Sheepdogs

Soon after our arrival at the Laggan Hotel we were back on the bus, travelling to a nearby farm to view a sheepdog demonstration. Neil was born and raised on this farm, where his father was the shepherd before him. Neil has a well-trained team of border collies who respond to his voice commands and whistles to round up the sheep and bring them quickly to Neil or take them to a pen.

Neil’s a bit of a character, with a broad Scottish accent. He’s very matter of fact when he explains what the dogs are trained to do. Sometimes his command was a single spoken word, sometimes a harsher shout. His whistles ranged from piercingly loud to some that could barely be heard. But each time Neil gave a command, one or more of the dogs responded, just as he had trained them to do. And within moments the herd of sheep that had been grazing in a distant part of the field were brought to Neil and circled by the dogs to ensure none could break free. Towards the end of the demonstration, we watched a pup going through its paces. It did not have all the skills of the other dogs, so at times Neil had to hold it in his arms until it learnt what had to be done and when.

These are working dogs, so there is no patting or words of encouragement or food treats from Neil. They are simply instructed to do a job and they do it on command. But it’s clear that he loves his dogs and treats them well. He spoke about the differences between raising sheep in Australia with a warm climate on larger farms using kelpie dogs, and raising them here in the colder Scottish Highlands using border collies. Neil made it clear that border collies are much better suited to working here than they would be down under.

Neil took a sheep by its horns and held it to him. He took out a pair of clippers and proceeded to shear the fleece from the sheep so that when the job was done he left with a single fleece. Neil offered his audience an opportunity to try their hand at shearing, but there were no volunteers. I’m not sure whether it was the bucking of the sheep when Neil first grabbed it, the horns, or the thought of harming the sheep that worried people, but I think there might have been elements of all three in their decision making process. I certainly wouldn’t have felt confident holding the animal and removing its fleece at the same time.

With the demonstration over, the dogs walked amongst those who had come to watch, seemingly enjoying the attention and the patting. No longer under Neil’s control, they seemed no different to the friendly dogs you might meet during a walk in the park. Three, however, remained vigilant in their watch over a sheep they had cornered by a shed. I guess Neil had to call them off before they left the poor sheep alone.

The visit ended with lambs and puppies to be held and cuddled. Neil was doing a brisk business selling children’s books written by his wife about life on the farm. It began to rain quite heavily, so Neil grabbed the puppies and put them straight into a car, as they were so young they’d had no experience of rain in their short lives. But the rain didn’t last long, and we returned to the hotel in Laggan in bright late afternoon sunlight.

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