More surprises at Felindre Sheepdog Trial

Even Aled Owen's Roy struggled with the sheep, but completed the course in the end

Carew recovered from a very bad start – Kay was just Kay!

A dog sets off on its outrun at Felindre sheepdog trials
The weather went from one extreme to the other and the sheep at Felindre provided an interesting challenge for dogs and handlers.

I had intended to get up really early on Saturday morning and be at Felindre Sheepdog Trial ground before the first run, but somehow I couldn’t get myself organised and we didn’t arrive until nearly nine am – an hour and a half later than I’d intended.

The weather was not ideal for sheepdog trials, varying between gusts of high wind and heavy showers, to quite hot bright sunshine at times. It was one of those days where if you kept your waterproof clothes on you were glad of them one moment, and too hot the next. The changeable weather seemed to be affecting the animals too. Many of the dogs seemed excited, and the sheep proved highly motivated as well. Although at times some of them refused to budge except for the most confident dogs, for much of the day, the sheep would take flight at the slightest provocation – and occasionally with no apparent reason at all!

I was hopeful that Carew would excel under these conditions. She’s very happy to give the sheep plenty of space, and her smooth style usually keeps the sheep calm. My one worry was that if I kept her well back and the sheep took flight, she might not be close enough to keep them on course for the obstacles.

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Kay has a totally different temperament to Carew. If she was in the right frame of mind she could do well too, but she’s recently been in season and I know that can affect her work. We would just have to see what happened.

By the time we arrived, the completed run numbers were well into the teens – and because Carew’s work can be affected if I work another dog before her (can she really be cultivating such a “prima donna” status?) I booked her into the next available space at number thirty two, with Kay at thirty seven. Then I settled down to watch a few runs.

A sheepdog gains control of its sheep at a sheepdog trial
The right-hand drive gates to the left of this picture indicate that these sheep are well off line – a common sight at Felindre Sheepdog Trials. (Click to enlarge any image).

Most noticeable for me, was ex two-times World Champion Aled Owen with his young dog Roy – not the 2008 World Champion Roy 266416 (I wonder who names these dogs for Aled?). The sheep were typically difficult on this run, and after the second drive gate, refused to budge for some time. It was so long in fact that my attention wandered for a moment until I noticed Aled was walking from the post. The sheep had been stuck in one place for so long that I assumed Aled was retiring, but he actually walked to the pen and opened the gate – clearly intending to finish the run.

Nothing wrong with this of course – and you’ll see from the header picture on this blog that Roy penned the sheep fairly easily – but I couldn’t help wondering if a handler of Aled’s calibre was finding the sheep difficult, how were we going to cope.

Plenty of handlers remarked on how difficult the sheep were, but in fact, I prefer a trial where the sheep are challenging. If they trot around the course like little robots, I find it quite boring, but perhaps I don’t take sheepdog trials as seriously as some.

Often people complain about the sheep when in fact their “flightyness” is brought about by the dog being too close. It’s one of the most common faults at sheepdog trials. Sheep are nearly always more respectful of a dog that moves calmly, predictably and confidently but at the same time, keeps well back from them. Despite what many think, sheep are very quick to learn, and if they can predict where the dog’s going, they’ll often calmly move away from it.

The Felindre sheep hadn’t “read the instruction manual” though. On occasions, they’d take off at high speed for no apparent reason, so great care was required to keep the dog well back, but close enough to correct the sheep if they ran off. This is what we call “being in contact with the sheep”.

As we waited for the run before ours to finish, Carew was pulling on her lead – something she very rarely does. I was puzzled by this, and after handing the slip of paper with our names on it to the judge, we walked to the post with Carew off the lead but still she seemed to be behaving a little oddly.

I was sure she’d seen the sheep at the top of the field, so I sent her off to the left, but to my horror, she doubled back towards the exhaust pen – completely the wrong way!

With hindsight, I should have called her back so that she was at least pointing the right way, but I was so shocked – and to be honest, confident that she’d sort it out – I just watched her. Whether she realised her mistake, or maybe discovered there were no sheep in that corner of the field after all, she duly changed direction and (surely having forfeited most of her precious 20 outrun points) once back on course, completed the most perfect outrun.

She stopped well behind the sheep, and when commanded, moved gently towards them in what proved to be the best lift I had seen that day. As the sheep trotted calmly up the field towards the fetch gates, I felt proud that my dog had such control over these tricky sheep.

Unfortunately, the run had another surprise in store for me because instead of holding their line and trotting through the fetch gates, the little bunch of sheep suddenly dashed out and went round them! This was a little cruel, but that’s sheepdog trials – just when you think things are going well, the unexpected happens.

