Gathering sheep at dawn in August

Today’s early morning gather went smoothly for dogs and sheep

Sheepdog Carew facing down a stubborn ewe
Carew seems to rise to the challenge if a stubborn ewe turns to face her.

Last week, I noticed that it was barely light when my phone’s alarm woke me at 4.45 am, but at the same time this week, I would describe it as dark.

It was time to get up and get ready for gathering sheep with John – but is it just me, or does everyone find it harder to get up when it’s dark? When I went downstairs and looked outside, there was a deep red glow on the horizon to the east of us. I remember thinking that it would make a great picture for the blog, but somehow, I didn’t get around to fetching a camera, and a few minutes later, it was gone.

When I arrived at the farm, John was loading cattle feed into the back of the pickup. The stock trailer was already attached and there was nothing I could do to help, so I went on ahead. John’s vehicle was facing the wrong way, so thinking I might have the sheep in before John arrived at Dean Farm, I spent most of the journey wondering what was the best plan – should I go ahead and make sure all the buildings and pens were ready for the sheep to go into, or perhaps it would be better to get the sheep into the yard and then sort out the handling area.

I needn’t have worried. I underestimated John’s speed quite dramatically. I chose to gather the sheep first and as Kay was bringing the first bunch towards the railway bridge, John’s pickup and trailer were crossing the bridge ahead of them!

The sheep were so well behaved that once they were over the bridge, I got Kay into the car and we followed them down the drive to the yard. Pushing them into the the pens was no problem either.

Kay quietly pushed the sheep up, and they went through the race as though they did it every day. In no time at all, John and I had the lambs and cull ewes tagged and moved into a holding pen ready for loading when the second bunch was sorted.

By now the first bunch was getting quite small, so John wanted to mix them with the second bunch. As the number of sheep reduces, he wants the grazing for cattle. As this bunch was already sorted, John suggested he’d keep them in until we had the second bunch well away from the area, then release them to make more room in the handling pens when the second bunch arrived. This way, all the sheep would be united when we’d finished sorting the second bunch.

For the second gather, I used Carew while Kay had a rest in the back of the car. As we approached the first field, I sent her off to retrieve a lamb which was on the wrong side of the fence. Anyone who knows about sheep will know what I mean when I say the lamb went wild! It simply ran in all directions as Carew very calmly but firmly blocked it’s every move, until it noticed the open gate and galloped through it at top speed!

I think Carew’s my hero! She was magnificent! She’d done nothing to cause the sheep any stress, but had controlled it beautifully when it exploded into action. At first I’d given her commands, but I quickly realised there was no need. Carew was on the case, and matched the young sheep move for move. It was like poetry, only much faster! As far as the dog was concerned, the lamb was going through the gate come what may. Fortunately, John had been watching and praised Carew’s heroics when we spoke later.

As we moved from field to field gathering the sheep into one large flock, we nearly had a problem when I sent Carew to a bunch that had hung back under some trees. John had let the first bunch out of the yard rather earlier than I would have liked, and Carew saw them. She looked as though she was contemplating gathering them, but I gave her my “Come-IN” command, and she immediately knew what I meant, calmly putting herself between the two groups and bringing the correct ones up to the rest of the flock.

The rest of the gather went very well apart from Kay leaving a few sheep behind in the biggest field. Whether she was tired, or maybe the tall grass hid them from view, I don’t know, but I called Carew away from the left flank which she’d been covering and sent her to collect Kay’s stragglers on the right flank – a huge outrun for her but she pushed the stragglers up and then returned to her original position in no time.

Sheepdog gathering a flock of sheep at dawn
At first light, Kay brings the first batch of sheep towards the railway bridge

The most noticeable thing about today was the respect the sheep seemed to have for Carew. Certainly, some of the more aggressive ewes took the occasional opportunity to face her, but generally, they backed down much more readily than they have previously, but Carew was clearly tired by the time all the sheep were into the handling pens so I gave her a drink of water and put her in the car for a rest – much to her disgust. Every time she heard me shushing or clapping to get the sheep moving, she barked frantically – clearly desperate to come and help.

Kay on the other hand spent much of her time on top of the muck heap where she’d found something disgusting to roll in. She came and helped whenever I called her, but when we were pushing sheep up, she was more keen to jump up onto the old cattle feeders (out of harm’s way) than be on the ground behind the sheep. Just at the moment, it seems Kay’s clearly more fond of gathering than pushing sheep up in pens.

Reading through this article, it may come across as very pro-Carew and anti-Kay, but that’s not my intention. Kay is a wonderful sheepdog. She’s absolutely invaluable when we have training courses here, knowing when to retrieve the sheep and knowing when to stay clear and allow the trainee dog to carry on. She’s so well versed with this, she’ll often do it without a word from me – returning the sheep to the trainee dog and then retreating to the shade of a tree to watch out for the next sheep to break away.

Perhaps being allowed to think for herself in this way has led to her picking and choosing her jobs when we’re gathering. Its very hard and quite dangerous work for a dog, so maybe Kay prefers not to do it. Neither dog should pick and choose what they do though.

Carew’s not without her faults. She’s just as skilled as Kay on the training courses, but if I raise my voice to a trainee dog, she runs back to the yard and I have to call her back again (very embarrassing)!. She’s always been sensitive in this way. At one stage, I could barely give her a command without her running back to the yard. The way I got around it was to train her on whistle commands. It’s impossible to show emotions with a whistle, and it certainly worked for Carew. After a week or two, I was able to use voice commands again and she was fine – except when I shout during the training courses.

Maybe Carew’s seen our “Calm but FirmTraining Tutorial and thinks I should practice what I preach!


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