGarry with his dogs Megan and Tara.
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

Doctors, lawyers, accountants and schoolteachers are all turning their hand to the growing sport of sheepdog trials.

Once seen as solely a countryside farming pursuit, now office-bound professionals throughout Europe are putting time and thousands of euro into ensuring they have the top dog.

One of the best-known sheepdog trialists Con McGarry says the action-packed events attract thousands of onlookers eager to hear the whistles echo out across the open fields and see the wiry collies hold the sheep with a steely gaze.

"It's very popular at the moment. Sheepdog trials are an ongoing thing practically every week of the year. On the Continent it has also grown big and the number of handlers has grown immensely," says the top winner McGarry, as he walked a field on his farm among his 150 Suffolk Cross sheep at Ballyglass, outside Tulsk in Co Roscommon.

"It is not just farmers, they started off calling themselves hobby trialists but a lot of professional people - vets, medical doctors, members of the police force, accountants, schoolteachers - you name it, they are all taking part."

Farmer McGarry, along with his top dog Megan, is just one of more than 150 dogs and their handlers destined for the 2015 Irish National Sheepdog Trial's at Tullyvolty, Johnstown, Co Kilkenny from Thursday August 13 to Saturday August 15.

The handler, who learned the sport in his 30s from watching the pros in action after he returned to the farm from England in the 1980s, says it takes a clever dog and months of training to deliver a top performing trialist.

"It is like looking for a county player amongst a whole group of youngsters - male or female. You're looking for the elite, that would keep up the pace and have that bit of the extra flair," he explains.

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Out of a litter of puppies many will make a valuable working farm dog, yet it is only a few dogs that possess that extra spark to catch the eye of judges at the top level.

They say a good sheepdog is worth up to five people when it comes to gathering up the flock. "It is more than true," adds McGarry, a former One Man and His Dog champion and Irish national champion on six occasions. "There is no comparison at all, the amount of people that you'd need to replace a good dog.

"Sheep are very clever, especially where there has been a good dog on a farm."

A sheepdog can be trained for day-to-day farmwork in about eight to 10 weeks but it will take up to 12 months to deliver a trial specialist.

Two years of behind-the-scenes organising and vital fundraising have gone into organising the upcoming event on the Kilkenny farm of Ken Whiteford. It has taken military type precision as the three day event will require gathering 800 sheep from nearby farmer Brian Nicholson's flock of 1,100 ewes, explains the national event organiser Ned O'Keeffe, who has ensured there will be plenty to entertain the entire family on the day.

Competition is expected to be strong with the 15 top dogs and their handlers selected for the Irish team to represent Ireland at the international competition taking place in Scotland later this year.

James McGee, who won the 2011 world trial, will be in action, while John Maginn and Mozz who won the 2014 Irish title will be back to defend their crown.

Thousands of spectators from near and afar will get the chance to hear the age-old whistles and commands in action, as the handlers drive the sheep through gates across the wide-open fields.

"All runs are action packed as you can't predict what the sheep are going to do. The fascinating part of it is watching the dog control the sheep with his eye and the sheep know that. It is amazing to watch it," says O'Keeffe.

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