The rest of the run was uneventful. The drive was good, and with no shed section on the day, Carew penned her sheep fairly easily.

Typical scoreboard for a UK sheepdog trial
The scoreboard for the morning trial. Those highlighted are runners in the Novice class. (R=Retired) (O=Open class entry) (C=Combined Open & Novice entry). Points shown are those lost (for errors).

Kay’s run began well. Her outrun was a little tight at the top, but the sheep had set off down the field towards me just after I sent her off. She must have seen this, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. She stopped behind the sheep well but as I called her up onto them, they began drifting to my right, so I flanked Kay accordingly, and she stopped just where I wanted her. Just as the sheep were coming nicely back onto line at a steady pace, they suddenly darted off at high speed – to the right.

Although Kay got them under control, from this moment, I felt uncomfortable with her. She was hard to stop and wanting to push them much too hard. As I struggled to keep Kay back, I couldn’t help thinking that Carew would cope with the situation so much better.

When they reached the point where they should turn around behind me at the post, the sheep proved very difficult indeed. Despite their determined attempts to dart this way and that, Kay covered their every move and eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the sheep rounded the post and set off towards the first drive gates. Kay guided them through nicely and turned them towards the second gates.

About halfway into the cross drive, when all seemed to be going well, two of the sheep suddenly ran back towards the first set of gates. Kay brought them back well and despite their being strung out in a line, the lead sheep was heading in precisely the right direction and I was confident that if I flanked Kay towards me, the right-hand drive gates would be navigated successfully.

What happened next brings to mind the wonderful “Bricklayer’s Story” by Gerrard Hoffnung. I particularly like the part where everything was going disastrously wrong and he said “at this point I must have taken leave of my senses – because I let go of the line”.

Well things hadn’t been going so terribly wrong in our case, but I must have taken leave of my senses, because I gave Kay a wrong command. Instead of “Away” I shouted “Come bye“. Kay duly obeyed, and the sheep missed the gates completely! (Operator error).

FELINDRE SDT – Saturday 10th May 2014

Morning Session
Judge: Mark Bufton

Open Class (Points lost)

  • D.L Evans – Don 18 (olf)
  • I B Jones – Tim 18
  • John Bowen – Meg 19 (olf)
  • Harcourt Lloyd – Nip 19
  • Christine Hall – Star 23 (olf)
  • Alwyn Williams – Jim 23

Novice Class (Points lost)

  • Harcourt Lloyd – Nip 19
  • Christine Hall – Star 23 (olf)
  • Louise Amos – Merlo 23 (olf)

Afternoon Session
Judge: Claire Ridge

Open Class (Points lost)

  • Karin Haker – Rob 8
  • Vic Morris – Peg 10
  • Louise Amos – Kohl 14
  • John Bowen – Belle 17
  • John Bowen – Jet 20
  • Irwell Evans – Jess 21

Novice Class (Points lost)

  1. Vic Morris – Peg 10
  2. Louise Amos – Kohl 14
  3. Meirion Williams – Sue 22

Note: (olf) in the results above means that where competitors had equal points, their position was judged on which dog had the best Outrun, Lift and Fetch (olf).

At this point, the sheep decided to stay where they were – precisely where Aled Owen’s sheep had stuck so stubbornly on Roy’s run. Fortunately, Kay was able to get them mobile again without too much delay, but there would have been a further loss of points – and as a consequence, we were “timed-out” at the pen.

Reflecting on yesterday’s trial with the benefit of hindsight, I’m very proud of both dogs. Kay’s “condition” could well explain her lack of patience with the sheep, and apart from one monumental blunder at the beginning of her outrun, Carew once again was everything I could wish for in a trials dog

Despite being penalised heavily for her sins, she lost just 33 points – 8th= in the Novice class – and 12th= overall. That’s great in theory – but in practice, equal places are decided on the Outrun, Lift and Fetch points (OLF) – so in reality, Carew would have been well out of it!

Kay started brilliantly, but was too pushy and got timed out, but the 38 points she lost include no less than 10 for the pen. If we’d just managed to persuade those sheep through the open pen (and they very nearly went on several occasions) Kay would have lost perhaps seven or eight fewer. Big “ifs” I know, but I think both dogs are serious contenders.

Once again, I eagerly await the next trial, but that will be a huge challenge. Carew is runner number ONE at Asterton in Shropshire next Saturday (7:30am). Kay will run at number four.

Many thanks to Louise Amos for providing the results of the afternoon trial – and congratulations to Louise, Merlo and Kohl for three excellent places on the day. Congratulations are also extended to all the others who were placed (and on this particular occasion, anyone else who managed to complete the course)!


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